If, as is generally accepted, there is a language time-bomb ticking away in Kazakhstan, then it seems likely to explode sooner than anyone thought possible only two years ago; the issue was then believed to have been resolved by the 1997 language law, which declared Kazakh the language of the State and Russian that of common use. But the issue has remained potentially explosive, given the simmering resentment of the sizeable Russian minority at the loss of political power to the Kazakh elites, following independence in 1991. The fact that eight years of independence have failed to advance the cause of the Kazakh language does not help either.
The recent publication of an open letter to president Nursultan Nazarbayev by eminent and angry Kazakhs has re-opened the thorny question, with possibly disastrous consequences for relations between the country’s two principal ethnic groups.
The letter was signed by 70 academics, writers and artists of Kazakh ethnicity who attacked the ‘spiritual and cultural anarchy’ of the country’s television and radio stations, whether government-controlled or privately owned, and demanded that between 70 and 80 percent of all broadcasts should be in Kazakh. In addition, they also proposed the establishment of a State artistic body, whose main function would be to determine what all television and radio stations, including the privately-owned ones, should broadcast.
It is possible that the second proposal, which some have interpreted as a return to the dreaded censorship imposed under Soviet rule, will obscure, for many Kazakhs, the main issue of language raised by the first. The fact that the letter was published in two small Kazakh-language newspapers, and has not so far reappeared in the Russian-language media, has minimised its initial impact.
But the cat is definitely out of the bag: the country’s politicians can no longer ignore the issues raised in the letter. One of these is the disgraceful fact that, ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, eight years of independence and the 1997 language-law, only half of the Kazakhs, who constitute nearly half of the population, are familiar with their own forefathers’ tongue, and that Russian remains the principal language of the media and education.
The language-law laid down that half of all television and radio programmes should be in Kazakh. Yet today most programmes are in Russian, although all stations broadcast the news in both Russian and Kazakh. Two reasons, one historical and the other commercial, are commonly cited for this failure to implement the law.
The first is that, during 70 years of relentless communist oppression, Russian was promoted as the only official language, while Kazakh was suppressed as an alien and subversive tongue, with the result that today, as then, anyone wanting a successful career must acquire a sound knowledge of Russian. Because of this most journalists work in Russian and the majority of stations broadcast in this language. The second reason develops naturally from the first. If most journalists and stations work in Russian, then advertisers are bound to use programmes broadcast in that language to reach the widest audiences; this leaves the privately-owned stations that broadcast in Kazakh struggling.
But there is something clearly spurious about this historical explanation and its consequences. It is of course true that, unless radical changes directed at the root-cause are implemented, the dominance of Russian will continue unchallenged. Such changes can only come from thorough revision of the educational system that the country has inherited from its communist past. That has not happened, and is not likely to under a political and cultural elite that is itself a remnant of that past.
In Kazakhstan general education (primary and secondary) is compulsory and fully funded by the state. Primary education begins at seven years of age and lasts for four years; secondary education, beginning at 11 years of age, lasts for another seven years. About 96 percent of the relevant age-group attended primary schools and 83 percent secondary schools in the 1995/96 school-year. Here was a field of public life crying out for change, but no reforms were introduced. In the same academic year, 52.1 percent of all pupils at general schools were taught in Russian, 44.8 percent in Kazakh, 2.3 percent in Uzbek, 0.7 percent in Uigur and 0.1 percent in Tajik. At specialised secondary schools, which pupils may attend after completing their general education, only 24 percent of students are instructed in Kazakh.
There has been an equal disregard for reforms in higher education (including universities). In the 1995/96 academic year there were 67 institutions with an enrollment of 260,500 students. Ethnic Kazakhs form a greater proportion (64 percent) of students in higher education than in general education, as many ethnic Russians prefer to study in universities outside Kazakhstan. But the majority of higher education students (about 75 percent in 1997) are taught in Russian, despite the language-law.
Clearly the current political and cultural elites, led by president Nazarbayev, schooled in the old communist system and still deferential to Mother Russia, are content to operate as before, and view change as inimical to their privileged positions. Their instinct to cling to power was indicated when the president put forward the presidential elections by two years to last January, wrong-footing his opponents and securing for himself another term in office. As long as this elite remains in power - and there seems little alternative to them in the foreseeable future - there is little prospect of change.
Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1999