Narratives of Nationhood in Kazakhstan

By Dilshat Zhussupova, SHSS student

I explore three key narratives of nationhood in Kazakhstan, identify which of the three poses the greatest potential harm in excluding minority groups, and suggest ways to mitigate its harms. In examining the contradictory and complementary narratives circulating at different levels and spheres, we may note that they are all still in the crucial process of competition with one another in the marketplace of ideas. This speaks to the importance of this research in its consideration of the particular kind of narratives that may serve our justice-oriented ends. Namely, it is ultimately desirable for these narratives to compete in a Madisonian manner as per Smith’s (2003) suggestion, considering that the post-Nazarbayev future of Kazakhstan may likely involve more frequent and direct clashes among opposing camps. In recognizing the constructed nature of the narratives and identifying the problematic elements which constitute such narratives in terms of potential exclusivity towards minority groups such as non-ethnic Kazakhs, we may undertake preemptive measures to secure a more inclusive future for Kazakhstan in a more efficient manner. Given that President Nursultan Nazarbayev, an individual who surely senses the urgency in carrying out such measures in the status quo given the looming sense of his own mortality and the deteriorating state of the country’s economy, is making full use of his unique capabilities in drawing resources toward securing stability in Kazakhstan for the near future surely hints at the political relevance of my argument and its implications. Moreover, the fact that Nazarbayev himself does not wholly control the most potentially harmful narrative, the nationalist narrative, only solidifies the urgency of considering the ways to mitigate the emergence of the most dangerous form of such a narrative in the uncertain, post-Nazarbayev future.

Firstly, we may establish the importance of examining national narratives in general. Meral and Smith (2015) put forward that institutionalized narratives of nationhood have long-term effects which most of us deeply care about on some level (90). Namely, narratives affect the standardized history taught in schools nationwide, our socialization, popular and elite understandings of rightful and desirable community membership, and views held on the policies most likely to advance our shared interests and values (2015, 90). To illustrate, the nature of Israel’s dominant narrative of nationhood is such that it challenges “pluralistic, egalitarian policies toward ethnically distinct immigrants or domestic minorities whenever those policies raise worries that Jews will no longer be sovereign in Israel” and has consequently manifested in Israel’s decision to limit rights of family reunification for those who marry residents of the West Bank or Gaza Strip (2015, 89).

Secondly, we may establish the importance of making judgments on national narratives. Although Smith concedes that institutionalized narratives “shape and limit possibilities for political change,” he is optimistic that they are not wholly determinative in that they “always provide opportunities for reinterpretation and elaboration that… can result in more inclusive and egalitarian national narratives” (2015, 76). Again, Israel’s potential for more inclusive and egalitarian national narratives lies in its Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which elaborates beyond the necessity of Jews having their own state in Israel and may thus serve to strengthen Israeli’s recognition “that what it means to be Jewish has been a continuing, contested historical construction, and that Israelis have some real choice about how to define what is most important to their national identity in the twenty-first century” (2015, 89-90).

We may move on to establish the three kinds of national narratives present in modern-day Kazakhstan. Firstly, the Kazakhness narrative is succinctly put in the statement that “we, the people of Kazakhstan, united by a common historic fate, [are] creating a state on the indigenous Kazakh land” and is readily identifiable in the 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty of the Kazakh SSR, the 1995 Constitution, Nazarbayev’s speeches in 1999, the Kazakhifying of city and street names, invocation of the Kazakh Khanate, and state-sponsored cinema focusing on an ethnocentric narrative of national history (Laruelle 2014, 2-3). Secondly, the Kazakhstanness narrative centers on the notion that the multi-nationality of Kazakhstan, facilitated by the ‘hospitality’ of the country’s native Kazakhs, has “engendered a supra-ethnic civic identity” and is readily identifiable in the framing of Kazakhstan’s Assembly of the People as a “laboratory of the friendship of the peoples” (2014, 7-8). Thirdly, the transnational narrative rests on the notion that interconnectivity and globalization, as exemplified by Kazakhstan-2030, Strategy 2050, the 2010 OSCE presidency, the 2016 UN Security Council non-permanent seat, nuclear diplomacy since 1994, EXPO 2017, and Bolashak, have transformed Kazakhstan and its integration into the international community of modern states. For instance, the reasoning behind Astana and its architecture is that the “traditional dichotomies (north/south, urban/rural) would be overcome by the capital and therefore, by metaphorical extension, by the country as a whole” on its path of progress (2014, 11).

