Kazakhstan’s diverse history contributes to a united present

When commentators identify Kazakhstan’s achievements since independence, the focus is often on the economy and growing international status. These are, of course, both areas which deserve to be celebrated.

The record of economic growth is strong and sustained and has seen living standards transformed. On the global stage, Kazakhstan has set its own course and won wide admiration for the emphasis placed on championing peace, nuclear disarmament and dialogue.

But in some ways, the country’s success in forging a stable and harmonious society from a population made up of so many different ethnic and religious backgrounds is even more remarkable. After all, as we continue to see today across the world, such a mix can be a recipe for resentment, division and, sadly, violence.

This exceptional diversity is a product, as we have said before, of both Kazakhstan’s geography but also a challenging history. Positioned at crossroads between Europe and Asia and the Middle East, our land has long attracted people from across the region and beyond to settle here.

But it is also true that, in more recent times, many were moved here against their will. In the darkest days of the Soviet Union, not just individuals and their families but entire populations found themselves uprooted and exiled. Many thousands of people of Korean, German, Polish, and Chechen extraction, for example, were forcibly deported to Kazakhstan.

The result was that on independence our country was home to more than 100 different ethnic groups and people of nearly 20 different faiths. In the modern world, such diversity, of course, should be a strength, but all too often it has proved a curse with people of different backgrounds set against each other.

It is the Kazakh people, as we have said before, who deserve the  most credit for building a society where such divisions have not occurred. Instead Kazakhstan is widely seen as a country where people of all backgrounds are respected and valued.

But along with their good sense and moderation, there have also been formal decisions and structures put in place, which have helped cement this stable and harmonious society. Among the most significant was the creation of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, which is drawn from and represents all the ethnic groups living in the country.

Since it was set up in 1995, the assembly has acted as both a watchdog and sounding board to help promote diversity and social cohesion. It examines new government initiatives to ensure they strengthen rather than weaken inter-ethnic harmony. Where necessary, suggestions are made to ensure they comply with the strong constitutional protections of equal treatment and respect. It looks, too, at how to improve co-operation between state institutions and civil society. Its role is further strengthened by the fact that since 2007 the assembly has acquired a constitutional status and has delegated nine members of the Majilis (lower house) of our Parliament who actively work to promote relevant policies within this key legislative body.

But as well as being a ready source of sound advice for the government, it also actively champions and strengthens diversity across the nation. The assembly, and its regional counterparts, takes the lead in preserving, promoting and, in some cases, reviving the languages and traditions of the country’s different ethnic groups. With its support and encouragement, a wealth of new organisations and centres are now helping keep alive cultures which, in the past, had been actively suppressed.

There is nothing, however, backward-looking about its role. Over the last 23 years, the assembly has built up an impressive depth of knowledge in the area of ethnic and religious harmony. It was this experience and expertise which has seen it become increasingly prominent in helping combat extremism and radicalism from beyond Kazakhstan’s borders.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who will address the assembly’s major annual session this week, has also made clear he sees it as a key partner in the continued modernisation of the country. Ensuring all groups can benefit from the changes being made and opportunities opening up is essential to safeguard and strengthen the unity and stability of our society. This strong sense of national unity and purpose, which we celebrate on May 1, underpins all that Kazakhstan has achieved.