The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia

After Crimean Events, Nazarbayev Retreats on Kazakh Language

Staunton, April 9 – After Crimea, and apparently fearful that Vladimir Putin might target northern Kazakhstan as its next “Crimea,” Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has slowed down if not entirely stopped his efforts to require all officials in that country to speak the national language.

Until very recently, Igor Rotar says in a Rosbalt.ru commentary, “Kazakhstan had pursued the most aggressive policy” of having Kazakh displace Russian as the language of government and had refused to give Russian official status even though a significant portion of the country’s population speaks it.

But now in the wake of Crimea, Nazarbayev has said that “it is clearly written in the Constitution that discrimination against anyone for religious, nationality or linguistic reasons is prohibited,” a shift that many see as pointing Kazakhstan in an entirely different direction that will be less problematic for local Russians and for Moscow.

According to Rotar, “many political experts continue to consider that Northern Kazakhstan is one of the more probable regions for a repetition of the ‘Crimean scenario,” and he cites US expert Martha Brill Olcott’s view that that region is “the most probable ‘target for Putin’” but only after Nazarbayev himself leaves the scene.

“The imposition of the language of the titular nation is not the only manifestation of the unique nationality policy of Astana,” Rotar continues, citing Adzhar Kurtov of the influential Russian Institute for Strategic Studies who says that “beyond any doubt,” Kazakhstan is “an ethnocracy” which is pushing out ethnic Russians and attracting ethnic Kazakhs from abroad.

Moreover, Kurtov says, local Russians are either being subjected to “’Kazakhization,” with those who have “even a drop of Kazakh blood” being identified as “representatives of the titular nationality.” As a result, there are now many people in that country “with a purely Slavic visage who ‘by passport’ are Kazakhs.”

Astana also has promoted the resettlement of Kazakhs into the northern portion of the country which until recently had been predominantly ethnic Russian and has renamed “almost 60 percent” of all locations, shifting from Russian names to Kazakh ones and even talking about re-labelling the country Kazakh Eli rather than Kazakhstan.

But all these programs may now be on hold or even reversed, the Rosbalt.ru commentator suggests, as Nazarbayev and his country try to adopt positions that will make it less likely that Putin will turn on them, an indication of the way in which the Kremlin leader’s act of intimidation is affecting some but not all the peoples of the region.