In the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, two languages coexist: the Kazakh language, considered the “language of the State”; and Russian, which has the status of “official language”. But they have a single alphabet, the Cyrillic, a consequence of the unification that Moscow introduced in 1940.
After 80 years, the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has decided that his national language should be written in the Latin script, like Turkish and several other Turkic languages. This initiative was previously considered shortly after the USSR’s disintegration, but only in 2007 was it officially discussed. As part of the state development strategy for the first half of the 21st century, the objective is for it to become a reality in 2025, the year in which everything published in Kazakh (official documents, newspapers, books) must be transcribed with the letters used from the Roman Empire.
From an economic-political point of view, it has been interpreted as a warning to Russia and a message to Western countries, so that they know that the government in Astana is open to doing business with everyone. It also seems part of the efforts to emphasize Kazakh culture as a hallmark.
As stated by Nazarbayev in the newspaper Egemen Qazaqstan in 2017, to complete this task in time it is necessary to start now, and pointed out that before the end of the year scientists must develop a Latin version of the Kazakh alphabet. This year, specialists will start developing new textbooks for schools. The Kazakh leader, who currently is 76 years old and has ruled the country since the times of the USSR, said that starting to write with the most widely used alphabet in the world is a requirement “of the scientific and educational process of the 21st century”.
The Latin alphabetic writing system appeared in the 7th century BCE in Magna Grecia (south of present-day Italy) from the western variant of the Greek alphabet. Currently, it is used by more than 2.5 billion people around the globe.
“The students, who study English, are already used to Latin letters, and they will not have problems,” said Nazarbayev.
Russia and Kazakhstan are debating these days whether this change will help the country’s economy or if the president and government seek other objectives. “We must not rule out that it is a signal for Moscow and for the West,” the political scientist Sultanbek Sultangaliev said on Sputnik Kazakhstan radio station.
Yuri Solozobov, an expert from the National Strategy Institute of Russia, pointed out that “the transition to the Latin alphabet means a clearer entry of Kazakhstan into the Turkish-speaking world, joining the Turkish project”, according to the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Kazakhstan has always denied that it wants to distance itself from Russia. In January 2013, after a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, the Kazakh foreign minister, Erlan Idrisov, pointed out that there are “neither second intentions nor geopolitical manoeuvres in the intention of Kazakhstan to adopt the Latin alphabet”.
There is no shortage of experts who believe that Nazarbáiev’s initiative is an internal matter. “It doesn’t try to get close to Turkey. I think it’s a matter of internal politics. This step will allow the president to obtain support from that part of the Kazakh population that wants to separate from the ‘Russian world’ and values national identity, ” says Arkady Dúbnov, a political scientist specializing in Central Asia, in Kommersant newspaper.
In 1928, during the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey changed the Arabic alphabet for Latin. A year later, the Soviet authorities replaced the Arabic alphabets used by the Muslim minorities of the USSR with Latin alphabets. But in 1940 they were replaced by Cyrillic, the alphabet used by Russians. After the end of the USSR, four former Soviet republics (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova) returned to the Latin system. Kazakhstan will be the fifth.