disoriented electorate unlikely to pick new president for his
political views.  By Dina Tokbaeva

LANGUAGE CONTROVERSY IN KAZAKSTAN  Authorities say sensitive topic
being stirred up for political ends.  By Saule Mukhametrakhimova


national language are really conduit for broader sense of
dissatisfaction.  By Pyotr Svoik

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Disillusioned and disoriented electorate unlikely to pick new
president for his political views.

By Dina Tokbaeva

Kyrgyzstan’s political upheavals have left voters disoriented and
uncertain about the future, so that when they come to the polls to
choose a president on October 30, it is more than likely they will
pick candidates who appear the best match for their personal

A record number of candidates are standing in this election, the first
time a national leader will be chosen since Kurmanbek Bakiev fled the
country following mass protests in April 2010. The interim government
that came to power struggled to contain ethnic violence in June last
year that left over 400 dead and caused widespread devastation in the
south. The country has still to recover from the divisions created by
the fighting.

Although Kyrgyzstan has a new constitution, a new legislature elected
last October, and a new government formed by the parliamentary
coalition that emerged, fundamental changes have yet to take root,
especially when it comes to improving the lot of the average resident
of this impoverished state. That has left voters disillusioned about
the political process, an attitude certain to be reflected in the
choices they make at the polls.

IWPR asked Gulnara Ibraeva, a sociology lecturer at the American
University in Central Asia, to give an overview of the pre-election
atmosphere and how voter choices will affect the outcome.

As of October 19, the national electoral body had approved a list of
19 candidates who had met all the requirements to go forward. The
front-runners are mainly high-profile politicians like interim prime
minister Almazbek Atambaev, who heads the Social Democratic Party, Ata
Jurt party leader Kamchybek Tashiev, and Butun Kyrgyzstan leader
Adakhan Madumarov.

But there are plenty of newcomers as well, and as Ibraeva pointed out,
some of them may appeal to the electorate’s imagination, at a time
when the traditional models like heavyweight reputation and regional
affiliation no longer carry as much weight as before.

Gulnara Ibraeva: The presidential race differs from previous elections
in that aside from seasoned politicians with experience of holding
office and standing as candidates, there are a lot of contestants with
no experience of public administration.

Some of them list their status as long-term unemployed, so they are
not just politicians who are “between jobs”. They can be seen as
representing the marginalised and the vulnerable.

That is a reflection of how authority is now perceived in Kyrgyzstan.
Power itself, once seen as the preserve of the few, has ceased to be
sacred. Over the years since independence in 1991, there have been
numerous revelations about people in power caught out for misusing
their position, behaving inappropriately, or for sheer incompetence.

The result is that many people have come to believe they too can have
a go – they could hardly be worse at the job. That is a major shift
even from the last presidential election, held in 2005, when there was
still a sense that only those destined for power deserved to win it.

IWPR: In your view, who among the candidates has a real chance of
winning? Are we talking about those who are backed by powerful clans?

Ibraeva: To reply to this question, I’d like to say that as a
sociologist, I don’t believe in clans. As a mechanism, clans do not
work in politics. It’s a myth which it is convenient to use in order
to divide and rule. The reality is that a completely different set of
issues are in play in politics.

Who could have predicted, for example, that Kurmanbek Bakiev, a not
very popular politician, from a clan that had never occupied a
prominent position, would become president in 2005?

IWPR: So what are the factors that do motivate voter choices?

Ibraeva: Rational, pragmatic choices – particularly since the voting
process has been “commercialised” [offers of immediate rewards in
return for votes]. At the same time, a number of different scenarios
may play out in this election. One might be that – again out of
pragmatic considerations – people say they are tired of everything, so
let’s just leave things as they are, even if those at the top aren’t
really the best one might hope for.

The fact that this kind of mood does exist among the electorate is
confirmed by various social surveys that have been done. What that
suggests is that if some newcomer were to emerge – even a media-savvy
individual who wins hearts and minds through successful performances
in televised debates – people still wouldn’t vote for him. They sense
that once he got into power, he too would pursue his own interests.
For the moment, people are not ready for something new.

IWPR: What about those candidates who are seen as charismatic, and who
enjoy support in the south of Kyrgyzstan?

Ibraeva: What’s very interesting is that this time, the south is not
united. Southern political figures seem to have decided they don’t
need to consolidate their efforts.

We have observed frictions between some of the southerners, for
example between Ata-Jurt party’s leader and official candidate
Kamchybek Tashiev and Ahmatbek Keldibekov, the speaker of parliament,
also from Ata-Jurt. Keldibekov has close ties to Adakhan Madumarov,
the Butun Kyrgyzstan party’s candidate and another southerner. Tashiev
has said in interviews that as a member of his party, Keldibekov
should be working for him.

