Central Asia   KAZAKHSTAN


Strangers in their own Country

by Thamani R. Smith   January 2000


What happens when you begin to feel as though you are a stranger in your own country? Well, that is the current situation for the Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. They are officially only 39.5% of the ethnic population of current Kazakhstan; while the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusans made up 44.2% of the Kazakhstan population. But to add gasoline to the fire, the current government, under President Nazarbayev, is unable to help the Kazakh people to preserve their language or their heritage in the full degree that it should. But the government is trying very hard to rectify the problem. They have tried to implement the Kazakh language as the official language of Kazakhstan, but up to this point, it has been to no avail.

t is, however, important to remember that the problem is not just the language issue; it is more deeply rooted than that. The Kazakhs has been a part of the Russian empire for such a long time, so it is almost impossible to remember when the old empire fell and when the new one rose. One way in which this has manifested itself, is through the culture. According to Martha Bill Alcott,

"the culture was not written until the mid-nineteenth century, it was the responsibility of the akyn to remember the events. But under the Soviet rule, they has to give up their culture and a Russified culture was established…For the most part, ‘pre-independence’ cultural life in Kazakhstan was indistinguishable from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. "

Before Kazakhstan became a part of the Russia, the akyn’s sole job was to memorize and retell the stories of Kazakhstan’s past. When the Kazakhs’ fell under the Russian rule, the Kazakhstan culture was eradicated and replaced with a Russian one. With the new culture came the Russian language and lifestyle. But this now shows its effects since the Kazakhs are no longer under Soviet rule; the Kazakhs no longer have a culture to fall back on.

So, how do we deal with this problem? President Nazarbayev has tried to help rectify the problem declaring Kazak the official language of Kazakhstan in 1991. He has defended making Kazak the sole official language, on the grounds that "decades of Russification have endangered the survival of Kazak as a language." This was a great proposal. After all, it should be important to help preserve the language of the country that you live in. Shouldn’t it?

But there is another side to this dilemma. This is the side of the Russians, who live is Kazakhstan. Although the Kazakhs believes that "the Russians are usurpers, to the Russians, most of whom live in the Northern Kazakhstan within a day’s drive of Russia proper, Kazakhstan is an extension of the Siberian frontier and a product of Russian and Siberian development." Since the Russians have been there for such a long time, most of whom were born in Kazakhstan, they believe that they have a right to become citizens of Kazakhstan. The Russians believe that Kazakhstan as much theirs, as it is for the Kazaks. So when President Nazarbayev declared that Kazak is the official language, they felt as though they were cheated. It would be much harder for them to learn Kazak, especially since this means that the language in the work place would officially have to be Kazak. For many years, the standard language of business was Russian.

So, President Nazarbayev decided that he would allow a nine years leeway. By the first of January 2000, all documents have to be in Kazak. Little did he know that his little request would have caused so many problems. The Russians went to the streets in protest to President Nazarbayev’s action. So, to ease the problem, President Nazarbayev declared in the constitution of 1995 that there would be dual official languages, Russian and Kazak. He may have settled that problem for the Russians, but if Russian is an official language what incentive is there to learn Kazak?

  "The constitution does not provide for dual citizenship but it does alleviate the Russian concerns by declaring Russian an official language. That status means that Russian would continue as the primary language of communication for many ethnic Kazakhs, and it will remain acceptable for use in schools (a major concern of Russian citizens) and official documents."

Now Russian can be used when writing documents that will be distributed to the general public. This alleviated the need for the citizens of Kazakhstan to learn any form of Kazak. The schools no longer have to teach all their classes in Kazak and the students are no longer required to learn Kazak fluently.

In the end, this means that President Nazarbayev is back at square one. The constitution has undermined any attempts to help to preserve Kazakhs’ already fading culture. Is there any hope as to preserving the Kazakh culture? There may be hope, but it is not through the language. Maybe, the Kazakhs could bring back the akyn so that it could be orally passed on for generations. But until there comes a solution, the Kazakhs will continue to feel as though they are strangers in their own country. They will have to face the fact that they are an ethnic minority, whose language is completely being slowly replaced by the Russian language.

Svanberg, Ingvar. "Kazakhstan and the Kazakhs." The Nationalities Question in the Post Soviet States. Ed. Graham Smith. Essex, Longman House. 1996. 318-334

Bill Alcott, Martha. "Kazakhstan: pushing for Eurasia." New States, New Politics: Building the Post-Soviet Nations. Ed. Ian Bremmer and Ray Taras. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1997. 547-571.

Bill Alcott, Martha. "Kazakhstan." Area Handbook Series: Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan Country Series. Ed. Federal Reach Division. Washington Federal Reach Division. 1997.



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