Kazakhstan: Why Is Ministry Implementing Kazakh Cultural And Information Policies Headed By Russian Language Teacher? – OpEd


Culture and information are two spheres that have a critical role to play in protecting, supporting, and developing the national language and ensuring its State language status in any State and society. It would be good if one could say, “There is no problem with this in Kazakhstan”. But this is not the case. It’s quite the opposite.  Kazakh, which, according to the nation’s Constitution and laws, has to be used as the main language in all areas of public and official relations in the Central Asian country, has to be satisfied with merely a secondary role. With that being said, should one be surprised at why some language experts in Kazakhstan say that “The modern Kazakh language is not a Kazakh language, but a Russian language, where only the words are Kazakh”

Of course, this author is far from regarding such a situation with the State language of the Republic of Kazakhstan as being the result of the fact that in today’s Kazakhstan, the ministry in charge implementing Kazakh cultural and information policies is headed by a Russian language and literature teacher. Talks about the Kazakh tongue having been turned into a calque from the Russian language have been going on for a long time. But the very decision by President Tokayev to form (reform) the Ministry of Culture and Information and to appoint Aida Balayaeva, a specialist in Russian language and literature with a university diploma, as its head probably says a lot about the Kazakh ruling regime’s attitude to the Kazakh language. After all, it is some representatives of the Kazakh culture and mass media who are most indignant that the state language of Kazakhstan is in such a state. Some of them claim that “the situation in Kazakhstan regarding the Kazakh language now is much worse than it was in the Soviet era”. But how things were with this matter in those days? Well, let’s get an outside opinion. 

Business-gazeta.ru, in an article by Azat Akhunov, an Uzbek author, entitled ‘Didn’t you think about learning?’: Uzbekistan uses the experience of Ukraine and the Baltic states in the ‘language issue’, said: “The Uzbeks never forgot their native language and culture, yet the process for assimilating [national and ethnic minorities] went on and on one way or another, and the role of the Russian language had been progressively growing. Of course, the situation was completely different than, say, that of Kazakhstan, which became almost completely Russified – the Russian language is still in the first place up there”

Yes, in Soviet times, the share of ethnic Kazakhs in the Kazakhstani population fell to 29 percent, and in fact, Russian was the official language in Kazakhstan. Since then the ethnic balance has notably shifted, with Kazakhs now making up 70.7 percent of the republic’s population of 20 million, while ethnic Russians account for less than a sixth (14,9 percent). Even so, “the situation in Kazakhstan regarding the Kazakh language now is much worse than in the Soviet era”. Today, with the way things are, according to one view, “It is not clear what one should be expecting from the [Kazakh] ruling power who prays to the Kremlin just like Muslims pray, facing the Qibla”.

If the above claims are to be believed, the Kazakh language is in a deplorable state. As there is no reason not to believe them, then it is quite reasonable to assume that that just is the case. It would therefore seem to be time to take some real actions and start correcting the situation and to focus, first of all, on the way things are in the sphere of culture and information.

However, the Kazakh President and his regime do not agree with those who say that the Kazakh language is in a deplorable state due to the great dominance of the Russian language in Kazakhstan and claim that immediate steps be taken to remedy the situation. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev believes that ‘the application field of the Kazakh language is expanding every year’ and ‘therefore, there is no cause for concern’

He seems to prefer to do the exact opposite of what is expected of him in the Kazakh-speaking community. Thus, the current Kazakh President repeatedly spoke in support of the Russian language in Kazakhstan and probably decided to bolster that longtime attitude by appointing Aida Balayaeva, a specialist in Russian language and literature with a university diploma, as the Minister of Culture and Information of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

His preference for using Russian instead of Kazakh has long been known. Yet back in 2004, Murat Uteghenov, a Kazakh journalist, in his piece entitled ‘Why does B.Brauer, a German citizen, speak Kazakh much better than Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan K.Tokayev?!’, said the following: “In 2002, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, representing the [Kazakh] government in Parliament, achieved the exclusion from the bill ‘On The Diplomatic Service’ of an article with the wording ‘a person entering the diplomatic service must know the official State [Kazakh] language’. We can’t say unequivocally anything about our other diplomats. But one thing is for sure: If accepted and strictly observed as a part of the bill ‘On The Diplomatic Service’, the article with the wording ‘a person entering the diplomatic service must know the official State [Kazakh] language’ would have cast serious doubt on the continued presence of Erlan Idrisov [Kazakh FM in 1999-2002] and even Kassym-Jomart Tokayev himself [Prime Minister of Kazakhstan in 1999-2002] in the [Kazakh] foreign service. Those gentlemen knew what they were fighting for in Parliament then”.

It was a long while ago. Not much seems to have changed in this regard since then. Mr. Tokayev seems to be doing the same in his tenure as President of Kazakhstan, too. It may sound too pessimistic, but you can judge it for yourself. 

At the summit held in Astana in October 2022, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin the idea of promoting the Russian language in the CIS and proposed creating an international organization to support and promote the Russian language in the post-Soviet countries. A week later he pointed to ‘the inadmissibility of using the Kazakh language for political games’. During his recent visit to Kostanay, on April 16, 2024, President Tokayev once more spoke out along the same lines, stressing that “there is no need to fight against the Russian language”.

At the summit held in St. Petersburg in December 2022, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared that the year of 2023 would become the year of the Russian language. The public at home has been ambiguously treating Tokayev’s idea: critics believe that in a country where the Russian language is used almost everywhere, it is necessary to support and promote Kazakh. Yet Tokayev, being a Russian-speaking person, believes that ‘the application field of the Kazakh language is expanding every year’ and ‘therefore, there is no cause for concern’.

While in Kostanay last week, on April 16, 2024, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was once again painting a rosy picture of the Kazakh and Russian languages being harmoniously interacting in Kazakhstan. Thus, he noted that Kazakh is the State language in Kazakhstan, and Russian is used on an equal footing with it. “Therefore, there is no contradiction here, as it is convenient, it is necessary to speak”, the Kazakh President added. According to him, “inciting hysteria around language, let alone fighting against it, is stupidity”. In other words, he is for the maintenance of the linguistic status quo in Kazakhstan. 

But at one time, even the top Kazakhstani official in charge of languages, Adil’bek Kaba, did not share that opinion and was not ready to look at the state of the Kazakh language through rose-colored glasses. During his time as head of the relevant governmental agency, he confirmed that there was a real risk that Kazakh would become a calque [a copy] of Russian. “Our language becomes detached from its Kazakh nature, turning more and more primitive. We are worried that the nation will lose its roots”, he said. Adil’bek Kaba also admitted: “Truth be told, there is a Russian language [original] behind every document”. According to him, the documents are first being prepared in Russian and then translated into Kazakh [just] for the record.

Amid the situation described above, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that ‘the application field of the Kazakh language is expanding every year’ and ‘therefore, there is no cause for concern’. That is, the views expressed by the Kazakh President and his top official in charge of languages proved to be radically divergent. So, how did this turn out, then? Adil’bek Kaba was relieved from the post of head of the governmental agency for languages quite a while ago.

It seems that the Kazakh President does not like those of his high-ranking officials who don’t tend to look at the Kazakhstan reality the way he does. But can he convince millions of ethnic Kazakhs to look at the state of the Kazakh language in Kazakhstan through rose-colored glasses?

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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