Like Russia, Kazakhstan Struggling with Ethnic and Non-Ethnic Nationhood
June 24 – Over the past several years, many Western writers have focused on the
debate going on in the Russian Federation between those who advocate the
promotion of a non-ethnic Russian identity encapsulated in the term Rossiyanin and those who argue that
ethnic identities, including the Russian one (Russky), must be retained.
is hardly alone in having this debate, and the former Soviet republic where it
has been going on the longest – since the run-up to the adoption of the
Brezhnev Constitute in 1976 – and the most intensively is Kazakhstan, a debate
Talgat Ismagambetov explores in an important new article (caa-network.org/archives/13450).
because ethnic Kazakhs were a minority in their own republic – until the
mid-1980s, they were outnumbered by ethnic Russians – Kazakhstan was among the
very first to talk about the possibility of rethinking the identity of its
residents by shifting from an ethnic (Kazakh)
to territorially defined (Kazakhstanets)
officials and legal specialists took the lead in urging that this very
different definition be included for all republics in the Brezhnev
constitution, but despite some support among Moscow legal specialists, the CPSU
rejected the idea at that time.However,
it never completely disappeared, at least in Kazakhstan.
takes up the story at the end of Soviet times, noting that the inherent
conflict between Kazakh and Kazakhstanets as the definer of the
nation, has been “an unresolved dilemma for more than 25 years,” even though
the Kazakh share of the population has risen from 40 percent at the end of
Soviet times to 70 percent now.
Russians in the country, the Kazakhstan legal specialist says, very much want
to have Kazakhstanets as the definer;
and at least some of them are angry that Moscow under both Boris Yeltsin and
Vladimir Putin have not pressed for this, not only in Kazakhstan but in all the
the first key documents defining Kazakhstan, he continues, the drafters used
the two, guided in their decision by their experience with nationality “combined
in ‘the multi-national soviet people.” But historian and ethnographer Nurbolat
Masanov pointed out early on that this was a mistake as the two terms have very
different meanings and implications.
tension between the two was obscured by the Soviet period concept of “Soviet
socialist nationality,” which included ab initio the notions of both ethnicity
and a specific civic content. Thus, many in Kazakhstan assumed that they could
use the terms almost interchanbably, Isagambetov suggests.
was also complicated by the fact that in Kazakhtan, the modern Kazakh nation
took shape after the creation of a state structure rather than before it as
happened elsewhere, and thus many saw Kazakh as including a variety of civic
values even when these were not specified by the authors involved.
Kazakhstan’s realities meant that the two terms in fact existed in uneasy
relationship with each other. The Kazakh nation could be “the consolidating
nucleus of the multi-national Kazakhstan people,” “the Kazakhs could form a
nation while all the rest were diasporas,” or “the Kazakhs are part of the
Kazakhstan nation,” a view Nursultan Nazarbayev has promoted.
three possibilities are implicit in the use of the terms Kazakh nation and
Kazakhstan people, Isagambetov says; but some stress one while others stress
the others, often accusing those who are inclined to make any departure from the
ethnic Kazakh core of being “mankurts” or “pseudo-Kazakhs.
most controversy about national identifications, he continues, is over language,
both the role of the Kazakh language and the functioning of the Russian
language” in Kazakhstan. But because controversies about language have been so
intense, the government has promoted a non-ethnic definition of nationality to
avoid them, defining nation in technocratic ways.
that has not been entirely successful. Neither most Kazakhs nor most Russians
are satisfied with that notion. Consequently, “the processes of nation construction
in Kazakhstan have not ended or become clearer.” Instead, they constitute “the
chief intrigue at this stage of the modern history of the country.”