Even as Kazakhstan maintains close economic and political ties with Russia, Astana is moving ahead with plans to replace Cyrillic script with the Latin alphabet. A feasibility study prepared over the summer proposes that the alphabet change be phased in over a 12-to-15-year period.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev revived the possibility of an alphabet switch last fall, requesting that the Ministry of Education and Science examine the experiences of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have all changed to Latin letters. The ministry's proposed action plan is based primarily on the model used in Uzbekistan. It calls for a six-step program, outlining cost estimates for retraining the country's workforce to read Latin script, and changing signs on streets and public buildings. The overall cost of switching is estimated at $300 million.
Some experts believe the final cost could be much higher. The ministry report, for example, provided no estimate for the cost of changing official documents and re-printing official forms and materials. The publishing sector could also assume substantial costs connected with changing equipment.
Along with the usual arguments for alphabet change, in particular promoting the country's integration into the global economy, officials have argued that a Latin alphabet could help Kazakhstan forge a more cohesive national identity, moving it out from under Russia's shadow.
"Switching the Kazakh alphabet to Latin means for Kazakhs changing the Soviet (colonial) identity, which still largely dominates the national consciousness, to a sovereign (Kazakh) identity," the report stated. "Among the many arguments in favor of switching the Kazakh alphabet to Latin, boosting the national identity of the Kazakh people is the main and decisive one."
This explicit statement marks a break with Kazakhstan's earlier, low-key approach to discussing the switch to Latin. While Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan acted quickly after the 1991 Soviet collapse to embrace Latin script, Kazakhstan took a more cautious route: it did not want to alienate its large Russian-speaking population. In addition, officials felt that with the country in the grip of economic crisis in the early 1990s, changing the alphabet at that time was not a fiscally justifiable move.
The report pulls no punches in identifying the Cyrillic alphabet as being a major barrier to developing a Kazakh national identity: "It [Cyrillic] facilitated and facilitates the orientation of the Kazakh national consciousness towards the Russian language and Russian culture. As a result, Kazakh identity as such remains largely undefined. On this level, moving to Latin will make it possible to form a clearer national identity for Kazakhs."
Another reason for the switch is linked to the representation of the sounds of the Kazakh language. "In many cases the phonetic nature of Kazakh is not shown according to Cyrillic script," Professor Kobey Khusayn, director of the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Linguistics, told EurasiaNet in an interview. As a result, he said, certain Kazakh sounds are not properly represented and this leads to difficulties with correct pronunciation. The introduction of Cyrillic in 1940 was "imposed from above" for ideological reasons, he added, with no consideration of how this alphabet suited the Kazakh language.
The plan for switching to Latin will have a five-year preparatory stage, during which the practicalities will be worked out. The next step will see publications being printed using the new alphabet, alongside the existing one for the initial changeover period, and the working-age population will be trained in using the new script. Teaching materials using Latin will be introduced into the country's school system. The final phase will be the consolidation of Latin as the Kazakh language in Cyrillic fades from public use.
Kazinform, the state news agency, has already set a precedent for the use of Latin for Kazakh: it offers a newswire using both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets for the Kazakh language, with the Latin version aimed at non-Russian-speaking ethnic Kazakhs in countries such as China, Mongolia and Iran.
The switch to Latin is unlikely to be a problem for the younger generation in Kazakhstan. Many school children already study foreign languages, such as English and German, and are thus familiar with Latin letters. However, older members of society may need to be targeted in order to ensure that they do not get left behind in the changeover.
With the country awash with petrodollars from its booming energy sector, financing the switch should not be a problem. It remains to be seen, however, whether officials will retain the political will to press ahead, given that the measure could cause disruption at home, and seems likely to vex one of Kazakhstan's key allies, Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Paul Bartlett is an Almaty-based freelance writer specialising in education issues.