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Kazakstan's New Passports to Show Ethnicity

Government changes mind and rules that passports can show ethnic origin after all.
By Daulet Kanagatuly
Questions remain as to why the Kazak government gave into demands to provide space for specifying one’s ethnic origin on the country’s new biometric passports, after initially leaving the feature off.

The first passports were already being issued when a government decree of February 13 stated that the documents would be changed to include the option of entering the ethnic group one belongs to, known here as “nationality” as opposed to citizenship.

Justice ministry officials had earlier argued that the category – a feature of the pre-2009 passport, and also the old Soviet document – was not required internationally, and that Kazakstan citizenship was the only thing that counted.

The government’s volte face followed a complaint from members of parliament who argued that specifically Kazak ethnic identity would be downgraded if it was not formally recognised in the national identity document.

The initial protest came from Bekbolat Tileukhan, a member of party from the governing Nur Otan party, who complained to the justice ministry that removing the ethnic origin section was an insult to Kazak identity.

His action prompted an open letter to the authorities from more than 80 politicians and other prominent figures who argued that the passport was part of a plan to forge a “Kazakstan nation” to the detriment of the various peoples who inhabit the country. Two leading opposition figures– the United Social Democrats’ leader Jarkmakhan Tuyakbaev and the Azat party’s Bulat Abilov – added their voices to the protest.

The issue was raised in parliament on January 15, with members calling for ethnic identity to be restored.

As ruler of this post-Soviet state with its substantial community of Russians and other Slavs, President Nursultan Nazarbaev has sought to build a sense of Kazakstan citizenship which all groups can buy into, while also promoting Kazak language and culture. There seems little evidence to support the complaint that a strong Kazakstan identity is intended to efface ethnic background.

In the past, Nazarbaev’s officials have not generally been over-sensitive when members of the public have voiced concerns over a particular policy decision. Why, then, did they move so fast when they received complaints about a decision to issue passports designed to meet international standards?

The authorities themselves have provided no explanation for their change of heart. However, an anonymous source in government told IWPR that a conscious decision had been made that officials should become more responsive to complaints from the public, given the economic difficulties Kazakstan is facing as a result of the international financial crisis.

“At a government meeting at the end of last year, [Prime Minister] Karim Masimov said that in this period of crisis, members of the government and of parliament should pay heed to complaints and petitions from citizens to prevent a rise in protest sentiment,” said the source. “The prime minister stressed that the protest mood should not be allowed to grow to a massive scale right now. So citizens’ complaints and petitions must be dealt with promptly, and people must be informed what measures have been taken to deal with these.”

This softly-softly approach appears to have been applied in a number of other cases. For instance, in January, Prime Minister Masimov instructed the education ministry to delay the introduction of a new system for checking on teachers’ performance, following complaints that the computer-based tests had been brought in too quickly. And in February, the education ministry announced that extra funds would be made available to grant loans to students threatened with expulsion because they had not paid tuition fees.

Some analysts in Kazakstan have criticised the government for its hasty policy reversal on the passport issue. They point out that formally recording ethnic origin can lead to discrimination, as sometimes happened in the Soviet Union, from which Kazakstan inherited the practice.

Dosym Satpaev, director of Risk Assessment Group, argued that the authorities should stand firm in creating an inclusive state. He cited France as an example of a state where citizenship counts above all else.

“One might follow the principle applied in France where citizens of any ethnic origin consider themselves French if they live in France and respect and obey its laws,” he said.

Others suggested the protests reflected only a minority of opinion in the country as a whole.

“I cannot say that there has been a wide-scale protest in society to demand the restoration of the ethnicity section,” said political analyst Eduard Poletaev.

Poletaev argued that the majority of Kazakstan citizens did not oppose the dropping of the “nationality” clause, and said opponents of the move probably failed to understand that it was done for completely pragmatic reasons rather than out of a desire to undermine a sense of ethnic identity.

The reason the government chose to back down, he said, was because it feared a “rise in tensions in society caused by a variety of circumstances”.

On the streets of Almaty, Kazakstan’s former capital and biggest city, opinion was divided about the usefulness of recording ethnicity.

“If we want to create a civilised country, we should start living like one,” said 33-year-old resident Tokhtar Kaldybaev. “For a start, the ethnicity section should be abolished. Passports are designed for travel to other countries, where no one cares about your ethnic origin.”.

A taxi driver who gave his first name as Aleksei voiced concern that the passport now showed ethnic identity but the text was only in Kazak and English versions, whereas Russian, which also has official status in Kazakstan, was ignored. This, he suggested undermined the concept of a truly united Kazakstan,

“They have already divided us into rich and poor, and now our society is to be divided along ethnic lines,” he said.

Kazakstan was required to introduce biometric passports as a condition of membership of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, for which it applied last year. The agency’s requirements do not include a statement of ethnic origin.

The new passports use facial recognition, based on a digital image of the holder stored on a computer chip contained in the document, offering protection against forged papers.

Around 2,700 passports were issued from their introduction on January 5 to the time the government changed the requirements.

Ethnic origin can now be entered on a voluntary basis in a section entitled “Notes”, but that piece of information not be stored on the chip.

By Daulet Kanagatuly is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

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