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Kazakhstan: New Language Law Allows Use Of Kazakh And Russian

By Merhat Sharipzhanov and Charles Recknagel

Prague, 3 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- After years of debate over how to make Kazakhstan a Kazakh-speaking country but still protect its large Russian-speaking minority, Almaty has decided to let state employees continue using both Kazakh and Russian in their official functions.

The new language law is the latest to be passsed in Central Asia, where all five countries in the region have during recent years taken different approaches to deciding what will be their state languages.

Uzbekistan has decreed Uzbek its state language and required all government employees to work in it. Tajik and Turkmen are respectively the state languages of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, but most official communication is still in Russian. Kyrgyzstan has declared all state documents must be written in Kyrgyz by the year 2000.

Kazakhstan, with a 49 percent minority of non-ethnic Kazakhs who mostly speak Russian, initially looked poised to pass one of the stricter language laws in the region by requiring state employees to learn Kazakh within a decade. Last year, the lower house, or Majilis, drafted a law which would have required non-ethnic Kazakh government employees, mostly Russian-speaking, to begin operating in Kazakh by the year 2006. The draft law would have given ethnic-Kazakh state employees five years to do the same.

But the Senate, or upper house, struck down the draft law and sent it back to the Majilis' special language commission for more work. The result was a thoroughly revised law accepting the official use of both Russian and Kazakh, with no date set for switching to Kazakh alone. The Senate ratified the new law March 12.

In forcing the Majilis to drop the restrictive draft law, the Senate was responding to a storm of protest by Russian-speakers who feared they could not meet its provisions. Many Russian speakers argued that they would not be able efficiently to master Kazakh as their primary working language and that could become an excuse for job discrimination against them.

Proponents of making Kazakh the working language said that Russian speakers were simply being unwilling to accept new conditions in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. They also said that some Russian-speakers have already learned English or German to improve their professional opportunities.

The debate was bitter because it touched on historical grievances between Russian-speakers and Kazakh-speakers dating as far back as Moscow's original incorporation of Kazakh lands into the Russian Empire.

The incorporation brought Russification, which intensified under the Soviet Union to the point that, whereas a 1919 census showed ethnic-Kazakhs composing 90 percent of the population, a 1969 census showed the number of ethnic-Kazakhs dropping to just 29 percent. By 1991, even many young ethnic-Kazaks, particularly those living in the majority Russian-speaking north of the country, had become monolingual Russian speakers.

One of the first acts of independent Kazakhstan was to declare the Kazakh language as the state language, and Russian the language of inter-ethnic communication. The move reflected the sentiment among many Kazakh intellectuals to see Kazakh revive as a contemporary and dynamic language, after becoming for many ordinary people the more-or-less forgotten tongue of ancestors.

Some ethnic-Kazakhs have questioned this sentiment. Politician Nurbulat Masanov has said the Kazakh language "is a language of nomads, unable to become a key language in today's technologically and scientifically developed world." But many more have begun polishing up their knowledge of the language in an implicit endorsement of its future.

Observers say Kazakhstan's new language law may only bring a temporary end to the debate. Kazakh intellectuals have objected that the Senate, in rejecting the original draft from the Majilis, stripped the law of its main provisions for supporting the development of the Kazakh language. But some parliamentary representatives of the Russian-speaking community say that the new law still favors Kazakh speakers. They say that they will continue demanding wider rights for Russian speakers.