ZHABAGLY, KAZAKHSTAN // Yevgeny Belousov may have lived in Kazakhstan for 20 years and be married to a Kazakh, but the ethnic Russian admits his skills in the local language leave a lot to be desired. The 56-year-old, born in Ukraine, rarely speaks in anything other than Russian, which remains the dominant language in Kazakhstan more than 15 years after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Even in Zhabagly, which lies in the far south of the country two hours' drive from the city of Shymkent, about as far away from Russia as it is possible to get in Kazakhstan, Mr Belousov said all the local people are fluent in Russian. "Maybe 99 per cent of people in Kazakhstan speak Russian and in many parts of Kazakhstan, the Kazakh people don't speak Kazakh," he said. Mr Belousov and his wife, Sara, watch only Russian satellite television channels and chat with their bright-eyed four-year-old son, Alexander, in Russian.
"In my family we speak Russian and only a little, little Kazakh. And on the internet there is very little in Kazakh - maybe 10 or 20 sites," said Mr Belousov, who holds a Kazakh passport but always describes himself as Russian. In this vast Central Asian nation, the ninth-largest country in the world, the Russian population has dwindled from close to half at independence in 1991 to little more than one-quarter now.
But even so, shop signs are often in Russian only, Russian newspapers and magazines dominate in news-stands and people usually chat in Russian. It is a situation the country's government wants to change. Whereas government documents were once produced in Russian only, now they are written in both languages. Officials have had to take lessons in Kazakh, while in schools the hours spent teaching the language have increased.
"I was speaking Russian and my teacher said, 'Why are you speaking this? Where's your honour?'" said Almas Moldakozha, 18, an ethnic Kazakh student in Almaty, the country's largest city and former capital. His experience reflects how sensitive a subject language is in a country where many were forced to learn Russian during the Soviet era. The efforts to promote Kazakh are part of the Strategy Kazakhstan 2030, devised by the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The aim is for Kazakhstan, helped by its Caspian Sea oil wealth, to turn itself into a developed country where Kazakh, Russian and English are widely spoken by 2030.
The attempts to promote Kazakh come up against practical difficulties, not least in the education system, because far more literature and textbooks are available in Russian. But such is the emphasis on Kazakh that some Russian speakers are now deciding that if they do not learn the language, their career prospects will suffer. Aitzhamal Chukhry, who lives in Almaty, fits this category. Although she is ethnically Kazakh, and her parents and grandparents are Kazakh speakers, she went to a Russian school and university, is married to an ethnic Russian and speaks little Kazakh.
The 41-year-old manager of an education company said she believes "it's about time" she learned the language. Her poor skills, she admits, are "a limitation" when it comes to applying for jobs. She has sensed a growing realisation among many of the country's non-Kazakh-speaking population that they must broaden their language abilities. While Kazakh is a Turkic language and Russian belongs to the East Slavic group of languages, the two use the Cyrillic script, making it slightly easier for people who know one to learn the other.
"Five or six years ago, Russian speakers were really against learning Kazakh because it's a difficult language," she said. "This is why Russians started moving back to Russia. They were afraid of their kids' future. But now, Russians who live here send their children to Kazakh kindergarten. Of 20 kids, three or four will now be Russian. "People accept you have to speak Kazakh. For adults, there are good programmes to learn - if you want to you can find them."
This acceptance is particularly strong among the younger generation, according to Sergey Melnik, a Kazakh-born ethnic Russian from a village in the far north of the country. A resident of the capital, Astana, employed as a cargo agent at the city's international airport, the 20-year-old said speaking Kazakh has become "cool" among teenagers. "They think it's modern for our time, in an independent country, to speak Kazakh," he said. "The Kazakh population, they've got independence and maybe they're proud of it."
This resurgence of pride in the Kazakh language, Mr Melnik admits, can create tensions with ethnic Russians and other non-Kazakhs. He admits there are "problems" in inter-ethnic relationships, perhaps not helped by the fact that the focus on language is one strand of a wider aim to forge a distinct Kazakh identity in the post-Soviet world. Billboards across the country show men and women in a range of traditional costumes to reinforce national identity.
But breathing new life into the Kazakh character after a century of Russian domination could prove even more fraught than reinvigorating the language. The country's nomadic history means few traditions were recorded in literature and there is little architectural heritage, while the younger generation, hooked on the Russian equivalents of MTV, are as internationally minded as their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
Many may now speak Kazakh, but their ties to the country's past appear tenuous. "In the villages, people continued to speak Kazakh and they kept their traditions, but in the cities it was different. And the youth now has an American culture that comes from television and movies. It's something new - more modern. It's not like 200 years ago," Mrs Chukhry said. email@example.com