Friday, July 29, 2011

What it Means to be Kazakh


After nearly two months of living in Kazakhstan, it is clear that there is a distinction between the Kazakh nation and the Kazakh state.

Ethnic Kazakhs perceive a distinct Kazakh ethnic nation. The other day, my Russian professor was ill and I had an ethnic-Kazakh substitute. Naturally, I took the opportunity to ask her about Kazakh culture, clans and identity. First, she asserted that there are only 6 million Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. In comparison to clans in other Central Asian states, the Kazakh blood is pure. Kazakhs do not inter-marry with non-Kazakhs to preserve the purity of Kazakh blood. "We must preserve the Kazakh nation," she remarked during our conversation.  Kazakhs are very aware of their identity. At the time of independence in 1991, ethnic Kazakhs were a minority population in the country. Anytime I tell my host mother I'm meeting a local friend, she asks for their name and then comments whether they are Kazakh or not. Consequently, Kazakhs do not inter-marry with non-Kazakhs. All Kazakhs must also memorize seven generations of their family.  In school, if Kazakh students do not know seven generations of their family, their fellow classmates mock them.

The substitute's comments took me by surprise. How can there be only 6 million Kazakhs when the official population of the Republic of Kazakhstan is 16 million? The explanation is that the substitute was referring to a Kazakh ethnic nation, instead of a Kazakh state.

The Republic of Kazakhstan is a modern state with over 120 different ethnic groups representing the ten million non-Kazakhs living within the national borders. Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, Koreans, Uighurs, Dungans, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and more, all inhabit the country. Indeed, Kazakh government officials laud the country's stability and peaceful relations between different ethnic groups. Living in Almaty, a multiethnic city, there is no palpable tension between different groups. Yet, when I visited the bazaar in Turkestan, a city with a significant Uzbek Diaspora, one Kazakh merchant remarked that I should not purchase fruit from one vendor because he is from Turkey. We asked our cab driver, Tahrir, an ethnic Uzbek, about relations in Turkestan and he said that there are some minor issues but relations are generally peaceful.

The differing conceptions between the Kazakh conception of a distinct ethnic identity and the conception of a Kazakh state present a unique policy challenge for the Republic of Kazakhstan government. While the government actively promotes the use of Kazakh language, the relative stability and lack of serious conflict between ethnicities in Kazakhstan is partially attributed to the widespread use of Russian language. Russian is the lingua franca and is predominantly spoken in the public space, while non-Russian dialects are spoken in the private sphere. I remember while visiting Baraholka, Zarina and her babyshka remarked that the use of Russian in the public space facilitates inter-ethnic communication. Kazakh is the language of the Kazakh ethnic nation. Dungans, Jews, Tatars, and Uzbeks generally do not speak Kazakh, nor do they have a desire to learn the language. Kazakhstan's 10 million non-Kazakhs speak Russian.

Already, there are indications that Kazakh language may override Russian as the predominant language. The government wants all major films to be shown in Cinemas in Kazakh language by 2013. Cars 2 is the first major motion picture to be available in Kazakh. Furthermore, when I visited the newly constructed museum in Turkestan that was built to commemorate President Nazarbayev's 70th birthday, all of the Museum's signs were in Kazakh. Not Kazakh and Russian, just Kazakh. My friend, an ethnic Russian born and raised in Karaganda, knows a little bit of Kazakh but was not able to enjoy the museum because none of the signs were in Russian. "This is Kazakhstan, I speak Russian," she declared.

What will be the effect of promoting Kazakh language? Is the promulgation of Kazakh language a form of imposing the Kazakh ethnic identity on non-Kazakhs? I argue that the promotion of Kazakh language is a form of promoting the Kazakh ethnic nation. This is not "bad" or "good," but it is important to recognize that the widespread use of Russian is central to maintaining peace and stability between different ethnic minorities. Russian should continue to be used in the public space. Signs should be available in Russian and Kazakh. I am not arguing that the use of Kazakh language will lead to violence – certainly not. I am arguing that there is a clear conception of a Kazakh ethnic nation and the promotion of Kazakh language further enhances this ethnic-national consciousness. Subsequently, legislators must be cognizant of different identity constructions when crafting national language, economic and social policies. 

The dichotomy between the Kazakh ethnic nation and the state of Kazakhstan spills over into the political sphere. When I was discussing the million dollar question with a Kazakh friend, who will eventually succeed Nazarbayev as President, she argued that the next president must be qualified and a Kazakh. "How about Prime Minister Karim Massimov?" I asked.
"No, he's Uighur. The next Kazakh President must be Kazakh."

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