Thirdly, we may make judgements on the desirability of these three narratives according to our own set criteria of maximum inclusivity of groups in Kazakhstan. Kazakhness and Kazakhstanness tend to engage in “a self-celebration of the nation’s identity, regardless of how it is described, that is an ethnic or as a civic nation” due to their self-referencing and inwards-looking nature (2014, 15). This is not an inherently negative feature, but what it offers in terms of its maximum inclusivity potential pales in comparison to transnationalism’s offerings. That is, transnationalism “transcends the mere identity of the nation by offering a content that decenters it from itself… [in that it] is not linked by its own essence to the Kazakh/stani nation” (2014, 15). Our intuition regarding this narrative’s desirability may be supported by what is practiced in reality, considering that Nazarbayev, an individual who has a large stake in the long-term sustainability of Kazakhstan’s state ideology and legacy in the event of his absence, has increasingly opted for a development path “that could be called ‘Nazarbayevism’, following the example of ‘Kemalism’” (2014, 15). Indeed, the very fact that Nazarbayev does not shy away from tying the transnational narrative so closely to his own name and legacy is a clear indicator of the importance placed upon greater reliance on a transnational narrative for Kazakhstan’s more inclusive future.

Similarly, we may project the foreseeable future of these narratives and consequently pass judgement on the desirability of the nature of their projected developments. Kazakhstanness is set to diminish over time given that Slavic minorities make up an increasingly reduced part of the population of Kazakhstan and that they are likely to “see their ethnic rights preserved in a folkloric way in an increasingly Kazakh-centered and Kazakh-speaking state… [provided that] the engine of consensus remains the country’s economic success and its ability to deliver the growth of living standards it promises” (2014, 16). Kazakhstanness is also set to be subsumed in the larger transnationalism narrative given that the Eurasian Union project has an uncertain and contested future, especially since the 2014 Ukrainian crisis which had ultimately undermined any popularity that the Eurasianist ideology may have enjoyed in Kazakhstan (2014, 16). Interestingly, the future of transnationalism in a post-Nazarbayev period is difficult to pin down with any certainty given the inherent challenge of establishing a “‘post-Nazarbayev’ Nazarbayevism” (2014, 16).

Kazakhness’ projected future is also uncertain as it is the only narrative “not totally controlled by the regime and that is also crafted by political forces and social groups whose legitimacy precisely challenges the regime’s” (2014, 17). In the status quo, one of the few ways in which the government actually exercises some control over this narrative is in the official nationality policy of Kazakhstan which “reflects an uneasy compromise… [since] the Republic of Kazakhstan represents the ‘national sovereignty of Kazakhs’, [yet] it also recognizes ‘the sovereignty of the Kazakhstani nation as a unified political community of citizens’” (Surucu 2002, 396). This compromise between Kazakhness and Kazakhstanness is inherently contradictory and likely unsustainable in the absence of Nazarbayev’s political control, thus only emphasizing the importance of identifying and mitigating a potential turn for the worse of the Kazakhness narrative in terms of greater exclusivity against non-ethnic Kazakh groups. Given that we have established the reasonable desirability of the transnational narrative according to the criteria of maximum inclusivity of groups in Kazakhstan and that the Kazakhstanness narrative, whilst not inherently undesirable on its own, is projected to shift towards the preferred transnational narrative anyway, we may more or less set these cases aside for now in order to prioritize our efforts in addressing the potentially problematic elements of the Kazakhness narrative.

