Language Decolonization: Prospective Scenarios for Central Asia

Central Asia is perhaps one of the few regions in the world where the former metropole, Russia, continues to exert influence over its language policy. As a result, the course of development for state languages in the region is shaped not only by national governments but also by Russian authorities.

What lies ahead for languages in Central Asia? Which approach is more effective: a radical method or a policy of appeasement? In this article,, in collaboration with journalists and researchers from Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, scrutinizes the language policies of the region’s countries, assesses Russia’s linguistic influence in Central Asia, and proposes four potential scenarios.

Disclaimer: This article does not delve into Tajikistan. A separate material addressing the language development issue in this country has been prepared by our colleagues at

Options for the future

The discourse on decolonization in post-Soviet countries has led to the perception of the Russian language as a colonial marker. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, where “discrimination of the Russian language” was cited as a key reason for the war, and subsequent events have firmly stamped the Russian language as the “language of the aggressor.”

At the same time, Russian remains one of the world languages and serves as the official language of the UN. Proficiency in Russian provides access to a number of information resources and aids in addressing economic, cultural, scientific, and other challenges. On average, approximately half of the young people in Central Asia who pursue studies abroad opt for Russian. Moreover, concerning proficiency in English, which could be seen as an alternative to Russian, the countries in the region still lag behind in global rankings.

The prospects for the official and Russian languages in Central Asian countries are challenging, but we will attempt to envision several scenarios.

Evolutionary Path

An anticipated scenario for the countries in the region involves allowing the resolution of the language issue to be determined by natural demographic changes. The proportion of ethnic Russians in the population has been decreasing for several decades. The Russian-speaking population in Central Asia is aging, with an average age ranging from 38 to 40 years.

The logic behind this scenario is that the impact of the Russian language will diminish as the carriers of Russian identity and culture decrease. However, in practice, the correlation between the status of the Russian language and the number of ethnic Russians is not as straightforward.

Due to economic, political, and demographic factors, the Russian population in Central Asian countries had been steadily declining even before the collapse of the USSR, with the pace accelerating in the 1990s. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, the number of Russians decreased from 916,500 in 1989 to 348,900 in 2019. Similarly, Uzbekistan experienced a similar trend, with the Russian population decreasing from 1,653,400 in 1989 to 750,000 in 2017. Turkmenistan witnessed a more than threefold decrease in the Russian population, from 339,900 in 1989 to 101,900 in 2016.

Language Decolonization: Prospective Scenarios for Central Asia

Despite having the largest Russian population in the region, Kazakhstan has experienced a similar trend. Over the past 30 years, the Russian population in Kazakhstan has more than halved, declining from 6.2 million in 1989 to 2.8 million in 2021.

Nonetheless, as our analysis of the language situation in this article will reveal, the matter of the Russian language’s influence in Central Asia is far from being conclusively addressed. Therefore, we deem the “wait and see” scenario improbable and ineffective. While demography does play a significant role, it is not the primary determinant in the language issue. So, what could be the decisive factor?

Radical Path

The cases of Turkmenistan and Latvia demonstrate that a stringent policy restricting the use of the Russian language has proven to be quite effective. In these countries, the official languages are either already the official languages of instruction at all levels of education, from kindergarten to high school, or they are set to become so in the near future.

This strategy establishes a “language nest,” fostering an environment where adults communicate with children exclusively in the target language from a very early age. Targeted at the younger generation, this approach to language revitalization supports linguistic continuity. If language policies persist in universities and workplaces, they can transition the language from everyday use to professional contexts.

Additional measures limiting the influence of the Russian language encompass the adoption of romanized writing (as observed in Turkmenistan), the prohibition of Russian-language media broadcasts, and, notably, shifts in foreign policy orientation — Turkmenistan aligning with Turkey and Latvia aligning with the EU.

