The Importance of National Unity: Citizenship in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a large and multi-faceted country. Not only is it rich in mineral and other natural resources, its human capital is also enviable. High literacy rates, health standards and favourable relations with other countries allow the citizens of the country to live comfortably and make the most of their opportunities. Independence from the Moscow-dominated USSR, economic liberalism and societal identity formation in the last two decades have played a major role in sustaining peace and tranquillity in the Republic of Kazakhstan. Under the leadership of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, there has not been mass violence based on ethnicity, as could have been expected at the dawn of the current government.

30 years, 300 years, and 3,000 years ago there was no such thing as the Republic of Kazakhstan, but a certain nomadic culture did exist throughout the history of the timeless steppe. Now, in the 21st century, the territory that makes the ninth-largest country in the world is held together by a sovereign state with its own military, money and proud citizens.

The concept of a citizen dates back to Greek city-states. Citizenship, however, is different from the nuanced and, in our case, problematic notion of nationality. The concept of nations and nation-states started in the European Middle Ages, when kingdoms of various sizes started to unite or be united under military campaigns. The most telling saying about the formation of nation states belongs to Massimo d’Azeglio, who said, “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.”

In Central Asia, nobody ever made Italians, nor any other “nation.” What we do have in Kazakhstan is the Doctrine of National Unity, the main premise of which is an encompassing national identity that includes all the citizens in the historical Kazakh lands, and the idea of the modernity and competitive ability of our people. “In the 21st century, only an intellectual nation can count on success,” President Nazarbayev recently said. The development of an intellectual nation will require political will as well as research in natural sciences and humanities.

The government desires that all people in Kazakhstan speak three languages: Kazakh, Russian, and English, which will allow for more opportunities for its citizens. This policy was reinforced in September 2012, when President Nazarbayev ordered the government to start teaching all of the three languages at the elementary school level.

In his address to the Kazakh Ministry of Justice, Knut Vollebaek, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, expressed wholehearted support for President Nazarbayev’s idea of trilingualism. “I believe it is an excellent way of bringing communities together and tackling the linguistic legacy of the Soviet era. It is the right strategy to weave the multicultural assets of the country together.”

Since independence in 1991, vast numbers of non-titular peoples have left Kazakhstan in search of stability in another “homeland.” This trend made Kazakhs once again the predominant ethnic group in Kazakhstan. However, statistics show that the exodus of minorities was reversed in late 1990s when, for example, the ethnic Germans who couldn’t adapt in Germany, who were seen as Russians or whatever else, came back to what was more familiar.

Ideally, the Kazakhstan envisioned in the brochures and political speeches consists of all the peoples that have for reasons known only to history come to live in this republic in peace and harmony with each other. Ideally, it doesn’t matter whether one is considered Kazakh, or a Jew, or a Russian, or whatever else, as long as they are law-abiding citizens of Kazakhstan.

Gennady Golovkin, undefeated world champion of boxing, is one interesting example of a new citizen of Kazakhstan. At a recent conference of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, Mr. Golovkin addressed President Nazarbayev: “When people ask about my nationality, I reply: My father is Russian, my mother is Korean, but I am Kazakh.” As a proud citizen of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Gennady chooses to deny the differences between historically settled “ethnicities” and instead dedicates all his victories to his country, and to his people.

In contrast, the worst-case scenario would be the one played out in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. The flight of almost all Russians and Slavic peoples and an uneasy tension between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz people that sparked into violence in the city of Osh in 2010 continues to fuel disruptive power struggles that don’t allow for economic or social development. This is something that Kazakhstan is afraid of and concentrates a lot of effort on eliminating. The Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan does its share in consolidating the nationalities that are part of the same citizenry.

Ambassador of the United States of America Ken Fairfax, who has been posted in Astana since September 2011, draws parallels between his country and Kazakhstan. “What I find particularly positive about the way President Nazarbayev and the government of Kazakhstan is approaching the theme of ‘One country, one people, one destiny’ is that they actively incorporate messages on tolerance and the value of diversity. The message is not that all of Kazakhstan’s citizens must be alike. On the contrary, Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society that draws strength from its diversity. In this way, Kazakhstan is similar to the USA, where people who trace their roots to literally every nation on earth are all proud to be Americans. Not every country that I have worked in over the years has recognised the value of diversity and the importance of tolerance. By embracing its diversity at the same time it is building pride in what it means to be a citizen of Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan is sending a positive message to the people of Kazakhstan and to the world.”

Perhaps this message of peace and harmony can be best reiterated by a quote from Colonel Baurzhan Momyshuly, one of the greatest heroes of the Kazakh people: “To love one’s nation, doesn’t mean to hate another.” Colonel Momyshuly was awarded the highest honours of the Soviet Army and the army of the independent Republic of Kazakhstan. He fought along with Gen. Panfilov and millions of others against an ideology that placed one “race” over another.

What is left for future generations is to promote the understanding of citizenship. Historically we might be different ethnic groups, but right now and in the future, the people of Kazakhstan will be united in their homeland under one flag and coat of arms. The blue sky that spans the entire country and the shanyrak that unites everybody under one roof are symbols of a unified and peaceful people. Only together will the people of Kazakhstan be able to achieve the greatest heights and breakthroughs of the modern age.

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