Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Window on Eurasia: ‘Putin Doesn’t Know Kazakh History,’ Olzhas Suleymenov Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, September 23 – Olzhas Suleymenov, Kazakhstan’s most internationally prominent intellectual and author of the controversial Soviet-era study “Az i Ya” about the Mongol conquest, says that unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin “still doesn’t know our [Kazakh] history.”


            Suleymenov’s comments, made last week in response to questions from CAMonitor and repeated today by Centrasia.ru, are his reaction to Putin’s suggestion at Seliger that Kazakhstan acquired statehood only at the beginning of the 1990s thanks to the efforts of Nursultan Nazarbayev (camonitor.com/13468-esche-raz-k-voprosu-o-gosudarstvennosti.html and centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1411462320).


            Putin’s statement and Nazarbayev’s reaction, Suleymenov says, shouldn’t become the occasion for drama or mutual demonization. Instead, all those focusing on it need to recognize that such arguments reflect the fact that people do not carefully define their terms and thus do not really understand what they are fighting about.


            Sedentary peoples associate the state in the first instance with its borders, but “historically nomadic peoples have a somewhat different understanding” of what it is, the Kazakh writer says. “Who of today’s historians could precisely define the borders of the empire of Chingiz-Khan or the Golden Horde?”


            These borders “changed almost every year from the 13th to the 16th centuries.  The Union of Kazakh tribes was one of the main components of these steppe powers [and] after the disintegration of the Golden Horde were formed numerous small nomadic states – the Nogay, the Uzbek, the Kazakh and other khanates.” Only two of them, the Kazan and the Crimean had more or less precise borders.


            With the coming of Russian power to Central Asia in the 19th century, St. Petersburg formed the Steppe kray, including within it the lands of Omsk and Orenburg guberniyas.  Then in 1924, the Soviet government built on these “imperial administrative borders” and formed a “soviet autonomous republic” for the Kazakhs.


            The Kazakh national movement, the Alash Orda played a major role in this, Suleymenov says, and “the first capital of the republic became Orenburg,” from the German, “Orient-burg” or “eastern fortress.”  In 1936, the Stalin constitution elevated Kazakhstan from the status of an autonomous republic to that of a union republic.


            Then, in Khrushchev’s time, these borders were changed again. Crimea was given to Ukraine, and several districts of Southern Kazakhstan were given to Uzbekistan.  The Soviet leader planned to hand over Tselinograd kray of Kazakhstan to the RSFSR, but he was removed from office in 1964 before he could do so.


            After 1991, Kazakhstan reached formal agreements with all its neighbors about its borders and thereby acquired the features of an independent state as many sedentary peoples conceive it. By these accords, Suleymenov says, Kazakhstan completed is “millennium-long era of nomadism.”


            It thus became “a contemporary state of the ‘customary’ type,” and that is what Putin was referring to at Seliger, Suleymenov says, just as it was what Nazarbayev was referring to when he said in 2005, “We now have borders!” Not all countries are that fortunate, and they find themselves in disputes with their neighbors as Ukraine is now with Russia.



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