Staunton, November 30 – Ten to fifteen years from now, Kazakhstan will become a Kazakh country, Aydos Sarym says; but there will still be minorities, who over the next generation will have to recognize that even “an absolute mastery of the Kazakh language will not be an entry ticket to the ‘Kazakh world.’”
In a 3500-word interview to the Russian-language matritca.kz site, the Kazakh political analyst provides some remarkable insights into the changing relationships of language, ethnic identification and political identity in his country (matritca.kz/news/27807-absolyutnoe-vladenie-kazahskim-yazykom-ne-yavlyaetsya-vhodnym-biletom-v-kazahskiy-mir.html).
Most ethnic Russian in Kazakhstan even now speak only Russian, he points out. If they know a second language, it is far more likely to be English than Kazakh. But “the absolute majority of Kazakhs speak both Kazakh and Russian and an increasing share of the young speak English and Turkish.
But that general pattern obscures something important: the Russian-speaking segment of the population, which includes both Russians and Ukrainians, has split over the war in Ukraine and do not form “one and the same social and political stratum” in Kazakhstan. They have no “common values and markers,” although they may have “common fears.”
And just because a Kazakh knows Russian does not make him or her part of the Russian world. “Russian is a lingua franca; it is not the property of the Russian people or of Russia. Russian in the same degree is mine or yours to the extent that we actively use it. But Sarym says, he would never want to identify as part of “’the Russian world’” as that term is used now.
Instead, the Kazakhstan analyst says, he views himself as “a representative of ‘the Kazakh world’ and of ‘Kazakh civilization.’” And he points out that there are many members of that world and civilization who do not speak Kazakh well, just as there are some “ethnic Kazakhs” who do identify with Putin’s “’Russian world.’”
“The main problem” in Kazakhstan today, he continues, is that Kazakhstan society “does not have even one commonly recognized by the majority idea. In essence, we have today two ideas, which only rarely intersect, one [the Soviet Russian] of which is declining in size while the other [the Kazakh] is unceasingly growing.”
The situation is changing rapidly in favor of the latter, Sarym says; and the country will be “Kazakh and Kazakh-speaking.” And “it would be good if this Kazakh and Kazakh-speaking society mastered as well not only Russian but also English, Turkish, Chinese and other languages.”
That presents special challenges to those who today speak only Russian. “It is no secret,” he continues, “that many of our fell citizens up to now think that Kazakhs are limited and that the possibilities of the Kazakh language and education are limited as well.” But that is simply wrong, although it is in fact sustained by the current educational system.
“Our system of education and the mentality of Russian-speaking parents today is leading to serious consequences for their very own children. If the current system of ignoring the Kazakh language in the school is retained, then in a short time, Russian and Slavic youth will have a choice: to be uncompetitive in the labor market in Kazakhstan or to be ready to migrate.”
The shifting balance between Russian and Kazakh is already being registered in those businesses that depend on people aged 20 to 45. In that age group, Kazakh speakers predominate, and in younger cohorts, they are even more dominant. Almost 80 percent of those entering school now are ethnic Kazakhs, and they are the future customers and investors.
Today, the average age of ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan is 26-27; that of the Slavic residents of the country – 46-47, Sarym says; and that alone tells those who are paying attention what they need to know about the future. Kazakh may not be the language of all the business community now, but it soon will be.
Another trend that matters, Sarym says, is that Kazakhs, historically a rural population – in 1986, only three percent of the residents of Almaaty were Kazakh – are moving into the cities. In the past, that mean Sovietization and Russification, but in the future, it must be the basis for the formation of an urban Kazakh identity.
Kazakh cities have not yet become “Kazakh friendly,” but they must become such or there will be “collisions and problems,” not so much for the Kazakhs who as a result of their numbers will simply overwhelm the cities but for the others who will find themselves ever more an embattled minority.
According to Sarym, “the city musts become more Kazakh, and the arriving rural people must become more urban.” That will require effective programs of socialization, new schools, trade centers, and hospitals in the areas between the core city and rural lands. And that must happen soon, he says.
“Otherwise we will become something like Rio de Janiero or Johannesburg where there are wealth centers” surrounded by impoverished neighborhoods, a situation in which “all are unhappy with the poor stealing from the rich, and the rich hiding behind their walls … If we don’t want this for our megalopolis and its residents, we must all change.”