Russia/Kazakhstan politics: Quick View - Kazakhstan to transition from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet

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Economist Intelligence Unit
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International Relations, Politics, News Analysis, Forecast
Political Geography
Russia, Kazakhstan


On September 11th parliament held hearings on plans to change the alphabet used for the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to Latin.


Kazakh linguists presented a proposed new Latin alphabet for Kazakh, containing 25 Latin letters as opposed to the 42 currently used in the Kazakh Cyrillic alphabet. The proposed alphabet uses digraphs-two-letter combinations-for sounds that cannot be represented with one letter. This would mean that a standard Latin keyboard as used for English could also be used for the Kazakh language. Yerlan Sagadiyev, the education minister, has said that he supports the new Latin alphabet.

The government is moving forward with plans to change the alphabet after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president, ordered it in April to draft a strategy by the end of 2017. The switch will be gradually done, and is due to be completed in 2025. It is a long-standing goal to switch the Kazakh alphabet to Latin, but officials have proceeded cautiously owing to sensitivities about relations with Russia and the sentiments of Kazakhstan's large ethnic Russian minority, because of perceptions that alphabet change is, at least in part, an attempt to distance Kazakhstan from Russia's influence.

During the recent parliamentary hearings, officials and parliamentarians emphasised that the alphabet change would affect only the Kazakh language and not Russian. They stressed the government's commitment to teaching Russian in schools and ensuring widespread Russian-language fluency while attempting to spread knowledge of Kazakh more widely. According to the last census, conducted in 2009, knowledge of Russian is near universal in Kazakhstan, but only two-thirds of people speak Kazakh, not all fluently.

Nevertheless, moving the Kazakh language away from the Cyrillic alphabet used for Russian has geopolitical ramifications. The Russian government has long sought to safeguard and promote the role of the Russian language in the former Soviet Union, and opponents of alphabet change in Kazakhstan believe that it sends a message that the country-which is one of Russia's closest allies-is distancing itself from the Russian-speaking world. Previous government strategy documents on alphabet change have described it as part of a process of decolonialisation.

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