Sunday, June 24, 2018

Like Russia, Kazakhstan Struggling with Ethnic and Non-Ethnic Nationhood

Paul Goble

            Staunton, 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.

            Russia 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 (

            Perhaps 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) one.

            Its 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.

            Isagambetov 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.

            Ethnic 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 post-Soviet states.

            In 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.

            The 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.

            It 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.

            But 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.

            All 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.

            The 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.

            But 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.”

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