June 8, 2018

Why Kazakhstan Will Never Become a Russian Colony

Aimar Ventsel
A plaque bearing Nazarbayev’s quote located on the wall of a mausoleum in the pilgrimage centre of Turkestan in southern Kazakhstan: “Islam is the foundation of Kazakh identity!”.
A plaque bearing Nazarbayev’s quote located on the wall of a mausoleum in the pilgrimage centre of Turkestan in southern Kazakhstan: “Islam is the foundation of Kazakh identity!”.

The Kazakhs identify themselves, rather, with the Islamic world

Kazakhstan is a country the Russian media can never forget. Recently, the main subject related to Kazakhstan in Russia was the proposed transition of the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. This step was unambiguously interpreted as hostile, “creating a wedge between the mutual friendship between the Russians and Kazakhs”. The question “Is Kazakhstan our friend?” was raised in talk shows. It was recalled that not only has Kazakhstan’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, declared the strong friendship between the two countries, but he was also the only foreign leader to attend this year’s Victory Day Parade in Moscow on 9 May.

No wonder, then, that many Western writers who are not much smarter than Russian pseudo-experts love to speak of Kazakhstan as a nation led by Russia. This opinion is also supported by an army of analysts of questionable repute from multiple Russian think-tanks and internet experts. The statements by the latter often contain a contrary narrative: if Kazakhstan is not a friend of Russia, it must be a colony of China.

Kazakhstan can’t be a colony of Russia by definition, of course—it is out of the question. All these views ignore the intricate political manoeuvres of Kazakhstan, which in Astana are called a “multi-vector foreign policy”, meaning the establishment and maintenance of good connections with regional and international centres of power and (very important!) strong economies. The latter include the US, Japan and the European Union, in addition to China and Russia.

“Experts” with different profiles who interpret Nazarbayev’s manoeuvres—which are prone to compromise as a small nation’s attempts to seek shelter from global winds—do not seem to understand the topic. With its three-million-square-kilometre territory, abundant natural resources, roughly 18 million people and an economy almost the same size as the rest of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics and Afghanistan combined, Kazakhstan is much more than just a pawn in the hands of the hypothetical great powers.

Analysts in the fields of economics or political science often tend to forget that Kazakhstan is more than Nursultan Nazarbayev with his clans and the power groups that fight them. It is a multinational country with a very colourful history and traditions, as well as fully fledged regional characteristics. Even if the political elite make decisions almost entirely on their own, all decision-makers must take the above-mentioned circumstances into account. Below, I offer a general overview, as an anthropologist, about the factors that the members of Kazakhstan’s political elite must consider in making decisions and why becoming a direct vassal-dependency of Russia is extremely unlikely.

Identification with the Islamic World for the Majority of the Population

According to its constitution, Kazakhstan is a secular multinational country in which the Kazakhs have the status of a titular nation. The Kazakh language is the official state language, while the constitution states that Russian is the language of so-called interethnic communication and partly acts as a language of administration. Kazakhs form the majority in Kazakhstan, making up 63% of the population. The second-largest ethnic group are Russians, who account for about 23%. Seventy percent of the population identify as Muslim and about a quarter as Christian, who are naturally dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church. Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Turks, Tatars and Chechens are also Muslims. Religion is one of the factors that leads the Kazakh elite to preserve a certain rational political distance from Russia and China.

One has to visit Kazakhstan to understand fully that an oriental and Islamic atmosphere prevails in the country. While Kazakhstan is now a secular state, it hasn’t always been so. After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, Nursultan Nazarbayev tried to create a totally different nation, a country with the ideological foundation of Islam that would have primarily been a state of the Kazakhs. A plaque bearing Nazarbayev’s quote is still on the wall of one of the mausoleums in the pilgrimage centre of Turkestan in southern Kazakhstan as a reminder of this period. In somewhat poetic wording, it says: “Islam is the foundation of Kazakh identity!” To be clear, the first half of the 1990s was a difficult period for Kazakhstan—as for all post-Soviet and socialist countries.