IWPR: Will we see a clear front-runner emerging from the southern candidates?

Ibraeva: That doesn’t seem likely. I think that in the north of the
country, we will see “administrative resources” deployed on
candidates’ behalf. Plus there is the support they can call in from
[Muslim] religious leaders, who are likely to work part-time in favour
of more than one candidate as well as for their own man, Tursunbay

IWPR: Would you say, then, that southern candidates don’t stand a
chance, especially as they are divided?

Ibraeva: Adakhan Madumarov is still in with a chance. It would be very
disappointing if we ended up with a confrontation between a northern
and a southern candidate. That might spark a prolonged series of

IWPR: What about general public attitudes, which – judging by what we
see in the media – encompass rising nationalist sentiment, and
pro-Russian and pro-American views?

Ibraeva: It’s very hard to talk of a pro-American mood. I can’t see
where that would come from, except the American University of Central
Asia, and maybe people who live around the Manas airbase [used by the
United States military]. As far as I can see, America isn’t doing
anything in particular to make itself more popular. It doesn’t need
to. It has economic and political leverage it can use on Kyrgyzstan,
and nothing else.

As for pro-Russian sentiment, I believe this has been shaken by the
Kyrgyz-language press. The rise in nationalism is eroding pro-Russian
views. But then again, it is by definition impossible to be a complete
nationalist in today’s Kyrgyzstan, given that so many people from here
are earning a living in Russia.

To sum up public sentiment, I would say what we’re seeing is a
surprising mixture of attitudes. Each individual voter will have a
little bit of everything.

The defining factor now is a high level of uncertainty, irrespective
of what region you live in, and of whether you’re a politician or an
unemployed person.

IWPR: Will this uncertainly be a determining factor in the way people vote?

Ibraeva: Unfortunately, yes. What you need to understand is that
previously, there were centres of power and influence – a leadership,
government, and local authorities that told people what to do and what
to think. Now that centralised power has been completely dispersed.

Voters, or the majority of them anyway, don’t have stable identities
or certainties in their lives, so what’s important to them is the here
and now. It’s about pragmatic choices.

I should add that for better or worse, we do have another kind of
centre of power that has formed over the last 20 years, and that is
civil society. There are cabinet ministers who wish they could be as
popular as [NGO leaders] Dinara Oshurakhunova or Tolekan Ismailova,
who can open any door and force senior officials to take action.

IWPR: What do people actually believe in?

Ibraeva: Over the last 20 years, we’ve been fed a view, a set of
cultural values, that it’s great to be rich and live life however you
choose, and that as long as you’re rich, you aren’t bound by ethics or
morality. That’s actually the reason many people would like to become

IWPR: So you’re saying presidential office is just viewed as a
stepping-stone to personal enrichment?

Ibraeva: Yes, that’s what politics is equated to.

If you make a bit of money, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to
hold onto it. You need a whole lot of money to become a real player,
and then you need to use some of your assets to buy political
protection so that no one can touch you. If you are a businessman,
you’re beginning to do well and you’re seeking a bit of security –
political patronage – then it makes sense from a pragmatic point of
view to become a politician yourself.

At the same time, I am not so pessimistic as to warn that the clouds
are gathering over our heads, or that previous generations had a
better time of it. All this is a normal and natural process. What’s
more, compared to earlier times, there are fewer and fewer areas that
are off-limits for discussion. In fact there are practically none.
That gives people a degree of freedom. But they don’t have anything to
believe in.

Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR regional editor in Central Asia.


Authorities say sensitive topic being stirred up for political ends.

By Saule Mukhametrakhimova

A fierce debate is raging over language issues in Kazakstan, sparked
by an open letter expressing concern that Kazak is not used enough in
official life.

The letter, addressed to Kazakstan’s president, prime minister and the
heads of both houses of parliament, called for removal of article 7 of
the constitution, guaranteeing that Russian can be used as well as
Kazak in official communications.

The 138 signatories, who included intellectuals, artists, the editors
of Kazak-language newspapers, and the heads of opposition parties Azat
and Ak Jol and the green Ruhaniyat party, complained that the
government was falling down on its obligations to promote Kazak as the
state language.

