Casting an anxious eye on events in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is carrying out a fresh drive to promote ethnic harmony. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who prides himself on presiding over an era of ethnic accord in multicultural Kazakhstan, is leading the campaign.
Nazarbayev’s administration is busy framing the country’s diversity as a uniting factor. While Kazakhstan is not seen as being susceptible to the kind of violence that left hundreds dead and displaced hundreds of thousands in southern Kyrgyzstan in June, Nazarbayev appears intent on leaving nothing to chance.
“The principle of ‘unity in diversity’ has been placed at the foundation of state policy in the interethnic sphere,” Nazarbayev told a session of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (APK), a grouping of representatives of Kazakhstan’s 130 ethnic groups used as a vehicle to implement state policy on ethnic issues on October 20.
This slogan – along with “one country-one fate” and “different origin-equal opportunities” – lies at the heart of Astana’s bid to reinforce the concept of interethnic harmony. This follows its adoption of a National Unity Doctrine in April after months of sometimes acrimonious debate about the meaning of national identity among Kazakhstan’s different communities. Minority groups now comprise about 37 percent of the country’s population. Just a couple of decades ago, Kazakhs comprised a minority of then-Soviet Kazakhstan’s overall population.
Nazarbayev made no bones about why promoting national unity was high on his political agenda, pointing to “the sad experience” in Kyrgyzstan. “We all felt how slender is the brink that separates peaceful life from the senseless savagery of interethnic conflicts,” Nazarbayev said. He went on to urge Kazakhstan’s citizens to “safeguard accord and unity, whatever ethnic group they belong to.”
Promoting ethnic harmony is nothing new for Nazarbayev, Bhavna Dave, lecturer in Central Asian politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, pointed out: he has been doing it since independence in order to boost Kazakhstan’s initially shaky statehood.
Kyrgyzstan’s violence, in effect, prompted Nazarbayev to return to his political roots. “This again gives him a chance to reiterate the pledge to maintain ethnic unity and all those things that he has been trumpeting about all these years,” Dave told EurasiaNet.org. Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since the country gained independence amid the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
“It was a pressing issue for him to address as something that has been happening in the region, and Kazakhstan – as the prominent regional actor in Central Asia, and also as Kyrgyzstan’s significant economic partner, and also as the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] chair – is certainly very watchful about what is happening in Kyrgyzstan,” Dave continued.
Despite Kazakhstan’s much touted interethnic harmony, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests tension does exist. Occasionally in recent years there have been incidents in some villages, in which the opposing sides found themselves divided largely along ethnic lines. Such episodes have been partly attributed to socioeconomic tension, and Nazarbayev blames poverty for stoking ethnic turmoil there.
Dave argues that the trouble in Kyrgyzstan has given Astana the opportunity to promote its favored line that being “concerned with improving the economic condition, rather than bickering about politics and democracy,” is the right choice. “Something like that is kind of an indirect message to various forces advocating democracy before socioeconomic improvements,” she said.
Opinion polls suggest many in Kazakhstan believe that the country’s relative economic prosperity precludes a burst of ethnic violence. People believe that the general sense of political stability, along with a tolerant mood among the population, also works against the rise of inter-ethnic friction.
Katharina Buck -- a doctoral candidate at the UK’s University of Bristol, and an expert on national identity in Kazakhstan -- said interviews she has conducted as part of her research support the polling data. But, she added that “residents in the south of the country were considerably less convinced of the benignancy of interethnic relations than those in the north.”
The South Kazakhstan Region is home to a large Uzbek minority that comprises 17 percent of the region’s population (against 3 percent nationally). Speaking to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity, a source from the region’s Uzbek community said Uzbeks were confident that ethnic turmoil of the type seen in Osh would not occur in Kazakhstan: “There are no signs that the Uzbek community is nervous. Uzbeks believe clashes like in Osh will never happen in Kazakhstan, the government will not let it happen and there is no reason for a conflict.”
However, he added, job creation and economic opportunities are vital to prevention: “Uzbeks populate mainly the South Kazakhstan Region, where there is a high density of population and not enough jobs. This might create overall social and economic dissatisfaction among all people,” he said.
“If the living standards of people deteriorate,” he continued, “there will be social dissatisfaction, and we know from the history of mankind that people tend to look for persons who are allegedly responsible for their misfortune and usually start blaming other ethnic groups for their misfortune.”
Language is another contentious issue: the government is grappling with promoting the use of Kazakh in a public sphere dominated by Russian. Meanwhile, non-Kazakh speakers – including many ethnic Russians, who comprise almost a quarter of the population – are anxious to maintain their language rights.
Nazarbayev has identified expanding the use of Kazakh as an objective, but cautions that no one’s rights should be infringed upon. “I dream of the day when I will speak the state language [Kazakh], and everyone will understand me,” he told the APK. “However, I do not do that, because if some of my people who elect me and vote for me do not understand what the president is saying, that is incorrect.”
As part of his vision of touting Kazakhstan as a model of ethnic harmony for other countries, Nazarbayev concluded by setting the goal of using December’s OSCE summit in Astana to “demonstrate our diversity” on the global stage.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.