Nation State Building: The Republic of Kazakhstan or the Kazakhs?

12 Mar



From the 19th century, “nation state” became the basic political entity and this meant that a relatively homogeneous people inhabited a sovereign state or at least had a right to claim independent nationhood. In other words, it was argued thata legitimate government could be representative primarily when “nation” and “state” was identical to each other [1]. This idea of nation state originated in the west and spread to the rest of the world. With the collapse of Soviet Union, new nation states were established, and one of them was Kazakhstan. Like other new countries, the Republic of Kazakhstan also went through certain process of nation – building. However, the Kazakh leader had to face many obstacles to form Kazakh nation state primarily due to the Russian dominance in the region.

This paper focuses on the nation-building process of Kazakhstan, and various challenges it has had to face.Ethnic heterogeneity, dominance of Soviet system and continued extensive use of Russian language makes Kazakhstan’s case different and difficult for nation builders. In the following paragraphs, I will briefly mention about general theories of nation-building process by different scholars and subsequently examine the nation building process in Kazakhstan.

So, what is a “nation” and what are the processes of “nation state” building? These are the important questions if we have to understand nation building process in Kazakhstan.According to Max Weber, what makes a nation are empirically observable common qualities such as specific feeling of solidarity for one another [2]. These common qualities may include common identities like culture, religion, history, language or ethnicity.Since Kazakhstan is a secular country, one of the main common qualities among citizens would be language.

In order to make ethnic boundaries, Wimmer explained different types of methods: expansion(expanding boundaries of ethnic groups), contraction(excluding members from other groups), normative inversion (ranking groups as hierarchically superior or inferior)and repositioning(changing the position of ranks, through assimilation etc) [2].These are the different methods that actors may use while defining the boundaries of the different ethnic groups.

However, Wimmer argued that, while defining the boundaries, the actors have to consider requirements of social structures like institutions, power and networks [2]. These are the important points that will help us while analyzing nation building processes of Kazakhstan.

Keeping above points in mind, now I am going to examine Kazakhstan and its nation building process. With its large geographical boundary, Kazakhstan is an oil rich, multi-ethnic, secular country in central Asia.To have better understanding about the country, let me begin from its history. The first Kazakh nation was formed in 15th century, under the rule of Qasim Khanate. Turkic speaking nomadic tribes united and separated from Mongol Empire, and named themselves as “Kazakhs”. Expansion of Russian Empire and continuous attacks by Dzungar (part of Mongol Empire in east) forced Kazakhs to join the Russian Empire in 18th century. Following years, Russia utilised its protection treaties with Kazakh Khanates, and started settling in the region. Kazakhs organised many revolts against Russian administration, but all were oppressed harshly by Russian armies and caused deaths of many Kazakhs. Massive settlings of Russians and Ukrainians (about 3 million until 1900s) in the Kazakh territory destroyed administrative power of Kazakh rulers and cultural structures [3].

By late 1910s, victory of the Bolshevik revolution allowed the Soviets to establish their control over the Kazakh region. During 1930s and 1940s, Stalin’s collectivization program and famine resulted in large number of casualties.Many Kazakh intellectuals, leaders or any one that may pose a threat to the Soviet ideology were killed [3]. The policies of Lenin and Stalin resulted in the Kazakh nation losing its national identity and adopting Russian language and Soviet culture [2]. As a result, until the end of 1980s, Russian was the main language especially in urban areas, percentage of non-Kazakhs were high and most of educated Kazakhs were speaking Russian better than Kazakhs, and they were proud of it [4]. In 1991, when the SU dissolved Kazakhstan was established as nation of Kazakhs.



The nation state building process that has been adopted after independence can be broadly subsumed under two fields: first one is internal policy that is establishing unified Kazakh nation. Here the policy makers concentrated on Kazakh culture and language which they had lost during Soviet period. Second type of policy is mainly concerned with international image of the country. That is establishing reputed, powerful, economically developed and prestigious republic of Kazakhstan.

Although it is the only country for Kazakh nation the country is still not entirely “Kazakh”. Russian is still the dominant language (especially urban areas) and finding a job for those who don’t speak Russian is difficult. It is worth mentioning here that this has happened despite the fact that historically Kazakhs are bound to their culture and ethnic origins. For example, being a Kazakh is only possible “by blood” and each Kazakh has to recite his or her ancestors up to the seventh generation [2]. Therefore, important question that should be asked are: what were the policies of state actors?  And why is Russian still dominant in Kazakhstan?

Like many other new nation states, Kazakhstan’s political elites adopted nationalist political policies while nation building process. The important prerequisite of nation building process is establishing national identity [5]. National identity would compromise of culture, language, religion, ethnic background and common history. In the beginning the policies of rulers were directed to create Kazakh nation excluding other ethnic groups. As Wimmer argued, this policy had socialand structural limitations. Although the nation state was the key institution, implementing nationalist policies and channeling the government’s boundary in “Sovietized” society was difficult. The Government has to consider its network with Russia, because not only the non-Kazakh ethnic groups but even majority of Kazakhs continues feeling close to the Soviet system and to Russia [2].The Government’s strict nation building policyregarding heterogeneity of the society issue softened over time [5].

These constrains of nation building projects become clear when we consider the demographic composition of the country and dominance of Russian language and culture in the country at the time of independence. Unlike other central Asian countries which were mainly dominated by one ethnic group, the Kazakhs constituted less than 45 % of population and remaining were with majority of Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans, Tatars, Uyghurs, and various other ethnicities [2]. When the urban population was concerned the Kazakhs were minority: Kazakhs 27.1% Russians 50.8% Ukrainians 6.2% Germans 5.0% Tatars 2.7% and others 8.1% [3].

