On 14 November 2018, at Kazakhstan’s universities, a nation-wide exam to test students’ proficiency in the Latin alphabet took place. Simultaneously, two major radio stations and websites invited people to take the test at home. This was the kick-off for the implementation of a reform, started by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s October 2017 decree ordering a switchover from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet for Kazakh, the country’s state language. If carried out as planned, the reform will proceed in three stages. After a preparatory period (2018-2020), teachers will be trained, and identity cards based on Latin script will be issued (2021-2023). Finally, during 2024-2025 state agencies and state-owned media must gradually transition to the Latin alphabet.
The writing issue is an eminently political one across Central Asia. During the early 1920s, Soviet authorities created five republics out of Turkestan, the vast internal colony of the Russian Empire. Here as well as in Azerbaijan, they first introduced a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, replacing it between 1927 and 1930 with Latin, and finally, between 1938 and 1940, with the Cyrillic script. This policy claimed to be a necessary measure to combat illiteracy and to raise the cultural level of national minorities to that of Russians, and also aimed to thwart the influence of Turkey in the Soviet Republics with their predominantly Muslim population.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Latinization, the transition of the state language of the new republics to the Latin alphabet, entered the political agenda again. Initiated by Turkey, in the early 1990s, the idea of a common alphabet for the Turcophone world was popular. Numerous conferences and meetings brought together political representatives and scholars from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, but also from Russia’s Turkic regions and elsewhere. The project of a common script turned out to be utopian and lost its appeal by 1996.
By this time, three of the five post-Soviet states had managed to introduce their versions of Latin scripts. They argued that the Latin alphabet is better suited for representing the sounds of Turkic languages than Cyrillic, that its adoption strengthens the cultural, intellectual and social identity of their nations and that it secures the computer compatibility of their state languages. However, this move was mainly considered to signal a break with the Soviet era and a geopolitical reorientation.
Already in December 1991, Azerbaijan introduced a modified version of the Latin Azeri script that had been used during the 1920s and 1930s. The Cyrillic alphabet, so the law stated, had been a “historical injustice” introduced “despite the people’s will” and as a “continuation of the mass repressions of the 1930s.” However, in practice, the transition unfolded slowly, until a 2001 presidential decree made the use of the Latin alphabet mandatory.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan adopted Latin scripts in 1993, using alphabets that represented mere transliterations of the Cyrillic system. To date, the transition has not been fully completed here. This is most visibly in Uzbekistan, where both graphic systems continue to be used concurrently. The Latin alphabet prevails in many street names, on billboards, in public transportation, television and film productions, and the Cyrillic script in all other spheres.
The two remaining Turkic republics with their large segments of Russian-speaking populations approached the issue much later. In Kyrgyzstan, Latinization of the state language was included in a state program on language development during the period from 2000 to 2010. However, the project was not carried out. In July 2017, then-President Almazbek Atambaev declared that first, the shift to the Latin script might “divide Turkic languages and nations” across the post-Soviet region rather than unite them, because Turkic peoples in the Russian Federation continue using Cyrillic. Second, he argued, the change of the alphabet may also “break the link between generations, as many prominent Kyrgyz writers used Cyrillic when creating their works.”
In Kazakhstan, a six-step plan to switch the country to the Latin alphabet was launched by the Ministry of Education in 2007, but the program lost momentum soon. A new attempt followed in 2012 when Nazarbayev in his annual State of the Nation Address declared the transition to Latin part of the “Strategy Kazakhstan-2050,” a long-term program to push the country into the top 30 global economies by 2050. The recent measures aim to tackle this difficult task as smoothly and as well-organized as possible. Strikingly, and compared to the justifications for alphabet switchovers in the early 1990s, any geopolitical statements are avoided. Nazarbayev’s “Strategy Kazakhstan-2050” envisages the transition to Latin letters as one of several measures for modernizing the Kazakh language, the nation’s “spiritual center.” The move is incorporated into the seventh priority of the Strategy, which is titled “New Kazakhstani patriotism is the basis for the success of our multiethnic and multi-confessional society.” There, the use of the Latin alphabet is substantiated as a “decision for the sake of the future of our children,” easing access to English as a third essential language—along with Kazakh and Russian—and to the internet. When Russian media criticized this step as a geopolitical statement, the Kazakhstani foreign minister hastened to soothe his Russian colleague by underscoring that there was “no subtext and no geopolitical signal in Kazakhstan’s intention.” In the same vein, Nazarbayev declared in 2017 that “the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin-based script does not in any way affect the rights of the Russian-speaking citizens” in the country, which still makes up more than 20 percent of the population.