Kazakhstan Seeks To Escape From Russia’s Shadow

Restructuring of Kazakhstan's Banking Sector Continues

ALMATY — For more than 75 years, the Kazakh language has been written in Cyrillic, the alphabet of Russian and other Slavic tongues. But President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led Kazakhstan to independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, is accelerating plans to switch to the Roman alphabet used in Western Europe, even as Russia steps up efforts to exert regional leadership.

Nazarbayev, who is keen for Kazakhstan to gain a higher global profile, last month directed officials to complete plans for the switchover by the end of 2017, with the target of a full conversion by 2025. The process could cost government agencies $300 million in training and new signage.

Proponents play down the international significance of the move, but critics in Kazakhstan and Russia see it as the government turning its back on the “Russian World,” a concept pioneered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2006. They also see it an attempt by Kazakhstan to facilitate global integration at the expense of cooperation with Russia.

Yerlan Karin, head of the state-run broadcaster, and a former head of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, described the move to the Roman alphabet as a “civilizational choice” in favor of an open and globalizing world.

The idea was first floated in Kazakhstan in 2006 after nearby Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan made the switch in the 1990s. Nazarbayev said the new alphabet “is not a whim” but a requirement. “I hear all kinds of concerns,” he said, but added that “we won’t forget Russian culture and [the] Russian [language].”

There has been little reaction to the latest Kazakh timetable from the Kremlin, which appears to see the move as a domestic issue rather than a shift in Kazakh foreign policy. Kazakhstan remains a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, which groups Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Armenia in an integrated single market.

But the Kremlin has shown its irritation before in relation to independent policymaking by Kazakhstan. In August 2014, following Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan reserved the right to leave the economic union if its political independence was threatened. Putin reacted furiously, saying: “Kazakhs didn’t have statehood [before Nazarbayev].” His statement was seen as a veiled threat to seize northern parts of Kazakhstan, where there is a sizeable Russian minority, if Astana deviates from Russian foreign policy goals.

But Putin’s “Russian World” concept has come under wider strain among member states of the EEU. Analysts say there is a sense of dissatisfaction with Russian dominance over the bloc, and with Moscow’s belief that it can dictate conditions for integration. Despite the EEU’s stated aim of boosting trade, Kazakhstan’s total two-way trade with member states fell to $13.6 billion in 2016 from $16.5 billion in 2010, when a Eurasian customs union was established to prepare the ground for the EEU.

The EEU has become an “incompetent and unpromising” project like the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose political grouping of nine former Soviet republics, and will eventually die out, said Rasul Zhumaly, an Almaty-based independent analyst. However, Zhumaly said the new alphabet “has nothing to do with member states’ dissatisfaction with the EEU,” and was intended to help Kazakhstan adapt to a more open economy.

by NAUBET BISENOV, Contributing writer

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