The open letter, written in Kazak, was released to the media in late
August. But somewhat tellingly, it was publication of a Russian
translation that attracted public attention and sparked a heated
debate, with media reports and public debates on the controversial

Russian remains in wide use in Kazakstan, not only among the
substantial population of Slavs and as a lingua franca for the many
other minorities, but also because it is commonly spoken by many urban

The letter was prompted by a language policy bill designed to promote
the use of Kazak, and more specifically by a newspaper interview in
which deputy culture minister Gaziz Telebaev suggested that parts of
the law that had proved unpopular would be cut out.

On October 2, the group behind the letter held a public meeting in
Kazakstan’s second city Almaty, which reportedly attracted around 500
people. Participants agreed a statement calling for the bill to go
through unchanged, with no delay to plans to make Kazak mandatory for
official use. It also said nationhood should be based on Kazak
identity, not on more general notions of citizenship.

The overall public reaction suggests people in Kazakstan, from a range
of ethnic communities, are in favour of greater use of Kazak – and
programmes to encourage competence in the language. But by and large,
they do not believe this has to be an exclusive process that
necessitates Russian being shut out from public life.

Many believe that Kazak will become more prevalent in the natural
course of things over the next decade or two, but that trying to
impose it will simply create problems while doing little practical to
encourage use of the language.

The official view was expressed by Yermukhambet Yertysbaev, political
advisor to President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who said he “categorically
opposes, and absolutely does not share” the views set out in the

Yertysbaev accused those behind the letter of seeking to create ethnic
tensions, and suggested that the opposition parties that signed up to
it were trying to win voters in next year’s parliamentary election by
aligning themselves with Kazak nationalists. He singled out the Azat
party, in particular, for exploiting the language question for
political gain.

Azat has now distanced itself from the letter, issuing a statement
that it never signed up to the final text, and instead approved an
earlier draft that “did not envisage restrictions on the use of the
languages of other ethnic groups”.

Several other high-profile signatories, including well-known singer
Bibigul Tulegenova, and Ak Jol leader Azat Peruashev, have also
dissociated themselves from the proposal to cut out Russian from
official use.

Some 60 per cent of the country’s population now speak Kazak as their
main language, while some unofficial estimates put the figure ten per
cent higher. This is a result of demographic shifts over the last 20
years – outward migration of Russians and other groups like ethnic
Germans who speak the language, and immigration of Kazak speakers from
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, China and even Turkey.

This trend is mirrored in the schools and higher education, where
Kazak is replacing Russian as the principal teaching medium. Figures
released at a round-table debate held by the Alternativa Centre for
Political Research in Almaty in September 12 show that this year, 56
per cent of schoolchildren are studying in Kazak, compared with just
33 per cent in Russian, and the rest in minority languages like
Uighur, Tajik and Ukrainian.

In higher education, the disparity is not so great – 52 per cent of
students are learning through Kazak compared with 47 per cent using
Russian. The number of students enrolled in university courses taught
via Kazak has quadrupled since the early 1990s.

Despite these changes, Russian remains the main language for
administration and other official business. One of the complaints made
in the open letter was that most meetings of the national government
and of local authority bodies take place in Russian; it accused senior
civil servants and government officials of blocking progress.

The response from the Russian community has been measured rather than
alarmist. Interviewed by the Tengrinews.kz site on September 23,
leading community member Vladimir Primin said the letter was not a
cause of great concern. He noted comments by members of parliament
that the constitution did not have to be amended in order to achieve
the aims of promoting Kazak and encouraging its use.

Primin said he recognised the need for non-Kazaks to acquire a good
knowledge of the language and commented that he and others like him
were learning it as “our moral obligation and duty”.

(See also What’s Behind Kazak Language Campaign?)

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.



Calls for greater use of national language are really conduit for
broader sense of dissatisfaction.

By Pyotr Svoik

The Kazak language question and the associated issue of ethnic
stability in this country are of the utmost importance. What is even
more important, however, is that the campaign to promote the use of
Kazak is really a reflection of the dissatisfaction, anxiety and
disappointment that have built up in society.

In Kazakstan, divisions along political, social and economic lines
coincide to an extent with ethnic – and specifically linguistic –

The top positions in the political and business elite are held almost
without exception by ethnic Kazaks. Most but not all speak Kazak, but
while knowledge of the language is seen as an asset, it is Russian
that is used in practice in official circles. In short, Russian de
facto fills the role of state language.

As for the social groups that amount to a middle class, they include
Kazaks, ethnic Russians and people from other communities. Some in
this category speak Kazak, but all speak fluent Russian.

Finally, at the lower end of the hierarchy, one finds the bulk of
Kazaks who function in their native language. When they look at what
the constitution says about a state founded on historical Kazak
territory and promoting their language, they are dismayed at the
disconnect between this and the actual state of affairs.

