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Interview 180: Juggling the Roles of Kazakh and Russian Languages

Dr. Zhar Zardykhan is an associate professor at the Department of International Relations and Regional Studies at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

During an interview conducted in Almaty in November 2012, Zardykhan discusses whether Russian will continue to dwindle as a language-of-need in Kazakhstan, the country's 2020 goal of Kazakh fluency, and if being monolingual in a multi-ethnic country is a handicap.

EurasiaNet.org: The last few years there have been quite a lot of debates about the use of language in Kazakhstan, in particularly Kazakh and Russian, and the roles that they play. How far would you agree that language has become a controversial issue in Kazakhstan?

Zhar Zardykhan: I would say in the first place that language was also from the beginning, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the most gentle and broadly debated and spoken issues, compared to many other issues. I wouldn’t say that the language issue got more heated recently. In the early ‘90s, at the early stages, the debate was even more heated not only in Kazakhstan, but in many other post-Soviet countries and in the region. So I would not agree that it got a bigger issue or it is more vital or more debated now, but probably some issues around the language, not directly related to the language issue, has changed. If we see from the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially concerning a few specific countries, like Ukraine, Kazakhstan, we’d be among those, the issue was not just about languages, but the issue was about the use of the Russian language and the national language – Ukrainian or Kazakh. These were the two former Soviet republics with a huge Russian minority, which are still hosting a huge Russian minority. And we can add maybe a few countries in the Baltics. So, the issue was about the Russian language and the titular language. That’s why Kazakhstan was always specifically in the center of the language debate. Russian policy, I would say, didn’t care much about violation of rights, prosperity of the Russian population, but somehow language was the issue since they started building up their affiliation, consciousness on the Russian speaking issue. Whenever their prosperity suffered or some other rights were not respected or discriminated, they didn’t care much. But language was always the case. That’s why this is the continuation with what happened there. Ukraine still has lots of debate but demographically Ukraine didn’t change much. But Kazakhstan changed a lot since the early ‘90s, since the collapse of the Soviet Union - namely the increase of the Kazakh-speaking population, ethnic Kazakhs, the immigration of ethnic Kazakhs, the out-migration of non-Kazakhs. So the balance has changed and this is partially the reflection of that issue. Also, the language issue is a very easy issue to talk about. You can criticize on both sides, whether you are in favor of the Kazakh language, of a broader use of the Kazakh language, or not. It’s an issue on which you can talk. You can’t criticize the government. You can’t criticize society. On other issues like politics, economics, prosperity, unemployment, human rights, political rights issues, not so easy to touch. It’s just an indicator, which has a deeper background, has deeper social problems, economic problems. And it’s a reflection of that.

EurasiaNet.org: You mention that because of changing demographics Kazakh is becoming more widely spoken.

Zhar Zardykhan: It is, yes. I remember [during] the early ‘90s, in big cities and in rural areas, and now there are certain areas where you can see the use of Kazakh is quite broad. There are areas, just villages, it’s basically this is the only spoken language except certain enclaves of certain ethnic groups, which are rare and we have a few regions. But beyond that, you go to villages and everybody is speaking Kazakh. You can see that there the majority of the population are Kazakh, young people are Kazakh. When we have a country when there were 40 percent Kazakh and now when we have a number reaching almost 70 percent, of course that reflects a lot. There’s a tendency, it’s not only just the numbers, the growth rate, the share of ethnic Kazakhs among the young Kazakhstanis, the share is very high. Obviously there would be an increase of the use of Kazakh considering, compared to pre-independence period, that there is education, TV media. So the inclination is of course in favor of Kazakh. The use of Kazakh every year would grow and is growing.

EurasiaNet.org: The government has actually set a target that by 2020 95 percent of the population should speak Kazakh fluently. But the last census, which was in 2009, showed that basically two-thirds of the population claimed to have a reasonable knowledge of Kazakh, which actually is in line with the Kazakh population – is about two-thirds of the population. How achievable is that goal?

Zhar Zardykhan: Most of the intentions, plans, and programs of the government, they don’t work. Usually when it comes to issues like language, manipulating with numbers is very easy. But the reality often is not reflected there. I can say for sure that compared to a few decades ago, the number of people who speak Kazakh at home or in daily life is tremendously growing. That’s obvious. But when we had this Soviet census, even the [19]89 census, the last Soviet [census], which extended over the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) period, the people who claimed that their native language was Kazakh, was incredibly higher than the people who really spoke Kazakh. Just like with many other small ethnic groups people tend to [claim] Korean, German, Tartar as their language, which actually they don’t speak. The language issue is connected with ethnic affiliation. I would agree that Kazakhs would have a tendency to put their language as Kazakh even if they don’t speak Kazakh in daily life. There are also non-Kazakh ethnic groups, especially I would say non-Slavic or of non-European origin, their knowledge of Kazakh is also incredible, very good. In some cases they speak much better Kazakh than the ethnic Kazakh population. The numbers of 89 percent or 70 percent, 75 percent is something [that] I don’t take too much into consideration. These are just numbers. But I can sense the growth. There is, obviously, growth or movement toward this direction. There is especially, of course, for ethnic Kazakhs, there is a tendency among many to learn because it makes life easier. It might be connections with career and other opportunities. The number will grow but I wouldn’t claim that the governmental numbers would be correct. It’s not in some economic data or its not number of schools, which you can claim you could open, which are also not a very easy thing. But it’s language issues, talking about in daily life. So usually a generation or two should pass before things change radically.