However, this scenario comes with nuances and drawbacks. The primary concern is the pressure on the linguistic rights of national minorities, resulting in heightened interethnic tensions within society. This aspect is highlighted in the report from the Human Rights Commission of the Council of Europe, which criticized the language policies of Estonia and Latvia for being discriminatory due to limitations on access to education in minor languages.

Moreover, an abrupt intensification of language policy, lacking adequate systematic preparation of the population, may result in cultural and scientific isolation. This could lead to a situation where certain residents of the country lose access to literature, scientific publications, journalism, and digital media.

However, the most significant hindrance to the realization of this scenario lies in the robust economic connections that most Central Asian countries maintain with Russia.

In the context of globalization, almost no nation can afford to be monolingual, and the selection of a second language is largely influenced by the most profitable and accessible foreign connections for the population. This is why numerous countries in the post-colonial period retained the languages of their European colonizers, in particular English, French, and Portuguese.

This doesn’t necessarily imply that the Russian language will play a similar role in Central Asian countries. However, before abandoning or significantly restricting it, providing an alternative to the population is essential. This could involve ensuring high-quality and effective English language education and fostering collaboration with foreign universities.

Ineffective Policies and Awkward Maneuvering

This scenario largely reflects the language policies of the Central Asian countries, with Turkmenistan possibly being an exception, from the early days of independence to the present. This makes it a highly probable scenario for future developments — essentially maintaining the status quo.

The scenario is characterized, on one hand, by the implementation of numerous government programs aimed at language development, which, for various reasons (system rigidity, populism, bad planning, corruption), fail to achieve the intended outcomes. On the other hand, there are various initiatives to support the Russian language, driven by the desire to maintain neighborly relations with one of the key economic partners, Russia.

Examples of ineffective policies include the prolonged and partial implementation of the transition to the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan over three decades. Similarly, Kazakhstan’s attempt at a similar reform faces ongoing challenges and has yet to be fully realized.

This situation gives rise to a scenario where state language policy, despite significant budgetary allocations, fails to bring tangible results and appears impressive only on paper.

At the same time, initiatives to support the Russian language from Central Asian countries, along with Russia’s language policy in the region, appear more promising. This is partly due to the fact that a significant portion of the population still views the Russian language as more prestigious, and Russia remains a destination for higher education and employment opportunities.

Language Decolonization: Prospective Scenarios for Central Asia
According to: 2022 Kyrgyzstan Population Census, Rossotrudnichestvo, WorldAtlas portal, Berlek-Unity Center for Geopolitical Research, 2021 Kazakhstan Population Census

Russia’s information influence also plays an important role, primarily through television and, sometimes, political pressure. Russian politicians often perceive attempts to strengthen the position of state languages as restrictions on the rights of Russian speakers. Everyday conflicts on linguistic grounds are sometimes seen as signs of systematic infringement of ethnic Russians.

The Russian military invasion of Ukraine, which includes the language issue among its reasons, served as a signal for Central Asian countries to be cautious in implementing their language policies and, when necessary, to opt for appeasement. However, citizens in the region view such attempts to maneuver, combined with ineffective reforms, as a neglect of national interests in favor of foreign interests, resulting in social tension. Governments are not putting sufficient effort into communicating with the population.

Ultimately, this scenario does not contribute to language development and, to some extent, exacerbates the language situation by failing to provide solutions to existing problems.

Consistent Policies and Language Prestige

Success in language revitalization relies on productive collaboration among authorities, experts, and civil initiatives. The state establishes the legislative framework and allocates funding, while specialists and activists evaluate society’s needs and readiness for specific reforms. Any significant changes, particularly in the education system, commence with comprehensive (re)training and resource allocation, with a priority on modern teaching methodologies for students of all ages, especially those addressing the teaching of the state language as a foreign language.

The transition to the Latin script has the potential to accelerate processes related to intellectualization and information technology. Adopting the Latin alphabet can also contribute to enhancing the autonomy of the state languages in Central Asia. Nevertheless, to prevent a scenario where romanization hinders language development, it is crucial to approach the reform comprehensively, conducting thorough analysis of potential pitfalls and opportunities in advance.

