Our world is getting smaller as modern transport and technology allows people, goods, ideas and conversations to flow faster and more easily. But it is also, sadly, becoming more divided. Everywhere we look, we see people moving apart rather than closer together.
These dividing lines, based on nationality, race or religion, are found within societies as well as between countries. No part of the world – not even the most mature and developed societies – escapes the distrust, prejudice, violence and conflict these rifts can fuel.
It is against this background that the role of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, which celebrated its 21st anniversary on April 26, needs to be assessed. The assembly, along with the good sense of the Kazakh people, has helped our country’s more than 100 ethnic groups and the followers of 17 faiths live together in harmony and mutual respect.
Our diverse population is a result of Kazakhstan’s geography and history. Located between Europe and Asia, our position on the old Silk Road meant we have long been a meeting place for peoples and cultures.
But there has also been a tragic element to our history. Many of the ethnic groups in Kazakhstan are the result of the forced relocations of the Stalin era. Whole populations were uprooted – often on the flimsiest of excuses – from their lands to Kazakhstan. Over 150,000 Koreans, for example, living in the Far East of Russia were exiled here in the 1930s over unfounded fears that they could be Japanese spies.
Other ethnic groups, including those of German and Polish extraction living in the Soviet Union, along with hundreds of thousands of individuals were sent to Kazakhstan because of suspicion and paranoia. They were forced to work in the harshest of conditions while the practice of their culture was supressed.
It is a sign of their strength and determination – and to the openness of the Kazakhs – that those who survived were able to build new lives for themselves. The result was that when our nation became independent in 1991, Kazakhstan’s population was made up of citizens of a remarkable number of different backgrounds.
This could be a strength but also a matter of concern. You don’t have to look far from Kazakhstan to see examples where such diversity has proven a source of conflict and division. But there was a determination in Kazakhstan that our country would not suffer the same fate.
The creation in 1995 of the assembly was a powerful signal of this commitment. Drawn from all the ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan and mirrored at a regional and city level, our role is to promote both diversity and social cohesion.
At a national level, the assembly assesses new laws to ensure they fully meet constitutional guarantees on the rights of ethnic groups and do nothing to damage respect and tolerance. But we also have been given the responsibility positively to promote diversity and preserve languages and cultures across the country.
To achieve these important goals, we run cultural centres, language schools and help fund specialist newspapers and broadcasts. We support, for example, nearly 200 centres where children and adults can study 30 different languages. The important part we play in our country and our achievements explains why 2015 was celebrated as the Year of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan.
The new freedoms to travel that independence brought saw some people decide to return to the countries of their ancestors. But the overwhelming majority chose to remain and bring up their families here. It is a strong symbol of how Kazakhstan is seen to offer people of all backgrounds a chance to be part of a stable and prosperous future.