Hence, we may identify the elements of the Kazakhness narrative that appear problematic in terms of exclusivity even in the status quo of more or less state-controlled narratives of nationhood and that ought to be preemptively reigned in on. First of all, it is sometimes the case that the most fervent of nationalists see “a natural right to fill the content of this territorial nationalism with Kazakh symbols, historical myths, glories, heroes and cultural artifacts, things that the cosmopolitan urban intellectuals resist to identify with” (2002, 397). Here, what we may condemn is specifically the sense of entitlement and not necessarily the promotion of Kazakh symbols, for instance, in a measured manner. From the perspective that recognizes the constructed nature of national narratives in general, a sense of entitlement cannot reasonably exist for any given group, especially in the case that it brings about actions that alienate a group in society in a systematic manner. In addition, unfair characterizations of the opposing camp often take place, as exemplified by the term ‘Russophile’ which was coined in order to “delegitimize the ‘internationalist’ posture of the opposition… [so that] they are regarded as ‘mankurts’, traitors and subversive forces by Kazakh nationalists” (2002, 397). We may condemn such actions in that they serve no constructive ends, only polarizing already opposing camps from engaging with each other’s perspectives and wishes even when competing in a Madisonian manner. In their struggle for political and cultural hegemony in the status quo, it has been noted that “a sense of belonging to the same public space is starkly absent in the discourses” of the two camps, which does not bode well in the uncertain political future of Kazakhstan (2002, 396). Most damagingly, nationalists have been observed to “carefully monitor the other camp… [to] cultivate their own victimization” (2002, 397). One way in which this occurs is that the internationalism and cultural diversity of the status quo is perceived as a validation of the supposedly increasing Russian linguistic and cultural assimilation according to nationalists, so that ethnic diversity is necessarily a burden “to the stable development and modernization of the new republic” (2002, 397). We may condemn the zero-sum reasoning adopted in the nationalist mind that contributes to the victimization of their group in its attribution of the ‘other’ as necessarily the problem.

Lastly, we may establish one of the main reasons why inclusive narratives are desirable in the first place. That is, there exists the problem of political obligation that remains difficult to address even in hypothetically just states in political theory literature. The recent theories concerning why individuals obey the laws of their state that hold reasonable explanatory power, such as Smith’s (2003) stories of peoplehood, are those that hit closer to the messy nature of reality in which our reasons for political obligation could not stand further from our liberal conceptions of ourselves as rational individuals freely consenting to entering a state that we deem just. Still, if there is one takeaway from the many abstraction exercises of past theories, it is that an entire population’s acceptance of political obligation is less problematic from a liberal theorist’s perspective in the case that as many people as possible are treated justly by that very government. We can thus make use of Smith’s argument concerning the importance of recognizing the constructed nature of our political obligation to our own state and consequently producing a more inclusive story of peoplehood so that we may achieve the desirable end of a state in which as many people as possible are treated justly, perhaps making the reality of political obligations less pessimistically problematic.

In conclusion, I have set a wholly subjective path, guided by the criteria of maximum inclusivity, that leads to my judgments on the present narratives of nationhood in Kazakhstan, of which Kazakhness poses the greatest potential harm to minority groups, and to my suggestions on their preferable future forms, free from potentially harmful features that may tip the scales of a given narrative towards exclusivity.


Laruelle, Marlene (2014). The Three Discursive Paradigms of State Identity in Kazakhstan: Kazakhness, Kazakhstanness, and Transnationalism. Nationalism and Identity Construction in Central Asia. Dimensions, Dynamics, and Directions. London & Lanham. xxiv-173.

Meral, U. and Smith, R. (2015). Narrative Structures and the Politics of Peoplehood. Political Peoplehood: The Roles of Values, Interests, and Identities. Chapter 3: 66-91.

Smith, Rogers (2003). Ethically constitutive stories of norms of allegiance. Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership. Cambridge University Press. 129-174.

Surucu, Cengiz (2002). Modernity, Nationalism, Resistance: Identity Politics in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Central Asian Survey, 21:4. 385-402.


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