It is perfectly understandable that these people identify strongly as
Kazaks and want their children to be taught the language at school,
although it should be remembered that members of the ruling elite and
the middle class, including people of other ethnicities, share this

Shaping a broad sense of nationhood for Kazakstan, based on
citizenship rather than ethnicity of the kind one sees in France, is
still a work in process, and it is principally founded on Russian as
the common language, with Kazak accorded a secondary role.

It is this concept that the Kazak nationalists oppose. They reject the
principle of a nation founded on citizenship. In this respect, their
aims hark back to the Alash Orda provisional government that tried to
build a Kazak state during the Russian imperial collapse between 1917
and 1920.

For the nationalists, demands to make Kazak the dominant language in
official life are simply the outward reflection of their view of state
and nationhood.

Thus, we have two rival visions – the ruling elite, a clan-based
oligarchic ethnocracy, which speaks of an all-embracing Kazakstan
nation, and the nationalists, who see only a Kazak nation plus ethnic
minorities. What sets the latter apart is that that nationalist
intellectual thought overlaps with the discontent felt by the
traditionally rural, impoverished Kazak population.

As an organised political force, Kazak nationalism does not exist, nor
can it. First, the nationalists are themselves divided; and second,
the authorities will never allow an ethnocentric party to emerge.

The nationalist tradition comes from the Soviet era, when
intellectuals were permitted to express such ideas, within certain
bounds, as a token gesture demonstrating the USSR’s cultural
diversity. This took place behind the scenes; in public everyone had
to declare loyalty to the Soviet state.

Independence in 1991 took the wind out of their sails. The new
leadership appropriated Kazak identity and symbols and devised its own
vision of nationhood, so that a separate nationalism was neither
wanted nor needed, and became a source of concern for others.

The old guard of Soviet-era nationalists are now being challenged by a
younger generation, who were educated after independence and embrace
democratic values. These might be described as liberal nationalists,
as they still talk about Kazak statehood and language, but take a
cautious line on dealing with Moscow, and are avowed supporters of a
free market economy.

The common ground shared by both old and new nationalists is their
belief in a country that is first and foremost the homeland of the
titular nation, and their insistence on Kazak being used in public

Even though it is somewhat stuck in the past, the nationalist message
has more traction than the policies of conventional parties in
Kazakstan. At least it reflects grassroots concerns, whereas political
parties – according to their orientation – either support the current
administration or just want to replace it.

There is a view that the authorities in Kazakstan are pulling the
strings behind the current language campaign, but that is not true.
The Kazaks who dominate the ruling elite are fearful of the
nationalists gaining any ground.

As for the campaign taken in isolation, the nationalists want article
7 of the constitution to be changed so that it no longer accords
Russian the same official status as Kazak in public life, government
and other state institutions. (See Language Controversy in Kazakstan.)
But this demand – that Kazak become the sole language of official
communication – is just not practicable.

It would certainly be possible to require all official communications
to be in Kazak, and to remove street signs and public notices written
in Russian. But conducting government and parliamentary meetings in
Kazak would turn them into a kind of performance where everything
would be translated beforehand.

Nor is there much chance that Russian will be supplanted as the most
widely used language simply because of the demographic shift which has
turned the Kazaks from a minority into a majority over recent years.

Instead, the essence of the demand could be satisfied by changing the
law to require anyone in public office to produce a certificate
showing they have a command Kazak. Russian-speakers, too, should be
happy with this – as long as the state provides free, affordable and
effective courses in Kazak that lead to the award of such

One thing everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten about in this
debate is that article 93 of the constitution already places the onus
on government to facilitate universal Kazak language learning free of

As for the deeper social and economic issues facing Kazaks at
grassroots level, these should be addressed through a nationwide
programme of modernisation that targets them specifically. Kazakstan
should have a political force prepared to devise and pursue such a
scheme. But no such force exists, there is no one to lead it, and no
one knows what such a programme would look like. And that, in essence,
is the biggest problem facing Kazakstan at the moment.

Pyotr Svoik is a member of the ruling board of the National Social
Democratic Party of Kazakstan, and head of the non-government Anti-
Monopoly Commission for Almaty.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IWPR.

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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a
unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local
journalists, the service publishes news and analysis from across
Central Asia on a weekly basis.

The service forms part of IWPR's Central Asia Project based in Almaty,
Bishkek, Tashkent and London, which supports media development and
encourages better local and international understanding of the region.

IWPR's Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Community Fund.
The service is published online in English and Russian.

The opinions expressed in Reporting Central Asia are those of the
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REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA: Editor-in-Chief: Anthony Borden; Managing
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