Celebrating APK’s 20th Anniversary is as Much About the Past as it is About the Future

It would be no surprise if there was some bewilderment from those outside our country at the prominence given to the 20th anniversary of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (APK). After all, it is not our country’s Parliament, it is not directly elected and its role remains largely advisory.

The confusion is not helped by the fact that there are not many similar bodies in other countries. Indeed, it is the very uniqueness of the Assembly and its role which can make its place in our national life difficult to grasp. So how do we explain why 2015 was officially declared the Year of the Assembly and the fanfare that will greet its 20th anniversary meeting in Astana this week?

Any explanation has to examine Kazakhstan’s often troubled past, the legacy this left the newly independent nation and the threat this posed to our stability and ambitions. For the Assembly provides a window into Kazakhstan’s history and brings to life the values which underpin our modern nation.

Our land, from the age of the nomads to the Khanates and the birth of the Kazakh nation, through the Great Silk Road between Asia and Europe and, of course, in more recent times has been a melting pot of peoples and cultures. It has left its mark in a remarkably diverse population of more than 130 ethnic groups and 17 religions.

This history has, of course, not always been a happy one. Many of the ethnic groups in Kazakhstan are here as a result of the forced relocations of the Stalin era. Whole populations were uprooted – often on the flimsiest of excuses – from their lands and forcibly transported to a new home in Kazakhstan. Over 150,000 Koreans, for example, living peacefully in the Far East of Russia were deported in the 1930s to Kazakhstan over unfounded fears that they could be Japanese spies.

Our lands became a dumping ground for many other ethnic groups and people because of suspicion and paranoia. It marked a terrible moment in their cultural history and in many cases threatened their very existence. They were often forced to work in extreme conditions while practice of their culture was supressed.

But it is a testament to their determination and perseverance – and to the openness of the Kazakhs, the native people of this land who in many cases sheltered and helped them – that despite all the obstacles they made a successful new life in their new surroundings. Tolerance and hard work have a long tradition in our country.

The result, however, was that our newly independent nation inherited a rich mosaic of peoples and cultures. The violent experiences of many other countries shows that this diversity can be a source of conflict and division. As the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, when visiting the Assembly in Astana in 2010: “Too many countries in the world have been torn apart by ethnic strife. Too many have seen their development held back by discord and suspicion. Distrust among cultures and faiths is still an obstacle to peace and progress in our globalised world.”

The creation of the Assembly in 1995 was a powerful signal of the determination of our country – and President Nursultan Nazarbayev – to ensure Kazakhstan did not suffer this fate. Its representatives, drawn from all the ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan, are the guardians of Kazakhstan’s rich and harmonious ethnic diversity and ensure it is a strength rather than a weakness.

As part of this role, the Assembly assesses all laws to ensure they meet the rigorous standards set out in the nation’s Constitution to uphold the rights of ethnic groups – rights which were often ignored in the Soviet era – and promote respect and tolerance. But they also positively promote this diversity by operating cultural centres, specialist schools and media across the country.

The Assembly is responsible for running nearly 90 schools providing education in the many languages of our varied population. It supports close to 200 specialised linguistic centres where children and adults can study 30 different languages, and provides funding for newspapers and broadcasts in the native languages of our many citizens.

But the influence of the Assembly goes well beyond this formal role. By giving a voice and representation to the many different cultures that have come to call Kazakhstan home over the last 20 years, it has shown the country’s determination not to fall into the traps that the UN Secretary General so eloquently spelt out.

The new freedom that independence has brought saw some people decide to return to the countries of their ancestors. But the overwhelming majority have decided to remain and continue to build their lives here. They have been joined by hundreds of thousands of those with Kazakh roots who had been living beyond on our borders and returned home.

It is a strong symbol of how, in an era when ethnic and religious tensions have seen nations – including some in our own region – pulled apart and descend into conflict, Kazakhstan is seen to offer people of all backgrounds a chance to be part of a stable and prosperous future. The diversity has been an important part of this nation’s success story. 

It is not only, of course, within our borders that this diversity has been important. It has also been invaluable in shaping the openness, mutual respect and friendship which are the hallmarks of our country’s foreign policy.

We have been able to build on the historic ties of language and culture we have through our ethnic groups to forge modern, friendly relations with the countries of their ancestors. The 100,000 citizens of Kazakhstan of Korean descent, for example, have given us an advantage other countries have not possessed in building strong trade and educational ties with South Korea. Even when people have left to begin new lives elsewhere, they continue to have warm feelings for our country and the connections are strong and beneficial. The same can be said of the ethnic Germans, who are the descendants of those exiled to Kazakhstan from the Volga region in the 1940s and many of whom moved to Germany from Kazakhstan in the 1990s. They are now famously called the living bridge between the two countries, creating a myriad of cultural and business ties.

Over the past two decades, Kazakhstan has become internationally recognised as a positive story of ethnic and religious accord and worked to promote these values internationally through initiatives such as the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. With sectarian conflict and religious intolerance on the rise around the world, the Fifth Congress, which takes place June 10-11 this year, could not come at a more important time.

Indeed, it is the values embodied by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan that have enabled this country to act as a bridge between nations and cultures. It is a role that we have embraced with our chairmanships of organisations including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, among many others.

It is against this background and track record of positive results that we are marking the 20th anniversary of the Assembly. In doing so, we are also celebrating the values which have underpinned this country in its modern history. As the UN Secretary-General said, celebrating and strengthening diversity is the way to build “an inclusive society – stable, modern and successful.”

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