For instance, apart from instructing children in schools, develop a methodology for educating adults on the new script; establish comprehensive online and offline retraining courses for all; launch an extensive program in collaboration with publishing houses to translate classical and contemporary fiction as well as scientific literature into the new alphabet; develop programs and applications for the automatic translation of Cyrillic into Latin; identify scenarios where information should be duplicated in both scripts for groups of citizens unable to undergo retraining.

The crucial factor for the successful adoption of any language is to foster positive motivation for learning and utilizing it. The language needs to be perceived as necessary, beneficial, and prestigious. Agitation or aggressive coercion won’t solve this challenge. From the state’s perspective, effective approaches could involve incentivizing individuals who employ the state language in their professional endeavors — such as offering bonuses to public sector employees proficient in the state language, establishing quotas for university students, providing grants to researchers for publications written in the state language, and so forth.

At the same time, it is crucial not to limit the rights and opportunities of individuals from other linguistic communities — instead of penalizing for language ignorance, incentivize language proficiency. Rather than shutting down educational programs in Russian, introduce new ones in the state language, progressively reallocating resources as more students become proficient in the state language.

Enhancing the overall quality of education can significantly contribute to elevating the prestige of the state language. When parents decide on a school and the language of instruction for their children, pragmatic considerations, such as the quality of education and future prospects, often take precedence over ideological factors. Schools offering education in the state language that maintain a high standard of education are more likely to be chosen by parents for their children.

Efficient language planning is typically a gradual process and may not enjoy universal popularity across all population segments. Language revitalization demands substantial time and investments. However, a notable drawback of the outlined measures is that they may not yield immediate political benefits for their proponents. The changes are gradual, and the outcomes are challenging to showcase through impressive numerical figures. It is more convenient to exploit the language issue by appealing to populist sentiments among citizens.

Language policy in Central Asia: Internal and External Perspectives 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly formed republics in Central Asia embarked on the challenging endeavor of restoring and cultivating their official languages. The success of this task is contingent on various factors, with political relations with the former metropolis playing a crucial role. Russia aimed to maintain as much influence as possible over post-Soviet states, using language as a primary and highly effective tool in this pursuit.

The Russian Language — The Kremlin’s “Soft Power”

In the 21st century, Russian authorities continue to use the Russian language as a form of “soft power” to further their interests in Central Asia. This involves the establishment of Russian universities, the initiation of educational and cultural exchange programs, and the organization of joint forums, exhibitions, competitions, courses, and various other events.

Soft power is strategically promoted through the assistance of Russian state media. In Central Asian countries, there are editorial offices of the Sputnik publication, which is part of the Rossiya Segodnya news agency. Noteworthy pro-Russian television channels in the region include VGTRK (Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24, and RTR-Planeta), Pervyj Kanal, NTV, REN TV, Tsargrad, and Zvezda (the official television channel of the Russian Armed Forces), among others.

Russian online media broadcasting the Kremlin agenda are also popular in the region, such as, TASS, RIA Novosti, RBC, Vedomosti,, Kommersant, Komsomolskaya Pravda “, “Arguments and Facts”, etc.

Russian TV, for instance, is part of the standard digital television subscription package in Kyrgyzstan and maintains significant popularity in the country, as observed by researchers affiliated with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in partnership with a program of the Center for European Security Studies. According to their findings, residents of Kyrgyzstan either express support for Russia in the conflict with Ukraine or struggle to formulate a clear stance due to information overload.

In Kazakhstan, Russian state TV channels are accessible through cable or satellite TV connections. Their impact is evidently reflected, notably in the perspectives of Kazakhstanis regarding the conflict in Ukraine.

A survey conducted by the Kazakh bureau for express monitoring of public opinion DEMOSCOPE and PaperLab Research Institute in May 2023, showed that although the absolute majority of respondents — 59.8% — adhered to neutrality, and there were almost twice as many people who supported Ukraine than those who supported Russia (21.1% against 12.8%), a third of the audience — 31.8% — repeat the Kremlin propaganda narratives about a “special military operation” and “war with NATO”, and another 39.8% find it difficult to answer the question of what exactly is happening in Ukraine .