EurasiaNet.org: You mentioned a generation or two passing. But 20 years after independence we really are still seeing people go through the entire education system and then they leave barely any knowledge of Kazakh, certainly not being able to speak fluently or write fluently. But because learning Kazakh is compulsory in school, does that indicate shortcomings in the education system?

Zhar Zardykhan: Not only the teaching of Kazakh or the education of Kazakh, but in many other fields the education system is poor, is not well developed. If you were to take any other foreign language, knowledge of French or English, in schools even in universities, it’s not very impressive. People who take courses, who get three, four, five years of education, of English, in a foreign language, their knowledge might be also poor. The language issue is a more psychological issue for a generation, for a couple of generations during the Soviet Union, among Kazakhs or people in Kazakhstan, knowing Russian was important. It was a sign of being educated. It was a sign of being globalized within the Soviet Union, if we can call it that way. Speaking, knowing Kazakh was considered something not very progressive, probably, if that would be the term. Some of these ideas continue. Many people have a kind of rejection towards learning Kazakh. For non-Kazakhs it’s obvious, especially if you are Russian or could be called a Russian speaker. You grew up in a country in the Soviet Union, where your language was the first language. Your culture dominated and finding yourself in a secondary position when your language is not as impressive, and you have difficulty sometimes in understanding what’s going on around in administrative and legal issues, you have to come across people speaking another language it’s always, obviously, a disadvantage. Among certain people that creates also kind of a rejection, probably because “we were in a favorable position, and now we’re not.” Probably because of Kazakh. For some, and there are also a great number of people who are not sure whether they are going to live in this country or move to Russia or to other countries. Of course they are not very much motivated. I would say it’s a diverse issue of poor organization, of poor development, of the educational material for teaching Kazakh. Kazakh is also basically perceived as something imposed by government, but some other people; not something which would help in daily life. There also is a rejection of it, if something is imposed just like any other political, cultural, more educational programs, that also creates annoyance among people. Whether Kazakh or not it’s probably not important. They don’t like that idea that something is imposed on them. For some people, they have their own language, they might think of a different future, they don’t think it’s worth spending time and energy on learning Kazakh. It’s difficult switching from one language to another if it’s not your native language, some language you grew with. These would be the reasons why education in Kazakh of Kazakh language is not going that well as might have [been] expected. But as I would say there are many other fields of education, basically education in general in Kazakhstan is in decline. Nobody wants to be teachers, people don’t perceive education or dealing with education as a very good career. Most people, especially at high school levels, these are people who couldn’t find other alternative sources of income or they have to do it [for] lack of other opportunities, especially in rural areas it’s not so impressive. But on the other hand there [is] also a growing group of people who do speak Kazakh, who know Kazakh, whose knowledge of Russian or other languages is declining. There [are] a big number of people for whom Kazakh is the major language, in many cases almost the first and only language.

EurasiaNet.org: Would you say that if you’re monolingual in Kazakhstan – let’s say you speak either only Russian or there are some people who speak only Kazakh, a small number, but some. Is it possible to function speaking only Russian or only Kazakh, and how much of a disadvantage does that put you in?

Zhar Zardykhan: It depends what you do. It depends where you live. It depends also on who you are, ethnically as well. For most of the people, obviously knowing any language – foreign, Russian, Kazakh, any language – is an advantage. It makes somebody’s life more comfortable this way or another. It is possible, and there are many monolingual people. Most of them are Russian speakers, because still Kazakhs, even coming from rural areas, they speak a foreign language. If we take people who don’t speak Russian – Oralmans, Kazakhs coming from abroad – they often also are bilingual; those know Chinese or Mongolian, for example. Of course it’s possible to survive. You can have a good career. You can become a politician. Officially there are very few restrictions on career opportunities. According to the constitution you cannot become the president, you cannot head the chambers of the parliament, and there are a few other key positions, but beyond that there is no requirement that one has to learn Kazakh. The constitution recognizes Russian or other languages in many cases. It is possible. That’s how most people live here. We’re not only talking about ethnic Russians, but many other ethnic minorities. They’re monolingual to a great extent. Or at least they don’t know Kazakh. Some minority groups, some diaspora groups, especially those from the Caucasus or other ethnicities from Central Asia, they actually, whether they are Uighur or whether they’re Uzbek, they often know Kazakh, Russian and their own ethnic language. There are some groups, who are actually in [more] favorable, advantaged positions compared to even Kazakhs and Russians. Compared to many other former Soviet countries, we can take even beyond that, compared to countries in Europe, it is possible to live without the knowledge of Kazakh, have a career and a business. Even in politics there are many politicians, members of parliament or people who have some administrative position in this country without any knowledge of Kazakh.

