Saturday, April 7, 2018

Will Kazakhstan's Becoming a Mono-Ethnic Country Be a Positive Development?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 7 – Within living memory, Kazakhs were outnumbered in their own republic by ethnic Russians; but now that ethnic balance has shifted so far in the other direction that at least some members of the titular nationality can imagine that their country might ultimately become mono-ethnic.

            Central Asia Monitor asked two Kazakh intellectuals,  Aydos Sarym, a political scientist, and Dzhanibek Suleyev, a web publisher, for their views on whether this was a real possibility or only a pipedream and whether it would be a good thing or a bad one for their Central Asian country (

            Sarym, for his part, suggests that “in itself, mono-ethnicity is neither good nor bad;” but it will change Kazakhstan because the republic has never been mono-ethnic. Now, the ethnic Kazakhs are dominant but not so long ago, they were in a minority.  But what is going on is not simply the rise of the Kazakhs and the departure of the Russians.

            In the past, the country was dominated by Kazakhs and Slavs, but now, that pattern is being replaced by “a Kazakh-Turkic or Turkic-Muslim” domination. Indeed, in the relatively near future, Uzbeks will replace the ethnic Russians as the second most numerous ethnic group in the country.

            It is important to remember, Sarym says, that Kazakhstan’s “poly-ethnic quality was not a natural process. If it hadn’t been for the policy of the Russian empire, tsarist and Soviet, which were actively involved in the colonization of the steppe … then the current situation would have turned out to be completely different.”

            “Today,” he continues, “as we see, history is reversing court.  And as soon as the empire ceased to exist and its ideological, political and other constructions collapsed, everything fell apart.” When this process is finally completed, then and only then will it be possible to discuss on the structure and prospects of a poly-ethnic Kazakhstan.

            “The melting pot didn’t work in our country, and we didn’t obtain a new ‘Soviet’ man. Not have we obtained any abstract ‘Kazakhstan’ man. Those who are rushing to bury the factors of ethnicity and the nation state risk being fatally mistaken many times over or even dying from physical exhaustion.”

            Considering where Kazakhstan is now, Sarym concludes, “only a Kazakh political nation with a strong civil society and institutions is possible in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs have been and will be the chief core of this, the axis of our statehood, around which will be able to live and flourish all remaining ethnoses who accept the new realities and the common rules of the game.”

            Suleyev offers a slightly different take. He says that there is support within Kazakhstan for the creation of a mono-ethnic country and that it even has supporters within the government, which for instance has promoted the return of ethnic Kazakhs from abroad and has done little to seek to hold ethnic Russians and other minorities from leaving.

            That has made Kazakhstan more Kazakh, but it has come at a price: the de-industrialization of the country and the increasing archaicization of Kazakh society. In Soviet times, Kazakhs remained largely rural and Russians came as workers. With the shutting down of many industrial plants, the Russians left. Indeed, that was the primary cause.

            But as the Russians left, many Kazakhs came into the cities, not to become workers or with already formed worker attitudes. Instead, they brought their traditional rural values into the city and those values increasingly have defined public opinion in the republic, not always for the better, Suleyev says.

            Indeed, this pattern became the basis for a joke among Kazakhs: “Alma-Ata was the capital of the Kazakhs, the apartment of the ethnic Russians and the restaurant of the Uyghurs.”

            Today, the issue is not whether the Kazakhs can form a working class but rather whether they can form an information-based economy. That has an ethnic dimension because now, in addition to ethnic Russians, many young Kazakhs are going abroad to study and then work. Unless they return, the country’s prospects are anything but rosy.

            And that is the critical question, Suleyev says, because the country has already “passed the point of no return” as far as retaining the non-Kazakh population.  With its departure, Kazakhstan will become mono-ethnic: the real question is what kind of a nation will that be, an archaic one based on its peasant past or a modern IT country?

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