Two years ago Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that the government would be overhauling how Kazakh, the indigenous language spoken in what is Central Asia's largest country, is written. Now he is going after the country’s money design.
Since the early 1990s, the National Bank of Kazakhstan – the authority through which monetary policy is conducted – has been using Kazakh and Russian on banknotes. But Nazarbayev signed a decree last week approving a government-led initiative to redesign the national currency, the tenge. According to the document, Kazakh will be the only language used.
“A text of inscriptions used in a design of banknotes and coins should be drawn up in the national language. While designing investment and collectible coins, the use of inscriptions in foreign languages is allowed,” reads the document, according to reports by Tengri.
As a result of Russian, and later Soviet, influence in the region, Kazakh – a Turkic language, linguistically very different from Russian – was written in the Cyrillic script, used for Russian, which belongs to the Slavic family of languages. Cyrillic, however, does not account for sounds peculiar to Turkic languages.
Officials in Astana have been working for about two years to replace the Cyrillic script with a Latin alphabet instead. Some see the move as a way for the government to minimize the Kremlin’s influence on the country’s northern areas, bordering Russia and partially populated with ethnic Russians. Russians are estimated to be about 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s total population of nearly 19 million.
President Nazarbayev’s recent decree inked to change the face of the tenge is also considered by some observers as a step towards de-russification. Russia’s diplomats, however, are not concerned.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, believes the redesign of the national currency is an internal matter for Kazakhstan and will not affect geopolitics.
“On the other hand, we certainly maintain contacts with our Kazakhstani partners regarding the rights of the people of Kazakhstan, for whom Russian is the main language,” the official website of the ministry cited her as saying.
“We see the efforts being made by the leadership of this country to preserve the Russian language. These are not empty words, there are concrete deeds and steps behind this.”
In a country of nearly 19 million, Kazakh has the status of "state" language. In addition to Kazakh, Russian is an official language of the country.