In October 2017, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree, which was amended recently, on the phased transition of the Kazakh alphabet from Cyrillic into Latin script by 2025.
By that year, Latin letters will be used in all official documents, books, newspapers, media and other areas. All the political, economic and cultural conditions are ripe to make such a significant socio-cultural transformation more in line with Kazakh national identity. This move, furthermore, is a crucial pillar of the country’s modernisation process and greater openness to the outside world. A process which already saw Kazakhstan hosting Astana EXPO 2017, Syrian peace talks and holding the UN Security Council rotating presidency.
Now, 27 years after independence, Kazakhstan is striving for nation-building and a consolidation of its own identity. Kazakhstan, one of the Turkic-speaking countries in Central Asia, has started an ambitious modernisation process under the auspices of President Nazarbayev, succeeding in creating an economically prosperous and politically stable country in the heart of the Eurasian steppe.
Switching alphabets, however, is not new to Kazakhstan: Kazakh, a Turkic language, used to be written in Arabic script from the 11th century and up to 1927. Between 1927 and 1940, the Soviet Union briefly introduced a Latin alphabet. From 1940 onwards, in a continuation of Soviet identity politics, Kazakhstan has been using the Cyrillic-based alphabet, which includes 42 letters. During the Soviet era, the Russian language was the lingua franca in Central Asia where the overwhelming majority of people have been speaking Turkic languages for centuries.
The process may take a generation for the population to get accustomed to, but, given strong political will and regular information campaigns to reach all layers of society to explain the advantages of the new writing system, it should be a smooth transition. The Kazakh government is carefully drafting a seven-year process until the full implementation of the new alphabet, sub-divided into various phases dealing with preparatory work to establish the relevant legal framework, development of spelling rules, adoption of new alphabet in textbooks and government documents, etc.
One of the key benefits of the new alphabet relates to new technological advances: the Cyrillic-based alphabets consist of 42 symbols making it difficult to use in digital devices such as smartphones; the Latin-based alphabet, on the other hand, uses 31 letters. Furthermore, several other Turkic nations, including Turkey and the former Soviet states Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have also switched to Latin alphabets.
In short, this measure, among many others being promoted, will popularise Kazakhstan and could facilitate a greater interest in the country by foreign investors and tourists alike. The alphabet change will pave the way for Kazakhstan’s opening up to the world since 70 percent of the world population use Latin letters. Switching to a Latin alphabet entails reversing the past in accordance with cultural and social needs of a strong, independent Kazakhstan.
The author is Programme Coordinator at the Brussels-based European Institute for Asian Studies.