Civil Society in Kazakhstan: Is It Happening?

Civil society is a popular term in academia and Western media. But sometimes ideas and concepts can be lost in translation. Terms with political slants fall through the cracks of the tongue and can be completely missed or worse, misunderstood. When talking about civil society, it makes sense to identify some solid landmarks that cannot be disputed.

“Civil society,” as a mass noun, is a society considered as a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity. The Oxford Dictionary gives examples of “the corrosive impact of fear on politics and civil society” or, “they make important contributions to civil society”.

As a count noun, it could be “a flourishing civil society indifferent to race, gender, or economic category.” Kazakhstan’s civil society, in the shape that it exists, thrives in every public arena other than politics, and even that is changing. This is by and large due to what has always been President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s official policy: “Economy first, politics second.” While Kazakhstan cannot forever be stuck in its “transition to democracy,” the past twenty years were fast track in establishing a modern, capitalist state, which provides a basis for a civil society.

The largest group that can be classified under the Oxford definition is probably the private sector entrepreneurs. While government programmes, such as the “Business Roadmap 2020,” in fact assist many of these businesspeople, they can be considered as part of a civil society that exists in Kazakhstan. The biggest representative of this group is the Atameken Union. The national economic chamber of Kazakhstan, the “Atameken Union,” is the largest business association of the country, representing the interests of the entrepreneur community as they constantly seek to improve the business climate.

In sports, the republic can be said to have a robust and growing civil society. Children never needed organizations that told them to play, but having a large network that can organize interregional and nationwide tournaments does have its advantages. Football, boxing, wrestling, basketball, and even traditional games like kokpar, have federations and logistical networks that represent a common interest, and as such, a civil society.

The visual arts scene provides many prominent examples of a civil society. Local, independent galleries usually have a very vast network of artists who are in pursuit of their own interests. While the most well-known and sought after events are still happening in Almaty and Astana, artists and art-connoisseurs are springing up everywhere throughout the nation. With the rise of the Internet media, individuals can display their work without capital investments and to a large audience, which forms a community of their own.

The same can be said for the musical realm of the country. Performers of classical, national, and alternative genres of music are touring the country, boosting excitement for fans and creating the hidden gem of all politics: chance encounters. In fact just recently, a serendipitous event in an Almaty nightclub landed a little known vocal artist, Nursi, a million dollar entertainment contract. And even if Nursi’s story is a fairy-tale example, her very existence represents a civil society. If it had not been for built-up scene created by thousands of unsigned singers, event managers, promoters and crowds, it would have never happened.

When it comes to individuals, experience matters. When it comes to a society, that experience is shared, and the best (or worst) is written down in history. The earliest academic studies on the experience of a community were conducted by psychologist Seymon Sarason of Yale University. He defines the term as “the perception of similarity to others, an acknowledged interdependence with others, a willingness to maintain this interdependence by giving to or doing for others what one expects from them, and the feeling that one is part of a larger dependable and stable structure.”

If Kazakhstan does not have a fully matured civil society, it certainly has a sense of community. The most influential authors on this topic, McMillan&Chavis (1986), define sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.” President Nazarbayev certainly holds this faith when he says, “There should be no ‘unnecessary’ or ‘aliens,’ ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ in our society. We cannot leave behind a single citizen of our country. Every Kazakhstan citizen should feel the support of the authorities.”

Preliminary research links the psychological sense of community to practically all desirable traits of a healthy state. Greater participation (Hunter, 1975; Wandersman&Giamartino, 1980); perceived safety (Doolittle&McDonald, 1978); ability to function competently in the community (Glynn, 1981); social bonding (Riger&Lavrakas, 1981); social fabric (strengths of interpersonal relationship) (Ahlbrandt& Cunningham, 1979); greater sense of purpose and perceived control (Bachrach&Zautra, 1985); and greater civic contributions (charitable contributions and civic involvement) (Davidson & Cotter, 1986) are linked to a sense of belonging.

President Nazarbayev does his utmost to ensure that sense of belonging, addressing issues that affect all citizens. When presenting his Strategy Kazakhstan 2050 in December 2012, he spoke of his vision for the future. “I am strongly confident that Kazakhstan citizens of 2050 represent a society of educated, free people speaking in three languages. They are citizens of the world. They travel. They are open to new knowledge. They are industrious. They are patriots or their country.”

While 2050 seems a long way away in the future, the movement towards this vision is happening now bringing Kazakhstan closer to an important stage in its development, that of creating a fully grown and mature civil society.

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