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Arguments Over Nationhood in Kazakstan

Compromise sought between American-style melting pot and monoethnic Kazak state. By Daulet Kanagatuly in Almaty
By Daulet Kanagatuly

The ongoing battle over a national vision for Kazakstan has highlighted the divide between those who want ethnic Kazaks to be the pre-eminent nation and others – including the government – who back an inclusive state in which all communities are equal.

The issue goes to the heart of how Kazakstan sees itself. In the years since the creation of an independent republic in 1991, President Nursultan Nazarbaev has sought to build a state with its own identity, where Kazak identity and language is promoted without trying to undermine and alienate other groups, most notably the large Slavic community.

The Doctrine of National Unity was unveiled last October by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who said the country had developed to a point where it was time for people’s identity to be based solely on their citizenship of Kazakstan.

Passports in Kazakstan, as in other states of the former Soviet Union, continue to validate two different levels of identity. They show citizenship of the Republic of Kazakstan, but also contain an entry called “nationality” which gives the individual’s ethnic background as Kazak, Russian or any one of more than 100 groups.

Nazarbaev’s proposal would bring his country into line with standard practice in much of the world, and also fits with his own policy of building an all-embracing state.

He presented the doctrine at a meeting of the Assembly of Peoples, an advisory body that brings together representatives of Kazakstan’s many ethnic groups. The Assembly approved it and published it as its own proposal, but given Nazarbaev’s sponsorship of the document, it can be seen as the official view.

In his speech to the Assembly, Nazarbaev cited the case of the United States and Brazil as countries which had managed to incorporate people from many backgrounds within a common identity.

“We must go down this path,” he said. “But it will take time, We mustn’t rush.”

However, there has been a backlash from Kazak nationalists who want their “titular nation” to enjoy special recognition.

The campaign has been led by the “national patriots”, a loose grouping of nationalist groups and parties whose leading light is Mukhtar Shakhanov, a well-known poet and promoter of the Kazak language.

In a statement in November, Shakhanov criticised the official vision of a nation forged, like the United States, out of a melting-pot of ethnicities, which he said was not applicable to Kazakstan and showed a lack of respect for its unique history.

In particular, he focused on the Kazak language, which he argued was losing out against Russian, and these days English as well.

In his October speech, the president had specifically emphasised the importance of promoting the use of Kazak, a project which he said in no way implied discrimination or a diminution of the role of Russian.

Slavs and other groups in Kazakstan, and some urban Kazaks as well, speak Russian as their mother tongue, and it is in common use as a lingua franca.

In January, the national patriots and the opposition party Azat came out with their own rival document, entitled Concept for National Policy, which stressed the place of the Kazaks as “the state-forming indigenous nation” and discarded the idea of a Kazakstan identity altogether.

The document argued that Kazaks now accounted for more than two-thirds of the population, and that, “consequently, the Kazak country must be regarded as a mono-ethnic state”.

This is a radical departure from Nazarbaev’s vision of the state. Yet the “Kazak-centric” view appears to enjoy sufficient support for his administration not to have rejected it out of hand. Instead, it has launched an attempt to merge the two apparently polar-opposite documents into one.

To draft this compromise document, a joint commission bringing together key players on either side of the argument is now at work. The commission is reportedly in the final stages of what by all accounts has been a difficult drafting process.

In mid-February, a think-tank called the Institute for Political Solutions produced a set of recommendations intended to help bridge the gap. It argued that by promoting Kazakstan identity, the Doctrine of National Unity overlooked the concerns of ethnic Kazaks.

Analysts interviewed by IWPR welcomed the authorities’ attempt to build consensus through debate, although some felt this became necessary because of a failure to anticipate the public impact the national doctrine would have.

According to Anton Morozov, head of the sociopolitical research department at the Kazakstan Institute for Strategic Studies, which has ties to the president’s office, said the original doctrine was drafted by a small group of individuals who neither consulted the public nor considered the implications.

Nor, he said, did the authorities foresee that the alternative document would trigger such a storm.

“The national patriots are a group that is ever-present among the electorate, and this needs to be taken into account,” he said.

In January 2009, the government showed similar flexibility in the face of pressure from the Kazak nationalist lobby.

New-style biometric passports were already being printed when a number of members of parliament complained that the document did not have an entry for “nationality” as opposed to citizenship. Kazak identity would be downgraded if it was not formally recognised in the document, they argued.

Although the justice ministry had insisted that the ethnicity category, a holdover from Soviet times retained in pre-2009 passports, was redundant in an international document, the government changed its mind and ordered the passports to be changed to provide space for specifying ethnic origin. (See Kazakstan's New Passports to Show Ethnicity, RCA No. 568, 02-Mar-09.)

Among analysts and people interviewed in the street, IWPR found supporters of both viewpoints, some backing the official vision of an all-embracing nationhood, and others insisting that a Kazak nation state would be a good thing and did not imply a chauvinist attitude towards minorities.

Some commentators argue that the whole debate is a storm in a teacup, and that there are far more pressing issues that need to be dealt with.

“It seems to me that the debate surrounding the two doctrines has received attention that it didn’t merit,” said political analyst Eduard Poletaev. “First of all, the doctrine itself is a document that outlines a framework for the development of society, and doesn’t carry legislative or any other kind of force, And second, large swathes of the population aren’t aware of the debate and haven’t participated in it.”

Sociologist Gaziz Nasyrov, who personally favours the authorities’ doctrine, suspects the furore has been stirred up for publicity reasons.

“A small section of society with an interest in politics has had an opportunity to make its voice heard, let off steam and distract attention from more important matters,” he said.

Daulet Kanagatuly is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kazakstan.

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