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Kazakhstan: Government Taking Action to Promote Kazakh Language

Those seeking citizenship must now pass a language test.

karaganda kazakh language courses

A free course for learning the spoken Kazakh language has opened in Karaganda. Image: gov.kz

(Eurasianet) Kazakhstan has amended its immigration and naturalization framework, imposing a history and language test as a condition for obtaining citizenship. The changes are part of a broader government effort to promote the use of Kazakh.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev placed his signature on the amendments in May. Anyone wishing to become a naturalized citizen will now have to demonstrate proficiency in the Kazakh language, as well as have a basic understanding of the country’s history and constitution. The amendments also outline criteria for prohibiting an individual from obtaining citizenship. The new rules additionally discourage dual citizenship by stipulating that an individual can be stripped of Kazakh citizenship if it is determined that he or she is also a citizen of another state.

Officials, including Interior Ministry spokesman Shyngys Alekeshev, contend the amendments will facilitate the rapid integration of newcomers into Kazakh society. “Knowledge of the language is necessary,” Alekeshev told journalists, adding that the legislation conforms with generally accepted international practice. He asserted the new Kazakh framework was similar to those existing in such countries as Germany, Canada and Turkey.

The changes may be practical in nature, but they also are being made within a somewhat tense geopolitical context. In the post-Soviet era, Russian political leaders and intellectuals have at various times made territorial claims against Kazakhstan, or called into question the legitimacy of Kazakh statehood. Sensitivities about Moscow’s designs have only heightened since Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine in 2022. With this in mind, the naturalization amendments can be seen as an effort to bolster Kazakh sovereignty against potential encroachment by the country’s northern neighbor.

Not surprisingly some bloggers in Russia have assailed the amendments as a manifestation of anti-Russian nationalism. Kazakh commentators, meanwhile, have countered that Russia itself has long had similar requirements for obtaining Russian citizenship.

“Logic dictates that ‘horrible nationalist stories’ about Kazakhstan are created exclusively for internal consumption in Russia itself – that is, for the average person there,” one analyst, Anton Yarovoi, wrote in a commentary published by the news website 365info.kz, referring to the Russian criticism. “Such an agenda is, in principle, typical for a warring state, when the atmosphere is constantly whipped up, and almost everyone is branded as an enemy according to the old principle, ‘those who are not with us are against us.’”

Since gaining independence, Kazakhstan’s demographic makeup has changed significantly. Kazakhs were a minority in their own state in 1991, but now, according to official government statistics, they comprise 70 percent of the country’s estimated population of over 20 million. About 80 percent of citizens over five years of age can speak at least some Kazakh. 

Nevertheless, the Russian language continues to exert tremendous influence over daily life for many Kazakhs, especially in urban centers. Russian remains the primary means of communication within the business community and in governmental offices. Especially in cities, it is possible for residents to rely on Russian exclusively. 

In late 2023, the government took action to address the situation, approving a Concept for the Development of Language Policy for 2023-2029. The concept seeks to significantly expand the use of Kazakh in everyday interactions. In addition, regulatory changes for mass media under consideration by Kazakhstan’s senate contain a provision mandating that at least 55 percent of content on television and radio in Kazakhstan be in Kazakh starting in 2025. The percentage would increase to 60 percent in 2027, under the bill. Similarly, all labeling on goods is already in Kazakh.

According to the state concept, the use of Russian predominates in northern regions of the country, while Kazakh is the preferred language in western and southern regions.

One legacy of the Soviet experience is that a significant share of ethnic Kazakhs is unable to speak the titular language. “The Russian language has a much wider geography of use – it’s not only Kazakhstan, but the entire post-Soviet space, and in general, Russian-speaking people live in every corner of the world,” one such exclusive Russian speaker, Arman Baigozhin, the owner of an Almaty coffee shop, explained to Eurasianet. 

Some ethnic Kazakh Russian speakers report feeling bullied when they are unable to switch to Kazakh. The expression ‘Qazaqsha soyle’ (Speak Kazakh) now can often be heard in Almaty on the streets, in a supermarket or on public transport. It has also become a popular Internet meme. One such meme slide depicts a man in a boat at sea who, trying to save a drowning man, addresses him in Russian: “Give me your hand.” The flailing man reacts angrily, saying ‘Qazaqsha soyle’!