Since language is core instrument of communication and building national identity, political leaders emphasized on importance of Kazakh language. To promote Kazakh language, number of Kazakh schools, Kazakh news (TV channels and Newspaper/Journals) were increased. But this was not an easy task as around 90 % of urban populations were literate in Russian [3]. Moreover, lack of Kazakh schools, teachers and textbooks were major handicaps for promoting the language. To increase the number of Kazakh population and to enable cultural domination of Kazakhs, special arrangements were done for Kazakhs living abroad (especially China and Mongolia). These arrangements include providing dual citizenship, helping them to set up their livelihoods and etc..

To further nationalize Kazakhstan, state symbols (national anthem, national flag and national emblem), statues (Lenin’s and some others) and names of some towns and streets were changed. These new changes mainly emphasized Kazakh national heroes, poets, traditions/customs and peace in the country.



As for the state building processes in the international arena are concerned, it differs from internal policies. The government tried to give image of multicultural, economically developed, democratic and peaceful country. How the policies were different? Firstly, the government neither forced the non Kazakhs to melt in the system nor forced them to leave the country. Instead they defined two nations: the Kazakh nation and the Kazakhstani nation [2]. Secondly, the ethnicities of representatives of Kazakhstan do not matter when we consider international competitions. In fact, number of non Kazakh sport players are increasing (6 out of 7 gold winners in last London Olympics were non Kazakhs [7]). This means, to make the country’s name heard and to make people proud of their country in international arena, ethnic background is not important.

To sum, state building process in Kazakhstan has to be studied separately. Unlike other nation states, the country still has considerable amount of non Kazakh citizens. Russian is still commonly used language in offices and in official documents. All the efforts of political elites to  promote Kazakh language and glorify Kazakh heroes and tradition to build national identity have met with limited success because of Russia’s long lasting dominance in the region. Since nation building is never ending process, and country is still young, the situation is changing.

By: Otgonbayar Ajykyei


  1. Roland Axtmann, 2004, “The State of the State: The Model of the Modern State and Its Contemporary Transformation”, International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale de
    Science Politique, Vol.25, No. 3, The Nation-State and Globalization: Changing Roles and Functions. Les Étatsnationset la globalisation: Roles et fonctions en mutation (Jul., 2004), pp. 259-279
  2. Özgecan Kesici, 2011, “The Dilemma in the Nation-Building Process: The Kazakh or Kazakhstani Nation?”Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, Vol 10, No 1, 2011,pp.31-58
  3. No Author, 2009, “Kazakh Cultural Orientation”, Chapter 2: Kazakhstan’s Contemporary Water Problems [pp. 35–36].”
  4. Donnacha Ó Beacháin& Rob Kevlihan, 2011, “State-building, Identity and Nationalism in Kazakhstan: Some Preliminary Thoughts”, Centre for International Studies ▪ Dublin City University ▪ Ireland ▪ cis@dcu.ie
  5. Ipek Doganaksoy, 2008, “The Role of Language in the Formation of Kazakh National Identity”, Accessed on 07.03.2013
  6.  “kz-flag and kz-map”,, Accessed on 09.03.2013
  7. “President with children”,, Accessed on 09.03.2013

7 Responses to “Nation State Building: The Republic of Kazakhstan or the Kazakhs?”

  1. Nurgul March 12, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    Kazakhstan is a young independent country struggling to maintain the respected place among the most highly developed countries in the world. One of the main tools in achieving that goal is respecting its national heritages, including native language. I really like your research work in this area, beacuse kazakh language promotion in Kazakhstan is necessary, especially, nowadays, when the country is trying to achieve an ambitious goal on accession to the 50 most competitive countries of the globe it is crucial to withstand language competition. Great job!

    • Otgonbayar Ajykyei March 16, 2013 at 7:58 am #

      Thank You:)

  2. Tuti Bolat March 12, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    Well done!
    As you write Kazakhistan has been part of the Russia whose language was Russian. Therefore many people still speak it all over the former Soviet Union.
    I heard that “Kazakh” means a free and independent nomad. So they have to live as a Kazakh and speak as a Kazakh…

    • Otgonbayar Ajykyei March 16, 2013 at 8:00 am #

      thank you:)..

  3. Janbolat Khaisanai March 16, 2013 at 3:13 am #

    Wow. Very good reasearch and useful article. I have never understood that whoever does not speak Russian, could not be hired in any position in Kazakh country. Now I am proud of Kazakhstan as a Kazakh (who was born and raised up in Mongolia) that they have started building Kazakh schools and started increasing Kazakh medias to support their own language. This is we call “Proud to be Kazakh”.  I am really happy about that.. But, unfortunately the country still use Russian as a formal language. The leaders, players and the politicians still use Russian. Anyway, i am very proud of u Otgo. I don’t even know when the first Kazakh nation was formed 🙂 But u did a really good job here. Good luck!

    • Otgonbayar Ajykyei March 16, 2013 at 7:56 am #

      Thank u Janbo!
      I feel happy that my article helped u to feel happy and proud:)
      I think, being fully Kazakh needs some time (at least one generation should change).

  4. Edige Petr March 19, 2013 at 1:42 am #

    Otgo i really like your reasearch. A nation may refer to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history. Good Luck

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: