Vienna, November 15 – Russian nationalists have long complained that efforts to create a supra-ethnic national identity in the Russian Federation represent a threat to the future of the ethnic Russian nation. Now, one of their number has charged that a parallel effort to create a supra-ethnic national identity in Kazakhstan threatens ethnic Russians there.
This critique of the program laid out by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the end of October deserves attention for three reasons: First, it highlights the fears of some ethnic Russians living outside of the Russian Federation concerning their future as a community and their relations with Moscow.
Second, it provides a useful example of the Russian nationalist critique of efforts to promote a civic identity inside the Russian Federation. And third – and this is by far the most important – this commentary calls attention to the increasing sense among many Russians that they are a nation at risk of assimilation by others rather than one that is doing the assimilation.
In an essay for the Orthodox web portal Stoletie.ru entitled “Will Russians Become Kazakhstanis?” Aleksandr Shustov analyses the speech Nazarbayev delivered October 27th to the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan on the nationality policy he plans for at least the next decade (www.stoletie.ru/rossiya_i_mir/stanut_li_russkije_kazahstancami_2009-11-13.htm).
Nazarbayev said he wants to develop “a civic nation,” in which attachment to the country is more important than ties to an ethnic group, Shustov says, but the Kazakhstan leader’s intention is in fact to elevate the status of Kazakh language and culture and reduce the role of all others to that of “ethnic diasporas.”
In his programmatic address, Nazarbayev said that his proposed “Doctrine of National Unity” provides answers to three “main” questions: “what should be understood under national unity, why it is important to strengthen it [at the present time and in the future], and what is its foundation?”
According to Nazarbayev, national “unity” rests on three foundations: a common history, common values, and “a common future,” the result of which “with the acquisition of Independence, Kazakhstanis jointly made a free choice of their own fate” as a separate and distinct community.
Shustov concedes that ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians do have much in common, especially given the tolerance of the former to the latter. But he insists that “a common history in no way is a guarantee of a common future.” Instead, it may be “just the reverse,” as the fate of various peoples around the world has shown.
(The Russian commentator does not mention it, but Nazarbayev’s promotion of “Kazakhstantsy” as opposed to “Kazakh” identity recalls a similar campaign by republic leaders there during the run-up to the adoption of the Brezhnev Constitution in 1976, an idea the leaders of some other republics accepted but others, along with Moscow, opposed.)
“If a sufficiently large number of ethnic Russians remain in Kazakhstan,” Shustov argues, “it will be possible to form here as in other countries of Central Asia a Russian subculture.” But if the number of Russians declines precipitously either by emigration or assimilation, then such a subculture will not emerge but rather will be swallowed up.
Despite Nazarbayev’s claims to the contrary, Shustov says, Kazakhstan is already moving along that second path. The number of ethnic Russians is declining, especially given their underrepresentation in government bodies, a problem the commentator suggests will be exacerbated in 2010 when the government there shifts to the exclusive use of Kazakh.
That in turn will lead to even more ethnic conflicts in the short term, Shustov argues. There have been at least five in recent times, although “Russians and other European groups” have not been involved in them. But he strongly implies that this could change if Kazakhstan goes ahead with its language plans.
Indeed, Shustov argues, what Nazarbayev describes as a process of creating “a civic nation” in Kazakhstan closely resembles the program of “Kazakhization” long advocated by Kazakh historian and political scientist Azimbay Gali who has written that “the Kazakhization of non-Kazakhs will broaden the social basis of Kazakhstan.”
According to Gali, Shustov says, Kazakhs will first assimilate the closely related Central Asian ethnic groups living among them and then force the others to choose between living in a segregated fashion, actively resistance assimilation primarily through emigration, or “an attempt to assimilate the assimilators.”
Millions of ethnic Russians left Kazakhstan in the 1990s, Shustov points out, but if the language policy Nazarbayev is promoting goes through, many more will join them, threatening the remainder with assimilation or segregation and clearly reducing the influence of Russians and Russia on the future of Kazakhstan.
Although Shustov does not mention it – such a concession would undercut the outcomes he wants – the arguments he makes against Nazarbayev’s nationality policies because of their impact on ethnic Russians are exactly the same as those advanced by non-Russians living within the Russian Federation against Moscow’s Russianization policies.
And in many ways the arguments of the latter may be more important: The number and percentage of non-Russians inside the Russian Federation is increasing whereas the number and percentage of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan is falling, a pattern that makes Shustov’s argument suggestive in a way he certainly did not intend.