The governments in the region are hesitant to restrict the broadcast of Russian television channels, despite the evident war propaganda, which is explicitly prohibited by the laws of Central Asian countries. This reluctance stems from the fear that such actions could precipitate a significant deterioration in relations with Moscow, along with associated political and economic challenges.

Nevertheless, specific resources are occasionally blocked, typically not for political motives. For instance, in November 2023, Kazakhstan blocked the website because it aired programs from Russian channels without a license in Kazakhstan. The case of the Tsargrad website is noteworthy; in August, access was restricted due to extremist propaganda. However, at the time of writing this material, the site remains accessible, although the browser displays a warning about “insecure connection” when attempting to log in.

Local researches also explain the ongoing broadcasting of Russian TV channels to the underdeveloped nature of the region’s media market.

Additionally, the Kremlin employs various tools to promote the Russian language and its influence in the region, with a significant role played by Rossotrudnichestvo. The organization’s mission is succinctly described on its website as “strengthening Russia’s humanitarian influence in the world.” The activities of the organization include, among other things, the “promotion of Russian education, science, and culture” and “strengthening the position of the Russian language.” It is noted that Rossotrudnichestvo is represented in 80 countries through the so-called “Russian Houses.”

At the same time, in 2021, the department faced sanctions from Ukraine, and in 2022, it encountered restrictions from the European Union. The EU highlighted that Rossotrudnichestvo, through its Russia Houses program, funds projects for Russian propaganda, supports pro-Russian entities, and spreads the ideas of the Kremlin.

In all Central Asian countries, except Turkmenistan, Russian universities or their branches are operational. Applicants from this region have the opportunity to pursue studies in Russia at the state’s expense, and there is also a simplified document submission process for them. As of May 2023, Deputy Minister of the Russian Foreign Ministry Mikhail Galuzin stated that 185,000 students from Central Asian countries are enrolled in Russian universities, constituting nearly half of all foreign students in the country, with approximately 68,000 on state-funded positions. Moreover, for the academic year 2023-2024, Russia increased the number of available slots for applicants from Central Asia by 600 places.

At the same time, decisions of Central Asian states to revitalize state languages are often perceived by Russian politicians and pro-state media as discrimination against the Russian language (1, 2, 3).

As an illustration, in 2020, Moskovsky Komsomolets claimed that Uzbekistan’s new law “On the State Language” was “eradicating Russian” and intended to “force out the Russian-speaking population.” Similarly, in 2021, characterized Kazakhstan’s legislation on advertising in the state language and the nation’s transition to the Latin alphabet as part of an ongoing process of “derussification.”

In July 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized Kyrgyzstan’s law “On the State Language,” which mandates civil servants to be proficient in the Kyrgyz language, calling it “not entirely democratic.” Vedomosti, a Russian publication, suggested that the law was enacted “in the wake of nationalism and populism” under the influence of “Western countries.” 

However, the question remains: does the language policy in Central Asian countries truly discriminate against the Russian language, or does it fail to adequately safeguard the interests of the state language?

Language Policy Of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s language policy was influenced by the results of the population census in 2022, where, for the first time, a survey on the proficiency in Kyrgyz and Russian languages was conducted by the National Statistical Committee. The findings revealed that the country’s population can be regarded as at least bilingual, with approximately 82% reporting proficiency in Russian and 91.8% in Kyrgyz.

The current language policy in Kyrgyzstan focuses on raising the status of the state language and enhancing its quality. At the same time, the program underscores the importance of improving the teaching of Russian and foreign languages, along with providing guarantees for the preservation and development of the native languages of ethnic groups in the region.

Throughout the years of independence, the republic has adopted a number of laws, regulations, and decrees to promote language development and broaden the domains of its usage. However, the successful implementation of these measures has been somewhat limited.

