Thursday, April 16, 2015

Southern Kazakhstan Rapidly ‘Becoming Mono-Lingual’ with Russian Speakers Excluded

Paul Goble


            Staunton, April 16 – A generation ago, few ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan spoke Kazakh; now, their number is increasing “but very slowly” and “not thanks” to the efforts of the Kazakshtan authorities who are devoting far less effort in that regard than are their counterparts in Latvia, according to Igor Savin, a Russian ethnographer.


            As a result and despite Kazakhstan’s constitutional mandate to operate in both Kazakh and Russian, ever more Kazakhs speak and use their national language exclusively, something that means in at least the southern part of the country, Russian are excluded as the region “becomes mono-lingual” (


            Ad that linguistic divide, especially because it is not being actively opposed by the Kazakhstan government, risks giving rise to an ethnic divide that could become a serious problem in a country where ethnic Russians, few of whom yet know Kazakh, still form almost a quarter of the population.


            In terms of the constitution and laws, Aleksey Goncharov, a Russian journalist in Kazakhstan, says in an article in, everything is fine, but Russians who speak only Russian are facing real problems communicating with Kazakhs, many of whom now speak English or some other language as their second rather than Russian.


            A generation ago, he continues, when he was growing up in the Southern-Kazakhstan oblast, things were different. All programs, documents and proceedings were in Kazakh and Russian and consequently a Russian could cope very well even if he or she did not speak Kazakh. That has now changed.


            Now, Kazakh predominates, but even Russians who are prepared to learn it face difficulties, Goncharov says, there is currently not a single free center for the study of Kazakh in Shymkent, the oblast capital, and private courses are both relatively rare and quite expensive. Even the situation in the school system is not good.


            Kazakh is being taught in Russian schools of the city he says, but the situation rgasrding such courses has “not improved very much” since the 1980s.  Yury Kiryukhin, head of the Slavic Ethno-Cultural Center, told Goncharov that this is creating big problems for the next generation of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan.


            Many Kazakhs including many Kazakhstan officials favor pushing universal Kazakh language knowledge as soon as possible, and they often cite the case of the Baltic countries as an example of what can be done. But if they point to them, Goncharov says, they do not effectively copy them.


            Igor Savin, an ethnographer who has specialized on ethnic issues in the Baltic countries, says that the situation in Latvia, for example, is not nearly as tough as many Kazakhs or Russians for that matter imagine. Real knowledge of Latvia is required only for those seeking to work for government, and instruction in Latvia is “strictly voluntary.”


            But the most important aspect of the Latvian situation as far as Kazakhstan is concerned, Goncharov says, is that “instruction [in Latvian] is organized for all, is completely free, and is available at the workplace and during working hours.” Nothing similar exists in southern Kazakhstan, and Russian speakers don’t have the time or money to proceed on their own.


            Worse, Russian speakers are constantly bombarded with slogans like “To know the state language is everybody’s responsibility” and “an individual who lives in a country and doesn’t know its language is either an occupier or a guest.”


            Goncharov, a self-described “native Kazakhstanets,” acknowledges that he speaks only enough Kazakh to do business in the stores. But he is offended that so many Kazakhs now don’t want to speak Russian with him even if they know it and that some officials refuse to give him interviews in Russian, again even if they know the language.


            All this, he suggests, shows that “society is gradually becoming mono-lingual” and that “the Kazakh-language majority and the Russian-minority are ceasing to understand one another.”  That can’t have a good outcome and should be a matter of mutual concern.





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