Kazakhstan – 20 Years After Independence

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 9/25/2011 · 3 comments


Kazakhstan twenty years into its first independent statehood is a difficult animal to categorize, describe, analyze, etc. Why would we want to? My aim in this exercise is to find a general sense of how Kazakhstan has changed since the late 1980s and how it has stayed the same. I am treating the year of Independence (1991) more as a shift than a stopping or breaking point. For that reason, I’ll start this article a little behind independence, in the 1980s of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Brezhnev era, lasting into the early 1980s, had seen Central Asia become even more semi-feudal than before, with leaders cemented at various levels by cronyism replacing any form of Leninist (Stalinist?) meritocracy that may have once existed (if ever). The massive, violent riots of December 1986 when a Russian was named First Party Secretary shocked the leadership and the populace – what is this thing called ethnicity in a Soviet, post-ethnic state? Some suggested that the riots, since named the Zheltoqsan Riots (December in Kazakh), were pushed at the time by ex-Secretary Kunaev, out of power after 27 years in the top position. Kunaev had gained massive authority and had come to symbolize for Moscow everything that was corrupt and broken about the Brezhnev era… but his replacement with a Russian who had never lived in Kazakhstan before was not regarded as a breath of fresh air but as a slap in the face. The Uzbek SSR had a similar personage – Sharof Rashidov – who did not long outlive the Brezhnev era. In 1990, Nazarbayev himself was implicated in criminal activities connected to the riots – though nothing came of the report.

The riots, even if only a product of political maneuvering by elites, had very real and lasting political side-effects for those not in power. Olzhas Suleimenov, poet and activist, used the momentum of these protests to help create and drive the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-proliferation/testing treating. The native language movement grew in power and the Republic of Kazakhstan’s status as the only ‘minority’ ethnicity (ethnic Kazakhs were less than fifty percent of the population) became not only a fact of life but a situation to be confronted and reversed as soon as possible. This was remarkable, as the last Soviet census showed one of the successes of the Soviet nationality experiment (of creating Soviets instead of Russians, Kazakhs, etc.) – the Kazakhs had the largest population outside of the Central Asian Republics while still within the USSR (8% of all Kazakhs in the Soviet Union lived outside of Soviet Central Asia, while the other nationalities had between 1 and 2% outside the region). The willingness of Kazakhs to leave their “homeland” would later be condemned by nationalists, yet it speaks to the success of the Soviet Union in creating its own ‘national identity.’

In 1989, the Soviet Union was in the process of reinvention, restructuring, and rehabilitating itself. Nursultan Nazarbayev had just come to power to lead the Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic. Since Independence, there has been a strong push in Western academia to understand “clan” and “clan politics.” Some have sought to define Nazarbayev’s rise to power as the appropriation of clan linkages. However, this would seem to beg the question – whether or not an independent Kazakhstan is a continuation of a Soviet (i.e. Russian/Communist created) state. Also, there is certainly room to argue that Nazarbayev’s rise was not related to the ill-defined mechanism of clan, but was rather the same kind of cronyism, nepotism, and corruption found in leadership throughout the Soviet Union, including those states without a history of nomadism and clan political structures. (This would be an excellent place to jump into the discussion of what we mean by clan in the first place and whether one can find a history of ‘clan’ politics in the Kazakh population prior to 1900)

Similarly, much has been made of the dominance of descendants of the Middle Horde in Kazakhstan today. While much of this is a simple question of population, there is also the fact that many historical Kazakhs of the other two hordes fled the lands now encompassed by Kazakhstan for points north, east, and south. Similarly, the fact that the geographic region of the Middle Horde included the industrialized sections of Kazakhstan, it is rather difficult (chicken versus the egg) to prove that clan politics caused anything. Regarding Nazarbayev personally, he married a co-worker and married his daughters with legal regard for clan connections. Some point to the supposed noble lineage of Mrs. Nazarbayev, while others have explained how one must marry outside the clan in traditional Kazakh society. In short, I am following the conclusions of Jonathan Murphy who, after an in-depth study of modern Kazakhstan’s clan affiliations, came to understand that there was little that couldn’t be explained in simpler terms, those with which the student of Communist power is already familiar.

1991 – Independence. Independence! Independence?

The coup of August was an unpleasant surprise to the leaders of the Republics, though at least the Kyrgyz Republic’s new ‘democratic’ leader looked on in favor. However, Moscow did not give up the ghost and the separate republics did not start on their respective “Independence Days” as newly minted countries fully in control of their trade, currencies, academies, police forces, etc. For example, throughout 1991 Nazarbayev spoke on many occasions in support of the changes needed in the Soviet Union along similar lines to the rhetoric of Gorbachev – market reforms and economic restructuring. Specifically important was the sovereignty of Kazakhstan with regard to its mineral rights, as Gorbachev had recently kept Kazakhstan in the dark during Moscow’s agreement with Chevron to develop the Tengiz oilfields. When Nazarbayev was popularly elected (albeit amongst the now-familiar cries of election malpractice) on December 1, 1991, it was not to an independent country. But a week later, the USSR was effectively annulled by the new CIS, which the Central Asian States requested to join as founding members. There has been some discussion over the racial slur implied by the Slavic definition of the initial CIS (the first meeting was held by leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine) which Nazarbayev has helped salve by announcing publicly that he was invited to the first meeting but refused, not having had time to read the necessary documents.

The date of the foundation of the CIS, now a relatively weak and meaningless political union, is the true Independence Day of all of the resulting independent states of Central Asia. It was a shock and an unforeseen turn of events to which each country and its leaders reacted differently. It is not by accident that Kazakhstan declared independence on the fifth anniversary of the Zheltoqsan Riots.

While it began its existence like the other Central Asian Republics with abandonment by the parent state that had created  and nourished its infrastructures, intelligentsia, histories, and political ideologies, Kazakhstan undoubtedly had the greatest economic potential, not only in mineral, but also agricultural wealth. However, Western analysts assumed that this would be difficult to capitalize and instead looked to Uzbekistan to lead the way, based on their own assumptions of the potential for ethnic unrest in the region. Kazakhstan was doomed to failure because of its tensions between the minority Kazakhs and the large population of Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Cossacks. This was not idle speculation, considering September of 1991 saw the four hundredth anniversary of Uralsk’s founding, celebrated by saber-rattling Cossack re-enactments.

The 1990s – the new Kazakhstan, the new Kazakhs

The safety net, the welfare state, the infrastructure of state control – all gone or going. The 1990s proved to be a formative era in the creation of independent Kazakhstan, providing a time of troubles, a baptism-by-fire for its early economic heroes and anti-heroes. In those days, fortunes disappeared, securities and retirements became worthless promises, and simple day-to-day necessities disappeared, some yet to return, particularly outside of the urban centers of population. The corruption that had brought down the Soviet Union would help to create a new kind of state – one based on client-patron connections. Again, I would suggest it is problematic to claim that this is somehow unique or distinctive of Kazakhstan. While one can look to the film Racketeer as evidence of the ‘wild West’ of 1990s Kazakhstan, it itself is derivative of similar gangster films based on 1990s Russia. This dark past of the so-called New Kazakhs, again the analog to the New Russians, is integral to understanding their role in society and their perceptions among the less affluent (possibly less cut-throat?) majority percentage of the population.

I would like to speak to the issue of Kazakhstan’s existence as a state, separate from the existence of the Kazakhs as a nation. Whatever we might all think about the ethnic/national identities in Central Asia, there is a political reality in the presence worthy of our attention. There are five states and over a hundred ethnic groups living within the confines of the former Soviet Middle Asia and Kazakhstan. This article is not going to go into history except to say that, like in all other areas of the world with which I am familiar, history has been the manipulative (and manipulated) tool of the political forces in power. In the case of the Soviet Union, there was a drive to show how the nomadic history of the Kazakhs must give way to the centralized power of a settled people. This is still true today, as many sources (Western and indigenous) have suggested that the ex-Soviet Turkic and Muslim populations of Central Asia are not ready for stable, democratic government. The Soviet era saw historians reaching back to feudal models and post-Mongol ages for the source of Kazakh identity, but with independence has come a strong push further into the fog of history for Kazakh-ness, looking to the Saka/Scythians and the riches of the Golden Man (or Golden Woman).

