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  • Kazakhstan’s Quandary
  • Ian Bremmer and Cory Welt (bio)

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Figure 1.

Map of Kazakhstan provided by the Cartographic Section of the Department of Public Information of the United Nations.

Of all the newly sovereign states left behind by the Soviet Union’s collapse, Kazakhstan is the only one in which the country’s titular nationality (a Turko-Tatar people with an Islamic heritage) is not also a majority of the population. The largest of the five Central Asian republics at just over a million square miles and the second most heavily populated with nearly 17 million residents, Kazakhstan is roughly 44 percent ethnic Kazakh, 42 percent Slavic (overwhelmingly Russian with some Ukrainians and Belarusians), and 14 percent “other” (primarily ethnic Germans—although their numbers are rapidly decreasing—plus Uzbeks and Tatars). Although now boasting its own currency (the tenge) and thus no longer completely dependent on the Russian ruble, Kazakhstan remains bound in many ways to its giant northern neighbor, with whom it shares a 2,500-mile border.

Before he became the country’s first (and so far only) elected president, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the last man to serve as first secretary of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic’s Communist Party apparatus, a post to which Mikhail Gorbachev appointed him in June 1989. As a reform communist, Gorbachev protegé, and leader of a republic with a large Russian population, Nazarbayev never championed the idea of breaking away from Moscow. Rather, he and his counterparts in the other four Central Asian republics found independence thrust upon them when the Soviet Union dissolved in the aftermath of the failed August 1991 coup attempt.

In building for itself a future of sovereignty and democracy, Kazakhstan faces a pair of formidable challenges, for it has little or no tradition of either. Throughout its history, Kazakhstan has always been [End Page 139] ruled by some hierarchy or other, with khans, czars, or communist first secretaries at the top and clan elders, imperial Russian governors, or Soviet apparatchiki farther down. Even the homespun representative or consultative features of precolonial clan culture are only dim memories from a distant past. In such a context, the widespread political participation required for democracy is an utter novelty. Now that independence has come, there can be no “return” to native democratic values, for there is nothing to return to—instead, the institutions and habits vital to a democratic polity must be created from scratch.

That, however, is the lesser of the two challenges. The greater obstacle is Kazakhstan’s lack of any tradition of sovereignty—or, to put it more broadly, its general lack of national cohesion and the nagging tensions that haunt relations between the dominant ethnic-Kazakh and Russian populations. From its unrecorded origins in clan-based nomadism through the past two centuries of Russian and Soviet domination, Kazakhstan has never existed as a consolidated, independent state. Consequently, there is not a strong sense of patriotism or national identity. Add to this a demographic balance wherein ethnic “minorities” make up 56 percent of the population, and the difficulties of nation-building—let alone democratic nation-building—become apparent.

Although the challenge of nation-building is even greater than the challenge of democratization, this does not imply that the two can or should be pursued sequentially. In principle, President Nazarbayev has placed himself squarely on the side of those who favor democratic development for his country. Yet his government has shown itself willing to manipulate elections and abrogate the rights to speak, publish, and associate freely when it thought that doing so served the goal of creating a stable multinational state in which the Kazakh nation is first among equals. Events so far seem to confirm the wisdom of Nazarbayev’s “state-building first” strategy: Kazakhstan has remained largely free of the virulent nationalism that has plagued so many of its neighbors since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, the full political costs of this approach have yet to be seen. Can Kazakhstan succeed in laying the groundwork for democracy tomorrow by neglecting and even violating democracy today?

History Without Identity

Throughout most of their history, the Kazakhs were herders...

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pp. 139-154
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