In addition to economic chaos, Kazakhstan had to deal with Russian separatism in the northern part of the country and the massive emigration of a section of the population, mainly educated people of Slavic background. This emigration had a big impact, as a shortage of top executives emerged overnight. I have been told that there was a totally hopeless and doomsday atmosphere in Kazakhstan in the first half of the 1990s, as President Nazarbayev clutched at straws to mobilise his people, and believed Islam was the way to do it. In 1995, Kazakhstan even joined the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), thereby becoming a signatory to the questionable Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. (As a side note, all post-Soviet republics with a Muslim majority, from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan, are members of the OIC, despite the fact that they are constitutionally secular.) At the end of the 1990s, Kazakhstan made a U-turn in its cultural and national policy and was reborn as a secular and officially multi-ethnic society.

Nonetheless, Islam is the factor that unites 70% of the population. Kazakhs and other Muslims in Kazakhstan are religiously tepid; Islam is, rather, a part of their cultural and ethnic identity. Most of the country’s population still considers them to be a part of the Islamic world and Nazarbayev tries to take this into account. For instance, in April 2016 he went on a state visit tour of Central Asia and the Caucasus, concluding in Iran. The whole tour was naturally covered by the Kazakh media.

Let’s also factor in Kazakhstan’s efforts to be part of the solution to the Syria conflict with the meetings arranged in Astana. Through this prism, China and Russia are culturally alien, while Soviet nostalgia and the spread of the Russian language among the country’s Muslim population are not enough to remove that gap. (In fact, speaking Russian is considered rather a negative thing, but more of that later.) China has always been alien to Kazakhstan and the ever-increasing Russian World (Russkiy Mir) propaganda and cult deepen the alienation from Russia even more. The lion’s share of the Kazakh population identify with the Islamic world, feel solidarity towards those nations and do not consider themselves to be part of the European cultural space.

Post-colonial Bitterness

Pro-Kremlin attitudes can be found among all layers of the population and all ethnic groups. One must consider that a large part of the information about the outside world comes to locals through the Russian-speaking media, the equivalents of Perviy Baltiysky Kanal [Russian channel broadcasting to the Baltic states—Ed.]. To my cursory glance, these channels are better managed and integrated into the Kazakh information landscape than Perviy Baltiysky Kanal is in Estonia. Kazakhstan’s own talk shows commissioned from Russian channels are more critical and analytical than expected, and shows with call-ins from the public are very popular. Even so, the pro-Kremlin attitudes and sympathy towards Russia spread by the TV stations are very much felt in Kazakhstan.

Despite this, or because of it, the ambiguous attitude towards Russia among the non-Russian population is rather interesting. When it comes to foreign policy, some might agree with Vladimir Putin’s actions (for example, the antagonism towards NATO and the West is quite well supported), but they still haven’t forgotten Russia’s long-term connection with colonialism. The older generation clearly remembers how, back in Soviet times, the Russians called native people churkas, and Kazakhs’ and other Asians’ access to good education and well-paid jobs in the cities was limited; as one engineer with a Ukrainian background told me, “In Soviet times, Kazakhs lived in reservations, like Red Indians”.

Furthermore, the repression of Sufi religious traditions and ceremonies in the framework of the communist atheist struggle meant that the identities and cultures of Kazakhs, Uyghurs and Uzbeks were suppressed. Non-Russians have not forgotten about these events, and the memories are particularly vivid among the Kazakhs. The narrative about their oppressed status in their own land is cultivated quite intensively in Kazakhstan.

I don’t think there is a publication about the history of Kazakhstan that doesn’t mention that the Kazakhs were a minority in the Soviet era. In addition to the cultivation of the Kazakh identity with the help of the past, the communist repression of Islam and its unwavering preservation underground are not forgotten either. The latter is literally true—underground houses of prayer existed in Central Asian villages during Soviet times.

Since the Sufi tradition allows the performance of religious rituals at home led by the head of the family, the preservation of Sufism is combined with the preservation of Kazakh traditions within the Kazakh identity narrative. There are certain types of intellectual group in Kazakhstan that also blame Russia for linguistic colonisation. Typical of most once-Soviet nations, Kazakhs do not conduct university-level research in their own language in most fields even today, for university education was predominantly in Russian in Soviet times. Creating a native-language science is therefore considered by certain scholars to be a decolonisation project.

The Solidarity of Pan-Turkism

The final subject is closely related to the strong Pan-Turkism sentiment that has started to spread in recent years among the Kazakhs and other Turkic ethnicities of Kazakhstan. It is probably no coincidence that the rise of Pan-Turkism can be traced back to 2014, when the status of Kazakhstan’s northern regions came to the fore after the occupation of Crimea by Russia. At the end of the 1990s, there was a real danger that northern Kazakhstan would secede and join Russia.

