Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Debate about Civic versus Ethnic Nationhood Intensifies in Kazakhstan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 21 – Kazakhstan is on its way to becoming a mono-ethnic state, with the share of ethnic Kazakhs in the population rising rapidly and that of other nations, including most prominently the ethnic Russians falling from being a plurality of the population as recently as the early 1980s to less than 15 percent now.

            That has sparked an intensified debate as to whether Kazakhstan should seek to assimilate the non-Kazakhs into the Kazakh nation or whether it should pursue civic nationhood that would be at least nominally independent from ethnic nations. Many ethnic nationalists favor the former, but most of the political class back the latter.

            The reasons for this are the same as in the parallel debate in the Russian Federation. The ethnic nationalists say that the only reasonable basis for creating a common identity is to draw all the non-Kazakhs into the Kazakh nation, while the advocates of civic nationalism counter that such an attempt could spark violence or secession (

            Up to now, the latter have the more important supporters in the regime; but the former are gaining ground not only because ethnic Kazakhs are becoming more numerous but because ever more people in Kazakhstan believe that even a Kazakhstanets identity should be increasingly heavily dominated by Kazakh content.

            Again, the debate resembles the one in the Russian Federation over ethnic Russian and non-ethnic Russian; but what makes the Kazakhstan one so intriguing is that Kazakhstan has been debating this issue since the 1970s when republic leaders urged a shift from Kazakh to Kazakhstanets identity given that the Kazakhs then were a minority.

            Now, the Kazakhs are the overwhelming majority of the population; but the debate has continued, serving as a not so distant mirror of what is also taking place among Russians who are still fighting over the relationship between civic and ethnic identities in their country should or even can be.

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