IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

President Nursultan Äbishuly Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan has been talking about it for over a decade, but the transition from using Cyrillic to a Latin-based alphabet seems closer than ever.

People pray to mark Kurban-Ait, also known as Eid al-Adha in Arabic, at Nur-Astana Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan September 1, 2017


Earlier in September, Kazakhstani officials evaluated a preliminary proposal of 25 Latin characters that were designed to replace the 42 Cyrillic characters used in the Kazakh language today.

Today, Kazakhstan has a strong position on the international stage. With its oil and gas reserves boosting economic development and progress, the biggest of the Central Asian nations is growing more confident and ambitious in its interactions with the rest of the world.

Since independence, following the fall of the USSR, the country has battled with low intensity ethnic and cultural divisions related to its Soviet heritage.

After all, it wasn't until the 1970s that ethnic Kazakhs started outnumbering ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan, with a successful program of “Russification" during the Soviet era having assured cultural dominance.

In 1970, Russians still composed over 40% of the population, and today the community remains at 25% of the total. Ethnic Kazakhs represent now almost 60% of the population.

But the population is also unevenly dispersed across the vast national territory.

Any move toward the use of Latin characters is in line with the government's desire to facilitate and encourage the use of the language, as its phonetic structure is better suited to Latin script than Cyrillic.

But there is also the issue of politics, in which any such shifts in language policy would distance the nation from the Russian sphere of influence.

There is a matter of economy as well. In an interview with EADaily, a member of the task group mandated to draft the new Kazakh Latin alphabet, Aidos Sarym, noted that it costs twice as much to send a message written in Kazakh using the current alphabet than one written in Russian. A message in Russian in turn would cost twice as much as one written using the Latin alphabet.

In the age of digital information, these changes can have considerable repercussions on the way Kazakhstani people interact with new technology and access information.

In addition, growing economic and cultural integration among Turkic states would be another reason to consider the change, given that Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan have all adopted a form of the Latin alphabet with high degrees of success over the past century.

Since the establishment of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council) in 2009 with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey as members, economic and cultural ties have grown stronger to the detriment of Russian influence in the region.

The expansion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project to encompass Kazakhstan, which in practice allows European nations to bypass Russia's monopoly on natural gas and oil supply via a direct pipeline from Central Asia to Europe, is evidence of the self-assured decisions being made in Astana.

Writing on the wall

Nothing has been set in stone yet. Kazakhstan must be aware of Uzbekistan's mistakes, where, after almost 30 years of attempting to establish a Latin alphabet, most official documentation remains in Cyrillic.

Kyrgyzstan is also considering making the change, with parliament members stating in April 2017 that it will happen by 2040.

Kazakhstan is more ambitious. According to government officials, a new alphabet will have been approved by the end of the 2017, along with regulation to oversee its implementation.

The progressive replacement of the alphabet will start in schools first, with new school manuals and dictionaries being developed in tandem with training programs for teachers. This phase will include its use in any official documentation and road signs.

By 2025, the government expects the transition to be complete.

This is hardly the first time such a move has taken place in Kazakhstan, and it isn't even the first time over the past 100 years that the Latin alphabet has been introduced there.

Historically dominated by the Arabic alphabet until the 19th century, the Soviet revolution that emerged in the first decades of the 20th century saw the introduction of a form of the Latin alphabet in the country in 1927, lauded by Lenin as a great eastern revolution.

That side of the revolution was short-lived, as Stalin grew uncomfortable with the dominance of the Turkic culture in the region and forced the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1930s, rendering many Kazakhs illiterate for the second time in one generation.

This is, however, the first time that the impetus for the introduction of a new alphabet is coming from the country's own elites as opposed than foreign ones.

However, challenges will remain for the non-Kazakh citizens of Kazakhstan, such as the Uighurs (who use Arabic script) or the Slavs (Cyrillic). A lot of work remains to be done in Kazakhstan's road to linguistic self-determination.