Pan-Turkism is a cultural movement with a political undertone, which promotes the unity of nations that have a Turkic background. Turkey, as the largest Turkic country, is the centre of Pan-Turkism and has contributed a lot to spreading the Pan-Turkism ideology over the last 20 years.

For instance, Turkish schools and universities were built in the Turkic territories of the former Soviet Union, e.g. Yakutia and Tatarstan in Russia.

Pan-Turkism in Kazakhstan is also linked to narratives about the Kazakhs’ glorious past. If you step into a bookstore, you can find many books in which Kazakh history is explored through the prism of Pan-Turkism and Pan-Turanism (the Valley of Turan is the mystical cradle of Turkic and other nomadic peoples). Pan-Turkism and glorifying the nomadic past connects the Kazakhs with other nations in the region, on a broader scale even with the Altays, Tuvinians and Yakuts. Another element that connects the narratives of the nomadic Turkic peoples is the inclusion of Genghis Khan in their history. The Kazakhs consider themselves Genghisids—descendants of Genghis Khan’s warriors and state (the same applies to Yakuts).

The closest Turkic nation to the Kazakhs is the Kyrgyz, with whom the Kazakhs have a similar older brother–younger brother argument like the Russians and Ukrainians. It is also the reason the Kazakhs are culturally reorienting towards Turkey and strengthening the cultural and political connections between the Turkic peoples. Pan-Turkism is an interesting phenomenon, and its invisible force should not be underestimated. During the last Turkish-Russian conflict, all institutions and cooperation projects in Russia linked to Turkey were closed down. This policy met with strong (if passive) opposition in Tatarstan, Tyva and Yakutia. Last but not least, the Crimean Tatars also speak a Turkic language.

Russian Policy

The source of the anti-Russian sentiment that is spreading among Kazakhs is Russia itself. Since the Kazakhs and other peoples of Kazakhstan get their information primarily via the Russian language, they are also able to understand what Russian politicians say about Kazakhstan. As the Estonian media amplifies every remark about Estonia made by Russian politicians, it should not come as a surprise that similar information circulates in Kazakhstan’s media. Let’s allow political scientists to interpret what Putin meant when he said to Nazarbayev that Kazakhstan was a country without history. Most Kazakhs took offence, because the same year Kazakhstan prepared to celebrate its 550th anniversary of statehood.

The Kazakh origins of all the ancient khans that ruled the region and their nations are debatable, but in its national narrative Kazakhstan traces its history back to the state founded by Abu-el-Hair in the 15th century. Putin’s statement made the Kazakh political and cultural elite very cautious, because the Russian president said the same about Ukraine. This added fuel to the fire, for Kazakhstan has also been mocked by other Russian politicians, particularly Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Eduard Limonov, both of whom have called for the forcible unification of northern Kazakhstan, or even the whole country, with Russia. While such statements do not elicit strong reactions and not taken seriously in Estonia, the Kazakh media is clearly overreacting, especially given that Zhirinovsky was born in Almaty.

The coverage of the cultural oppression of Russia-based Kazakhs in the country’s media must also be discussed. In recent years, the migration of Kazakhs—particularly educated ones—living in southern Russia has intensified. This was caused by the closure of Kazakh schools and Russian pressure on Kazakh cultural organisations a few years ago. In understanding migration and its background, an important element in the Kazakh culture—a complicated but very large family system—must be considered. Every Kazakh returning home from Russia is linked to a large number of people through teips, kinsfolk, tribes and zhuzs, and their reasons for returning quickly become known to all.

In conclusion, most of Kazakhstan’s population does not see a problem in intensive economic collaboration with Russia. This cooperation has had its setbacks (the catastrophic collapse of the Russian rouble sent all the Central Asian countries into recession), but Kazakhstan has gained a lot through joint corporations. When it comes to political dependence, Kazakh politicians must understand that most of their population would be rather cautious about this, to put it mildly. Kazakhs and the other Muslim peoples of Kazakhstan do not identify with Russian culture and Russia is not part of their collective understanding of “us”. Currently it seems that Kazakhstan’s top politicians have understood this state of affairs. One of Nazarbayev’s first comments to the Kazakh media after joining the Eurasian Economic Union was: “[It] is just an economic organisation and if its membership does not benefit Kazakhstan, the country can secede at any time”.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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