EurasiaNet.org: We don’t see any people in parliament or government who don’t speak Russian. Would it be possible for someone who does not speak Russian to have a career in politics?

Zhar Zardykhan: A political career in Kazakhstan is a very vague thing. Depends what you mean by political career. Being enlisted in the major party and being elected to the parliament is not difficult. Whatever name would be put, would be part of that. It’s possible to some extent. Being officially a politician, member of the parliament, or member of the state or get in governmental structures, it’s not difficult. Whoever they will appoint, whoever will put the name they will become. Obviously it’s possible. For a person who would represent, for example who would be somehow an important person [belonging] to some diaspora group, for example for the ethnic Kazakhs coming from abroad, it’s very possible. We talk about around one million Oralmans for example, ethnic Kazakhs coming from abroad, not all of them are fluent in Russian. Actually most of them are not. But of course they are not monolingual. Often they’d have another language. And one million is a big group. They have certain problems. They have misunderstandings, social tensions, and if there would be some people who would be dealing with them they could actually pursue a career or at least officially, non-officially, I think it’s possible. The tendency would obviously go towards that in a generation or two that would be probably a normal thing. But in the former Soviet world, especially in Kazakhstan, I don’t think that Russian would disappear. It will remain an important language of communication, an important language of international or regional cooperation. Knowledge of Kazakh is important. The issue is whether a person knows Kazakh or not, that’s more an issue. Otherwise everybody in the parliament, in the government, everybody speaks, knows Russian. We sometimes complain that some people do mistakes and their poor knowledge of Russian is diminishing, but everybody knows that. Most people, ethnic Kazakhs at least, most of them in parliament, they know Kazakh. So actually people who know Kazakh in the parliament, I would say, compared to big cities, or compared all over the country, is a very big concentration. They speak in the parliament, and there is a tendency, there are certain commissions, which deal with that. Now they’re talking about making the law originally in Kazakh and later translating it to Russian. Usually the process was the other way around – the draft law was in Russian and later it would be translated into Kazakh. When you go to the senate you see people who speak Kazakh, almost everybody speaks Kazakh.

EurasiaNet.org: Do you think Russian speakers face discrimination? Some of them say they do.

Zhar Zardykhan: If you are in the former Soviet world and if you are a Russian speaker or ethnic Russian you definitely would feel that. It’s a very normal process. Once [Russian] was the language of the country, the number one language, the language of communication, and you suddenly are deprived of that, you feel discriminated. That’s very, very natural and very, very normal. Do they feel discriminated in Kazakhstan? Yes, they might feel it. They do feel. But if we take other former Soviet countries, Kazakhstan is in a quite tolerable and positive position. There are former Soviet states where the issue of Russian language is basically forgotten altogether. They don’t even mention that it is not even an issue. Not only Russian language, but compared to other ethnic languages, Kazakhstan has a quite favorable, even globally quite, legally, and is in practice, quite a favorable position. We have severe problems and probably language problem is not the worst. Definitely we have social, political, economic, many other tensions and difficulties. Language was an issue from the beginning of the Soviet Union ... It was an issue on which you can put forward your complaint. Russia rarely said that Russians were discriminated or they were deprived of economic rights, political rights or their other rights. They are deprived of these rights. The issue was Russian language, use of Russian language. It’s a continuation of that. It’s very normal for an ethnic Russian to feel disadvantaged or discriminated. And the tendency would obviously be in this direction. But comparatively it’s not the worst case there. Probably it’s a very unfortunate thing that they focused on language and didn’t focus on other things – issues of livelihood, or justice, social justice for example, or issue of corruption, for example, corrupt governmental, political, economic or any other structures. From the beginning they started talking about language, they still talk about language, while the language rights, linguistic rights for Kazakhs or for non-Kazakhs, for anybody in this country, is probably not the biggest issue of deprivation.

'Interview 180' features roughly three-minute videos of one-on-one, Q&A sessions with decisions makers, politicians and analysts who provide focused insight on EurasiaNet's coverage region. Dean C.K. Cox is the photo editor for EurasiaNet and Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

Interview 180: Juggling the Roles of Kazakh and Russian Languages

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