Evaluating the current situation, the authorities acknowledged that the  widespread use of the state language in crucial domains like education, public administration, the judicial system, economics, trade, healthcare, culture, and digitalization has not been fully realized. 

Consequently, in July 2023, the head of state, Sadyr Zhaparov, endorsed the Law “On the State Language,” designed to address this matter. Henceforth, official documents must be exclusively crafted in the state language, and officials are mandated to be proficient in the Kyrgyz language.

The slow revitalization of the Kyrgyz language is attributed by Dr. Ishenbek Sultanaliyev to people’s habits and indifference. “The endorsed law is insufficient; citizen support is essential, and the executive power must actively engage in this direction.”

The Russian language has held the status of an official language in Kyrgyzstan since 2000, as per the country’s Constitution. In a region housing representatives of over 100 ethnic groups, Russian serves as a language for interethnic communication. However, societal attitudes toward it, as in other Central Asian nations, vary.

There have been instances (1, 2, 3) in the Kyrgyzstan Parliament where deputies criticized officials using Russian during meetings. Occasionally, suggestions arise to remove the official status of the Russian language, but these are typically isolated statements from individual politicians or public figures.

President Sadyr Zhaparov, on the other hand, has consistently defended the Russian language in Kyrgyzstan, emphasizing the need to avoid political manipulation on this language issue (1, 2, 3). Moreover, the program outlining language policy development for 2021-2025 emphasizes the preservation and enhancement of the Russian language, including efforts to “enhance the quality of teaching official Russian and foreign languages.”

At the same time, according to the latest data, there are over 1 million labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan in Russia. While this fact is frequently cited by experts as a rationale for the importance and necessity of the Russian language, it is not the sole reason for acquiring proficiency in Russian. Parents, for instance, prioritize Russian-language education due to its broader access to information and educational resources. Graduates from Russian-language schools perform 22 points higher on the All-Republican Test compared to students from schools where Kyrgyz is the language of instruction.

According to the National Statistical Committee of Kyrgyzstan, today there are 1,369 secondary educational institutions in the country with Kyrgyz as the primary language of instruction and 264 with Russian. Additionally, education is delivered in both Kyrgyz and Russian languages in 520 institutions. Notably, over the past 12 years, the count of Kyrgyz-language schools has decreased by 41, while the number of Russian-language schools has increased by 63. In June 2023, the Zhogorku Kenesh deputies approved an agreement with Russia for the construction of nine additional Russian schools in Kyrgyzstan.

Language Policy Of Uzbekistan

Language policy of Uzbekistan, as outlined in the law “On Language”, designates Uzbek as the state language and explicitly prohibits discrimination, including any dismissive or hostile behavior towards the state or other languages.

According to Rossotrudnichestvo, as of 2023, approximately 50% of the population in Uzbekistan speaks Russian, with 2.7% considering it their native language.

In 2020, the Government of the Republic approved a 10-year Concept for the Development of the Uzbek Language and Enhancement of Language Policy. In addition to the stated goal of fully integrating the state language into all aspects of public life and digitalization, a specific section outlines the “further improvement of the Uzbek language based on the Latin script” and the “complete transition to a new script.”

The transition to the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan has been one of the key aspects of the language agenda since the country gained independence. The transition to Latin script commenced in 1993, originally aiming for completion by 2000. However, the deadlines were consistently extended, first to 2005, then to 2010, and most recently to 2023.

While the overall program faced delays, specific aspects were successfully implemented. School textbooks and children’s literature were translated into the Latin alphabet, enabling young people to become adept at reading and writing in this script. However, those who were not familiar with the Cyrillic version of Uzbek found themselves somewhat isolated from the world’s literary heritage. Limited adaptation of fiction, including classical works by Uzbek authors, into the Latin alphabet posed a challenge.

Due to the fact that the older generation in general has difficulty adapting to the Latin alphabet, government agencies and media continue to provide information in both Cyrillic and Latin scripts. In some cases, information is duplicated in Russian.