In this way, Kazakhstan is easy to compare with the other modern Central Asian countries. They have all shared in the successful creation of new identities thanks to the Soviet Union and its focus on ‘scientific’ history, education, literacy and ethnography. This leads some citizens of Kazakhstan to speak of the past as being first and foremost connected to the present. As anachronistically as a modern American citizen might say, “We declared independence in 1776,” without defining the pronoun, so might a citizen of Kazakhstan say, “We used to have blonde hair and blue eyes and dress our leaders in gold.”

The 2000s and Beyond

By the time I became intimately familiar with Kazakhstan in 2005, the country had completed much of its own construction of the political and bureaucratic infrastructure that exists today. Building off of the systems and agencies it inherited from the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has emerged as a country deeply changed by independence in only a few aspects of life. Russia to the north and Uzbekistan to the south offer elements for comparison, yet it’s difficult to prove which differences are caused by environmental (non-human, non-artificial) concerns and which by differences in political ideology. Kazakhstan had much less of the “change and reform” rhetoric implemented by Karimov in the 1990s, yet in many ways has had a far more dynamic and successful transition from Soviet models than any of the other Central Asian republics. Again, though, I would hesitate to suggest this is not directly related to Kazakhstan’s own mineral and agricultural wealth in comparison with that of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. The fact that the ethnic tensions of Kazakhstan never caused a deeper rift may be not unrelated to this topic of economic wealth – the most peaceful multi-ethnic states are also the most affluent.

From my own experience in Uzbekistan in 2005, I can speak to personally hearing the city of Shymkent (or Chimkent, in Uzbek language) spoken of in lavish terms, being the city of market and commercial possibilities a short drive north of Uzbekistan’s much larger city and capital of Tashkent. Shymkent remains “wild” for many of Kazakhstan’s citizens, yet its economic successes and rise in power are undeniable, even to those who find it unsavory. Taraz, Taldykorgan, Aktobe, Atyrau – to name but a few – have all grown enormously in wealth and development since the 1980s. At that time, one might have mistaken downtown Navoiy or Angren in the Uzbek SSR with Atyrau or Aktobe. That is to say, those cities created and settled largely during the Soviet regime. Other, older cities of Kazakhstan that survived with large indigenous populations have remained the least changed – Turkestan, the ‘old town’ inside Shymkent, and my own ‘second home’ of Sayram. These are the cities that also have shown the most difficult with regards to seamlessly merging them with the post-independence version of Kazakhstan’s history.

This retrospective is united by a common thread – the power of Nursultan Nazarbayev. Has the President and Father of Kazakhstan created something sustainable? I have no idea, but many opinions. It seems likely that as long as Kazakhstan maintains its economic potential, it will retain its political and other advantages over its neighbors to the south. At the same, its northern and eastern neighbors of power are likely to grow their own investments and interests in the region. I will not be surprised if a future president of Kazakhstan is as fluent in Chinese as he is in Russian and Kazakh. I will be surprised if that person is not male and not Kazakh.

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This post was written by...

– author of 20 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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Narcogen September 25, 2011 at 9:02 pm

That last part… not a terribly bold prediction, is it? Except for the part about speaking fluent Chinese; should that turn out to be true it might prove to be a double-edged sword, although it’s arguable how relevant popular opinion would be about that fact.

Michael Hancock September 25, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Thanks for the comment. I am not in the prediction business. Back in the 90s, all the Prediction Business folks (S. Frederick Starr, et al.) saw a future Uzbekistan dominant in Central Asia. Predicting the future is not a game I play.

Kuda September 26, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Thanks Michael,

Enjoyed reading that.

Keep it up.

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