The Waiting Game of Kazakhstan’s Nation-Building

by Diana T. Kudaibergenova

DKSince the mid 2000s, amongst political and non-political circles, the question of when Kazakhstan would become a real nation had turned into a fixation point. Numerous state programs and development strategies seemed to raise more questions rather than give answers to the growing demands of Kazakh national-patriots. During this time, unofficial and official media outlets presented programs in the Russian language, initiating debates surrounding ‘concrete’ nation-building projects. The multiplicity of national discourse, symbols and opinions within Kazakhstan had intentionally been facilitated by the regime. For various nationalist and semi civic signifiers, the completed project of the ‘national idea’ became a strategically ambiguous field as well as a waiting game for the elites. The past Soviet tradition of a concrete nationalist policy and definitive nation-building through a state language had a decade later, transformed into a growing demand amongst national patriots and their sympathizers.

An impasse within the country had resulted due to the need to nationalize and build the ‘final’ national identity within a concrete framework. The national ambiguity facilitated by the regime in the late 1990s and 2000s created a socio-lingual divide, dividing Kazakh and Russian speaking parts of the population. The regime had first elucidated its nation-building approach through modernizing nationalism. The development programs of ‘Kazakhstan-2030’ and ‘Kazakhstan-2050’ had been introduced in 1997 and 2012 respectively. Moreover, a full development of the country’s economic and industrial potential had been the main ideological goal alongside inter-ethnic stability; a prerequisite for the country’s future prosperity. In 2009 the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan, a state-led institution whose main aim had been to promote the state’s multicultural policy, had proposed a draft version of the Doctrine of National Unity. This doctrine had proposed the Kazakhstani identity as the only umbrella national identity.

Vague and practically empty declarations of the initial proposal of the doctrine had been met with substantial resistance from the national patriots. These patriots had argued that the declaration had endangered the Kazakh ethnic identity and had in turn failed to provide the state Kazakh language with a higher status. In early 2010, a few months after the doctrine had been proposed, there had been a requirement for the doctrine to be rewritten. The new version of the Doctrine had introduced and emphasized the importance of the Kazakh language and culture within Kazakhstan’s nation-building process. However, this doctrine would soon become obsolete as it could not live up to its partial goals; for instance, it had failed to operate as a ‘uniting doctrine’ and moreover, it could not be used as a tool to control various opinions on nation-building within Kazakhstan.

The Doctrine and other similar documents were supposedly introduced in order to serve as a stepping stone for proponents of the nationalist ideology of Kazakhstan. However, history had taught Kazakh leaders that declarative programs or ideological 5-year plans would fail to live up to their goals. The national-patriots’ opposition to the regime’s waiting game had demanded a firm declaration of Kazakh nationhood and the empowerment of the Kazakh language. This, in turn had facilitated a constant tension which has created a subtle dichotomy; the co-existence of Kazakh and non-Kazakh communities in the midst of doctrinal complexities with relation to nationhood.

In January 2014 President Nazarbayev proposed the long-awaited national idea of  Mangilik El , or ‘Eternal Nation’, which was yet another attempt to smooth these tensions. The Mangilik El had consisted of values, such as national unity, peace and societal harmony and economic growth; based on economic innovations and industrialization.  Currently, in 2015, Mangilik El has been at the forefront of state celebrations and is the main theme of the numerous official aitys, or traditional Kazakh oral competitions. Moreover, Mangilik El have been the subject of colourful billboards at the Kazakh steppes. But who can predict whether ‘Eternal Nation’ will become the ‘final ideologydemanded by the nationalists and the regime? Perhaps the core of Kazakhstan’s nation-building mistakes have been within the country’s partial inability to foster a post-Soviet mentality.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Diana T. Kudaibergenova is a sociologist working on Nationalism Development in post-Soviet Central Asia, Ukraine and the Baltic States. She is particularly interested in the formation of national identities and their symbols and in the elites that influence these processes. Diana is finishing her PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge.