The president of Kazakhstan’s daughter, who is herself also a high-ranking politician, has waded into the public discussion about the role of the Russian language.
Her remarks in defense of Russian, made on March 1, came in response to appeals by President Nursultan Nazarbayev late last month for business in parliament and government to be done only in Kazakh.
“Nobody has abolished Russian,” Dariga Nazarbayeva, chairman of the international affairs and defense committee of the upper house of parliament, reportedly told journalists. “We need to respect others, so I think that you cannot go too far in these matters. Nobody has abolished … interethnic concord. [Kazakh and Russian], which are used in our country and are used in state bodies, are granted a seal of approval by the constitution.”
Earlier in the day, Nazarbayeva spoke in Russian in the legislature when posing a question to a National Bank representative about the state of the financial market.
Speaking to Information and Communication Minister Dauren Abayev on February 26, President Nazarbayev raised some eyebrows by arguing that if all official business was done in Kazakh, it would help raise the status of what is designated the “state language.” Anybody who does not speak Kazakh, he said, should be provided the services of a simultaneous translator.
For all that, it doesn’t seem like the government is yet willing to push hard on this issue. Even Abayev has taken a sanguine line, telling reporters on February 27 that it was not worth “taking it too far on the language issue.”
“This is an issue that will be resolved gradually,” he said. “I can bring a whole load of examples of [Russian-speakers] being real patriots and contributing more to the development of our country than certain armchair critics.”
Officials are clearly eager to avoid ruffling feathers. A slight correction of course was effected when Nazarbayev’s remarks elicited a ripple of outcry. The original wording of his statement on the official presidential website was that “the activities of parliament and government should be conducted only in the state language.” Later, the word “only” was dropped from the online version of the remarks.
Many citizens of Kazakhstan, including ethnic Kazakhs, continue to struggle to speak the state language and are on occasion derisively referred to by nationalist-minded people as Shala-Kazakhs, or “half Kazakhs.”
One prominent representative of this cohort is the chairman of the National Bank, Daniyar Akishev, who struggled during a press conference on February 29 to properly answer reporters’ questions in Kazakh. He then promised he would get to brushing up his language skills.
Nazarbayev has to perform a careful balancing act on language. On the one hand, he needs to placate the vocal nationalist crowd that feels irked by the sense that the development of Kazakh has been neglected. The language was accorded secondary status in Soviet times and there are those who feel far too little has changed since independence. And then Kazakhstan also has a numerically substantial ethnic Russian population, much of which has typically disdained to learn Kazakh and would likely be alarmed by any attempts to force them to do so.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.