Caravanserai
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Kazakh bill aims to end compulsory translation of signage into Russian

By Kanat Altynbayev

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A Kazakh-language restaurant facade is shown in Almaty October 17. If the language bill becomes law, translating such signs into Russian will become optional. [Kanat Altynbayev]

ALMATY -- Kazakhstan's parliament is considering a requirement to post visual information in Kazakh while also cancelling mandatory translation into Russian.

The Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, approved on October 6 the second reading of amendments to existing law. If enacted, the bill would require posting outdoor signs, advertisements, road signs, signposts, menus, price tags and other signage in Kazakh, the state language.

The bill calls for abolishing the previous requirement to provide Russian translations of such signs.

The senate is now considering the bill. Both parliamentary chambers and the president must approve any bill before it becomes law.

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A store sign almost entirely in Russian is shown in Almaty October 17. If the language bill becomes law, such commercial signs will have to be primarily in Kazakh. [Kanat Altynbayev]

Under existing Kazakh law, any visual information must be posted in the Kazakh and Russian languages.

If approved, the bill will require all public information to be communicated first in the Kazakh language and optionally in Russian and other languages.

"Today, the issue of the state language worries everyone," said Berik Abdygaliuly, a member of the Mazhilis and its Committee on Sociocultural Development.

"One of the problems most frequently raised by our voters is the way visual information is presented full of errors in Kazakh, and in some cases, information in Kazakh is even entirely absent," he said.

"We believe that these proposals will make it possible to make every citizen, especially entrepreneurs, more responsible [in providing Kazakh-language signs]," he added.

Ethnic Kazakhs accounted for about 70% of the country's population at the beginning of 2021, according to the government.

The country has numerous minorities, including Russians, Kyrgyz, Ukrainians and Germans.

Thirty years since the Soviet Union broke up, Kazakh is becoming ever more widely spoken in Kazakhstan.

The share of Kazakh-speaking citizens is increasing from year to year, amounting to 86% in 2018, according to the most recent data by researchers.

Moving into the future

The goal is to strengthen the position and expand the influence of Kazakh, as stated on September 1 by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during his annual address to the people.

"Development of the Kazakh language remains one of the priorities of state policy," said Tokayev, calling it a natural phenomenon. "In general, the scope in which the state language is applied is expanding."

"By law, there is only one state language in Kazakhstan," he said.

The shift to native languages is a natural process for any state, say analysts.

A unitary state such as Kazakhstan, which has its own state language, must pay great attention to the language issue, Islam Kurayev, Almaty-based political scientist and founder of the Kazakh Spoken Language Club Alma Club, said on Facebook.

Every day, simple things like visual information on signs "yield a greater return than entire state projects do in popularising the language", he said.

Demographic trends in Kazakhstan dictate the strengthening of the Kazakh language's position, especially as the Kazakh-language information space significantly expands, he added.

"I think it's worth it to abandon all prejudices and move into the future. If we want to live in Kazakhstan, then we must understand a simple truth -- it is the state language that will be the fundamental factor in the life of any citizen of our country," wrote Kurayev.

While it may appear that the new amendments are downgrading the Russian language, not much is actually changing, Nur-Sultan-based political columnist Gaziz Abishev told Caravanserai.

The state is only providing necessary legislative support to the Kazakh language in areas where its influence is diminished, he said.

"Where there are many Russian-speaking people, there will be signs and signposts in Russian, and where there are mostly Kazakh-speaking citizens, there is no information in Russian anyway," Abishev said.

Protecting state language

Kazakh and Russian signage has been an international issue in the past, as politicians in Moscow try to agitate their voters and Kazakhstan's ethnic Russian minority.

In August, Kazakh language activist Kuat Akhmetov posted a series of videos taken at public establishments in Kazakh cities in which he pointed out the lack of customer service in Kazakh.

Even though Akhmetov fled to Ukraine soon afterward, in response to an investigation of him for allegedly inciting ethnic hatred, influential Russians portrayed him as part of a movement to squeeze the Russian language out of Kazakh public life.

Konstantin Kosachev, deputy speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper parliamentary chamber, issued a furious rebuke.

"We must demand that Kazakh authorities call out these disgraceful actions by homegrown nationalists that have nothing in common with the neighbourly relations between our countries and peoples," Kosachev told the news agency RIA Novosti on August 11.

Baseless charges

Russian media have responded similarly to the recent draft law, alleging that "war" was declared on the Russian language in the interests of the United States.

"The attempts to 'Kazakhify' the republic, carried out by the pro-American nationalists in power, are aimed at severing the linguistic connection between the peoples of the two countries and giving the United States more chances to influence the country's internal political processes," news website Lenta.ru wrote on October 3.

Russian media have been launching attacks over the alleged ouster of the Russian language, according to Urazgali Selteyev, a Nur-Sultan resident and director of the Institute for Eurasian Integration.

"Unfortunately, these media attacks are leading to social tension in Kazakhstan," Selteyev told Caravanserai.

"This is unacceptable, and such attacks must be answered appropriately," he added, stressing that Kazakh society must unite in this situation.

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