Thursday, March 1, 2018

Nazarbayev Changes Course on Language Because of Lessons from Ukraine, Portnikov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 1 – Nursultan Nazarbayev’s order that Kazakh is to be written in Latin script rather than a Cyrillic one and even more his directive that the government and parliament are to use Kazakh rather than Russian recalls the moment Ukraine took similar decisions in the past – but with one significant difference so far, Vitaly Portnikov says.

            “When similar decisions were taken in Kyiv, official Moscow exploded with anger and began to speak about growing nationalism, and pro-Russian politicians began to talk about the diminution of rights of Russian speakers,” the Ukrainian commentator observes.  But nothing similar has happened in the Kazakhstan case (

            The Kremlin is keeping quiet, “and there are simply no pro-Russian politicians in Kazakhstan.” Nazarbayev was one for a time, but clearly he isn’t anymore else how would he have “taken decisions which in the future will lead not just to a governmental break between Russia and Kazakhstan but a more profound civilizational one as well?”

            Nazarbayev has remained in power as long as he has because he has always been sensitive to what is going on around him and acted accordingly. His Kazakhstan was the last republic to declare independence “not because Nazarbayev didn’t want this but because he had to demonstrate to the numerous Russian population of his republic his attachment to the Union.”

            Afterwards, he was “the initiator of the establishment of the Eurasian Union when his colleagues didn’t want to hear about any integration” and openly disparaged his ideas. That and his governing style reassured the ethnic Russians and other Russian speakers in Kazakhstan that everything would continue as it has.

            And then “suddenly this turn of events.”  But in fact, Portnikov argues, it was not “sudden” at all. Nazarbayev simply has drawn conclusions from the Russian attack on Ukraine. He “could not fail to notice that where there were many Russians and Russians speakers,” Moscow had a relatively easy time in its aggression. When there weren’t, it didn’t.

            That is why, the Ukrainian analyst says, Nazarbayev has decided to elevate the status of the Kazakh language and to “transform Kazakhstan residents from Soviet people into a Kazakh political nation.”  Had Russia shown itself to be a good neighbor, this would never have happened or at least not yet.

            “But Putin’s Russia has ceased t be post-Soviet: it has transformed itself into an aggressive and unpredictable formation ready for expansion and wars,” Portnikov continues.  And in response, “Nazarbayev’s Kazakshtan has ceased to be post-Soviet too – it is becoming Kazakh.”

            It could hardly be otherwise given that “when Putin attacked Ukraine, he lost not only Ukraine: he lost Kazakhstan as well; and not only Kazakhstan.”

            Portnikov is absolutely right that official Moscow has not responded with anger to Kazakhstan’s moves on the alphabet and language, although part of the reason for that may be the election campaign in which the Kremlin leader wants there to be only good news and no indications of trouble ahead.

            But within the Moscow commentariat, there are echoes of the more aggressive approach Putin adopted about Ukraine. Some have complained that Nazarbayev has “banned” Russian altogether (, while others say that his country faces dismemberment (

            One can only hope that cooler heads prevail in the Kremlin and that Putin does not try to repeat his Ukrainian operation in Kazakhstan or elsewhere. Such efforts would be disastrous because as Nazarbayev’s actions show, ever more non-Russian leaders have taken Putin’s measurement and also take steps to prevent him from achieving his goals. 

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