Kazakhstan: Language Debate Snowballs
One of the most emotive issues on Kazakhstan’s political agenda – language rights – brought Kazakh speakers out to rally in Almaty on October 2.Around 1,500 protestors gathered with official permission in the country’s financial capital demanding legal changes to the status of Russian – which detractors say undermines the position of Kazakh.Kazakh enjoys the constitutional status of “state language.” But rally organizers told EurasiaNet.org they believe that privilege remains largely on paper.“Over these 20 years of independence it hasn’t become like the state language in status,” Dos Kushim, head of the Ult Tagdyry (Fate of the Nation) nationalist movement, said, adding that the protest reflected “bewilderment … at why it hasn’t become the state language after all, why it doesn’t work in all spheres of the state’s life.”Mukhtar Shakhanov, poet and head of the Memlekettik Til (State Language) movement, is spearheading calls to change the constitution, in which Russian is protected by a clause allowing its use “equally with Kazakh in state bodies.”Critics say this provision disadvantages native Kazakh speakers and serves as a disincentive for others to learn Kazakh. Supporters say non-Kazakh speakers – a third of the population – would be lost without it.But would changing the constitution really be sufficient motivation for non-Kazakh speakers to put their minds to learning Kazakh?“It would be more than enough,” Serik Mambetalin, leader of the Rukhaniyat (Spirituality) Party, told EurasiaNet.org. “Because the government itself will devote more efforts – and give more money – to develop the Kazakh language.”As we reported last month, the linguistic debate has snowballed since a draft of planned amendments to language legislation was leaked to the press this summer. Kushim of Ult Tagdyry is involved in writing an alternative amendment and hopes the government will take the nationalists’ ideas on board – as it did when they opposed last year’s National Unity Doctrine, resulting in a rare compromise from President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration. Kushim and Shakhanov are adamant that their bid is in no way directed against Russian speakers. But they insist that in the 20th year of independence, it is time for radical, top-down efforts to boost the use of Kazakh.The Kazakh speakers have spoken. Time will tell if Astana is listening.