Staunton, March 26 – Nur-Sultan has announced that by 2023, all school children in Kazakhstan will study in Kazakh and that the transition of Kazakh from a Cyrillic-based alphabet to the Latin script will be completed, a drive that threatens Kazakhstan’s links with Russia and may cost the ruling party in Kazakhstan its political base, Nikita Mendkovich says.
The Russian political scientist who specializes on Central Asia says that the ruling party is already losing support because such a large part of its constituency is Russian or Russian-speaking and that Moscow looks askance at any such attack on Russian in the former Soviet space (lenta.ru/articles/2021/03/26/kaz/).
Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has tried to navigate between the nationalists who want to drive out Russian and “the main part of Kazakhstan’s population” who are Russian-speaking and have no such desire. “But recent events have shown that this policy lacks prospects and is dangerous for the powers that be.”
As a result, the Russian observer says, “the political elite of Kazakhstan needs to take steps to meet its own voters;” and “a good beginning of this would be to give Russian the status of a second state language there,” given that despite 20 years of promoting Kazakh, Russian “remains more popular than Kazakh” even among Kazakhs.
If that does not happen and if Nur-Sultan continues along the path it has announced, Russians and Russian speakers should recognize the threat to themselves ahead and organize their own political party to defend their interests by challenging the nationalistic policies of the current government.
Mendkovich doesn’t say in so many words, but he strongly implies that Moscow would welcome such a move given its current about the survival of the Russian language in all former Soviet republics and especially in Kazakhstan with which Russia shares an enormous border and whose people regularly come to Russia as migrant workers.
At present, the winds in Kazakhstan appear to be blowing in the opposite direction, In the parliamentary elections there earlier this year, “the nationalists threatened their positions” and anti-Russian rhetoric rose to new heights. That led Tokayev to tack in the direction of the nationalists and the drive for Kazakh as the only language in schools.
But his decision to do so represented a failure on the Kazakhstan president’s part to take into consideration that only 39 percent of the population of his country speaks Kazakh fluently, while 51 percent speak Russian. And it is from the latter that comes most of his own political support and domestic backing for good relations with Moscow.
Moreover, Russian dominates the media, although importantly Russian-language media up to now have avoided criticizing the current Kazakh leadership. Nonetheless, the ruling Nur Oltan party is drifting in the direction of Kazakhization. One result: in the January elections, it lost the support of one in every six voter who supported it the last time around.
That should send a warning to the regime, Mendkovich suggests. Moreover, “the Russian-language community of all nationalities in Kazakhstan includes between 6.3 and 10 million voters, and can create a real alternative to the ruling party elite if it recognizes its own political strength.”
The other countries in Central Asia recognize the importance of Russian and have given it special status. Moreover, they have avoided talking about Russia as an enemy that killed their peoples in the past and threatens to dismember their states as part of an effort to rebuild the empire. Kazakhstan has not, yet another reason for a Russian political force in that country.
Many Kazakhs go to Russia for work, and many of them –178,000 over the last four years – take Russian citizenship and remain. This “Kazakhstan community in Russia is an ideal milieu for the formation of an opposition” to the current powers in Nur-Sultan who seem committed to doing away with everything Russian.
“No one can prevent activists from establishing such a party in Omsk, Saratov or Orenburg” and then forming “party cells in the motherland and prepare for a change in rule” there, Mendkovich says. “A few years ago, such a political threat would have been difficult to imagine.” But Kazakhstan’s behavior has made its appearance likely.