Language Decolonization: Prospective Scenarios for Central Asia
Photos of signs with mistakes remains as evidence of the difficulties of switching to the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan (Photo: Fergana News Agency)

Despite not being an official language, Russian remains predominant in major cities and retains its significance in business and academia, as noted by Lola Islamova, the editor-in-chief of the information resource However, there has been a noticeable decline in the use of the Russian language within government organizations, particularly in office-related tasks.

This doesn’t imply neglect of the Russian language. In 2018, the allocation of spaces for Russian groups in pedagogical universities in Uzbekistan was increased to 30%. Furthermore, in 2020, the Russian Ministry of Education, along with the charitable foundation “Art, Science, Sports” led by Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov, allocated 75 million rubles for the “Class!” project. The project’s objective is to promote the Russian language in Uzbekistan, involving the deployment of 150 Russian language teachers and the publication of hundreds of thousands of Russian language textbooks. The initiative is set to continue until 2030.

In 2022, the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic adopted a resolution “On additional measures to enhance foreign language education,” which grants bonuses to Russian language teachers holding a C1 language proficiency certificate.

As of today, according to the Ministry of Preschool and School Education in Uzbekistan, out of 10,130 secondary schools, 899 schools (8.8%) conduct instruction in Russian.

Studying in Russian universities remains the most accessible option for the majority of Uzbek citizens compared to institutions in other countries. This is facilitated by an agreement between Uzbekistan and Russia, allowing graduates of Uzbek schools to apply to Russian universities through a simplified system. Currently, over 63,000 students from Uzbekistan are studying in Russia, with approximately 14,000 of them on a budgetary basis.

Furthermore, Russian universities in Uzbekistan enjoy tax incentives, a streamlined registration process, and various other advantages. Currently, there are 15 Russian universities operating in the country. As of 2023, the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation reports that 487,000 individuals from Uzbekistan are enrolled in bachelor’s, specialist, and master’s programs at Russian universities and their foreign branches.

According to Dilarom Ikramova, a Russian language teacher, the continued demand for the Russian language is influenced by a large amount of literature — artistic, scientific, and technical — that has yet to be translated into Uzbek. She also notes the prevailing stereotype that education in Russian is perceived as of higher quality than in Uzbek.

Thirdly, Ikramova says, the significance of the Russian language is dictated by the substantial presence of labor migrants from Uzbekistan in Russia. Their number has increased several times over the past seven years. In 2022, a total of $14.5 billion was sent from Russia to Uzbekistan through the money transfer system, marking a 2.6-fold increase compared to 2021.

Political scientist Ikrom Abdullah believes that the predominance of the Russian language is “caused by the necessities of life, not the intentions of politicians.” According to the expert, language serves not only as a mode of communication for the general populace but also as a tool for resolving personal issues. Consequently, any attempts to force the population to learn or forget a language are always fraught with negative consequences. In this context, an excessive politicization of the language matter might cause more harm than benefit.

Three thousand companies with Russian capital are engaged in Uzbekistan, with an additional 700 companies established in 2022 alone.

Language Policy In Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan distinguishes itself significantly from the general image of Central Asia as a region closely tied to Moscow and exercising caution in its language policy. It has made notable progress compared to other Central Asian nations in promoting the national language. According to the WorldAtlas portal, approximately 72% of the population in Turkmenistan speaks Turkmen. And, according to rough estimates, as of 2020, only around 18% of Turkmenistan’s residents spoke Russian to varying degrees. Several factors have contributed to this situation.

The policy of strict Turkmenization pursued by President Saparmurat Niyazov, coupled with a challenging socio-economic situation, resulted in a substantial departure of ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking community, including highly skilled professionals across various sectors. This, in turn, had adverse effects on the quality of education, healthcare, and other areas. Over the period from 1989 to 2016, the Russian population in the country decreased by more than threefold, decreasing from 339,900 to 101,900 people.

