No unity about Kazakhstani identity

Press release, 1 September 2020

As a multi-ethnic republic, Kazakhstan adopted a dual approach towards national identity in the early 1990s. The relation between its different ethnic and its civic – Kazakhstani – components is investigated in a new ZOiS report. A survey shows that multiple identities exist, but Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs might identify as Kazakhstanis for different reasons, which cast the officially proclaimed unity into doubt.

Due to its history, Kazakhstan is a multi-ethnic state. As a response, the young republic early on promoted a dual approach towards national identity: ethnic Kazakh identity for the Kazakh population and, simultaneously, a civic Kazakhstani identity for all citizens irrespective of ethnicity. This approach, which is strongly associated with the country’s First President, Nursultan Nazarbaev, is hailed by officialdom as a great success, with a unified nation of Kazakhstanis deemed to have been achieved in 2015.

A strong sense of ethnic identity

The results of a ZOiS survey conducted among Almaty’s multi-ethnic population in autumn 2019 show a strong predominance of ethnic self-identification among respondents for the first time; yet, civic Kazakhstani identity also resonates so strongly that it is appropriate to refer to the population’s “multiple identity”.

Different interpretations of “Kazakhstani”

However, empirical observations and interviews suggest that there are multiple interpretations of the term “Kazakhstani” as well, with considerable differences between Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs here: “For the Kazakh majority, the terms ‘Kazakh’ and ‘Kazakhstani’ are largely synonymous; as they see it, there is no (longer a) special role for their non-Kazakh fellow citizens”, suggests the author of the report, Beate Eschment. It is precisely for this reason that non-Kazakhs attach importance to their Kazakhstani identity as a form of protection against assimilation or exclusion.

“First President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s legacy to his successor Kassym-Zhomart Tokaev, is not a united nation of Kazakhstanis but a Kazakh-dominated country in which many small ethnic groups fear for their further existence,” concludes Eschment.

The full length report is available online: Beate Eschment in collaboration with Taissiya Sutormina: “Kazakh and/or Kazakhstani? The national identity of the Republic of Kazakhstan and its citizens”, ZOiS Report 4/2020.