A relatively radical language policy reinforced this significant emigration of Russian speakers

The accelerated transition of the Turkmen language from Cyrillic to Latin script was a key element of the language reform of the 1990s, which was accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign in print media and television starting in 1992. The government aimed to foster the cultural rejuvenation of Turkmenistan, accelerate the country’s integration into the global community, and enhance citizens’ access to information technology. The state program outlined a complete transition in educational institutions for the academic year 1995-1996, among other initiatives.

Language Decolonization: Prospective Scenarios for Central Asia
A billboard with a writing in latin in Turkmenistan (Photo: Azatlyk Radiosy)

In general, experts assert that the reform of the Turkmen language successfully addressed citizens’ requirements in shaping a new national-state identity. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the associated costs of this reform, impacting not only the Russian-speaking population. The accelerated transition to the Latin script, coupled with educational reforms, intensified the generation gap, as the older generation of ethnic Turkmens encountered challenges in adapting to the new script. Government employees also faced the same difficulties, resulting in the practical abandonment of previously established deadlines for the translation of office work into the Turkmenian language.

Furthermore, the process of Latinization effectively cut off a significant portion of the cultural and historical heritage of the Turkmen population. Most materials written in Cyrillic were not republished in Latin, except for works by individual authors personally endorsed by the president. To formalize the transition, in 1999, the Halk Maslakhaty of Turkmenistan adopted a resolution for the “eternal approval of the Turkmen language and the Turkmen national alphabet in the activities of government bodies, in all spheres of life of independent Turkmenistan.”

Another integral aspect of Turkmenistan’s (ethnic)linguistic policy in the 1990s was the deliberate Turkmenization of the country’s political and social landscape, involving the removal of the Russian language from various spheres and restrictions on the study and use of their languages by national minorities. This approach also included prohibiting the establishment of national cultural organizations.

Despite the declared policy of trilingual education (Turkmen, Russian, English), the availability of education in Russian was notably limited  through the liquidation of schools where Russian was the primary language of instruction, the discontinuation of Russian-language curricula in higher education institutions, and the limitation of professional retraining courses for Russian language educators.

Strict restrictions were also imposed on the media. The sole Russian-language Turkmen media outlet that endured is the newspaper “Neutral Turkmenistan.” By the early 2000s, printed materials, radio broadcasts, and television programs in Russian ceased to be produced in Turkmenistan, and subscriptions to foreign periodicals in Russian were banned.

Moreover, the position of the Russian language in the country was impacted by competition from Turkish and, to a lesser extent, English. The rise of the Turkish language was attributed to the deepening of bilateral ties between Turkmenistan and Turkey, resulting in increased activities of Turkish companies in Turkmenistan. Additionally, the cultural and linguistic similarities between Turkmens and Turks played a role. The establishment of Turkmen-Turkish lyceums and the International Turkmen-Turkish University in Turkmenistan, along with the popularity of Turkish TV channels and media content, contributed to this linguistic shift.

Acquiring proficiency in the Turkish language also expanded opportunities for Turkmens to pursue quality education in Turkey, leading to prospects for employment in the country. Taking into account loyal migration legislation, Turkey became the primary destination for labor migration among Turkmens.

Under the leadership of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov since 2007, the language policy started to adapt to the new political course, emphasizing the expansion of the country’s trade and economic connections and its increased integration into global economic processes. This shift necessitated a heightened focus on foreign language instruction.

In 2013, Turkmenistan introduced a revised version of the Law on Education, underscoring the significance of foreign language instruction, with a particular emphasis on the official working languages of the UN, including Russian. The curriculum now mandates the study of foreign languages as compulsory subjects in both general and professional educational programs. At the same time, the law establishes that the Turkmen language serves as the main language of instruction and education across educational institutions, irrespective of ownership structure.

Despite this, changes in language policy have not led to a strengthening of the position of the Russian language. at the discretion of government agencies with strict administrative control and is characterized by a lack of public debate and civil society involvement. There are still no public associations representing the interests of national minorities in Turkmenistan.

Language Policy in Kazakhstan

Disclaimer: To delve deeper into how Kazakhstan conducts its language policy and the lessons it can draw from other nations in developing the state language, you can refer to a dedicated article on

According to the 2021 population census in Kazakhstan, 80% of the residents stated that they speak the Kazakh language. Among them, 73.7% claimed fluency in spoken Kazakh, 79.9% in reading, and only 42.9% in writing. The census also revealed that 61.5% used the Kazakh language in their daily lives. Regarding the Russian-speaking population, approximately 25% reported understanding oral Kazakh. In contrast, 79.5% of Kazakhs assessed their proficiency in the Russian language at the same level, with nearly 65% stating fluency in Russian.

It is essential to consider that, similar to the Kyrgyzstan census, these results may not entirely reflect the actual situation.

According to the Constitution and the law “On languages in the Republic of Kazakhstan,” adopted on July 11, 1997, activities across all domains, encompassing legislation, judiciary, commerce, and administration, are mandated to be conducted in the Kazakh language, which holds the status of the state language. The Russian language has been accorded official status and is employed equally with Kazakh in governmental institutions and local governance. However, in practice, it predominantly prevails in various domains, including legal proceedings and educational materials for universities.

In Central Asia, Kazakhstan has the largest Russian diaspora — 2.8 million people, according to the 2021 census.

Since gaining independence, the government has implemented several programs aimed at developing the Kazakh language. One of the most fundamental initiatives is the State Program for the Functioning and Development of Languages. Over the years, three analogous programs were adopted from 1998 to 2019 (1, 2, 3). In 2019, the government developed a program for the implementation of language policy for 2020-2025. However, a new Concept for the development of language policy for 2023-2029 was approved on October 16, 2023, and the previous program for the implementation of language policy became invalid.

One of the key reforms consistently included in various programs is the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin script. Initially proposed by the first President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2012, the complete transition was targeted for completion by 2025. The plan envisioned the adoption of a unified alphabet standard by 2017, with 20% of the population proficient in the new alphabet by 2023. However, the implementation of this initiative has proven challenging, and the definitive standard for the Latin script has not been officially endorsed.

At the same time, experts are concerned that a complete transition to the Latin alphabet might slow down the progress of the Kazakh language if language education and the translation of all literature are not conducted systematically and promptly. Lessons can be drawn from the experiences of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and careful planning is crucial to avoid potential pitfalls.

Another crucial element of state initiatives is the promotion of literature in the state language. The translation of global literature, including scholarly works, into Kazakh is emphasized. Presently, this process still employs the Cyrillic alphabet. However, sociolinguist and KIMEP University professor Zhuldyz Smagulova notes that there is a deficiency of high-quality educational materials in the Kazakh language within higher education institutions.

However, the primary challenge, as highlighted by Smagulova, lies in the failure to cultivate an intellectual, scientific, and creative class capable of generating and disseminating knowledge in the Kazakh language.

According to experts interviewed by, the state’s efforts are ineffective due to the inflexibility of the system, resistance to the adoption of new approaches and methods, and the opportunistic stance of department leaders who use language policy for political gains. They propose new reforms even when previous projects have not been fully implemented. Corruption is also a significant impediment, along with the absence of clear planning and analysis of reforms, possibly resulting in an emphasis on agitation.

The number of speakers of the state language has certainly increased over the years of independence. But the government owes this situation largely to demographic changes and private grassroots initiatives, factors that are still not enough to achieve language proficiency for the entire population.

The article is authored by journalist Mariyam Ospanova, journalist Zulaika Almaz, «Bumaga» journalist Vita Chiknaeva, independent researcher Rustam Mukhamedov and deputy editor-in-chief of Bobur Karimov.

This article was published with the support of “The Exchange”

Фактчек в Казахстане и Центральной Азии. Первый центральноазиатский фактчекинговый ресурс. Открыт в мае 2017 года. Член Международной сети фактчекинговых организаций (IFCN)