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Issues of national identity and nation-building of Kazakhstan

What does the literature say about the construction and development of national identity in Kazakhstan? A spate of various works on the topic has been published in the last decade. Many scholars provide a nuanced analysis of nation-building projects in the region looking at different factors of nationhood development, including through cinema, literature, monuments, culture, language policies, and other aspects. The main consensus among scholars is that there is no one widely accepted homogeneous concept of national identity. One of the promising areas of research on nation-building in Kazakhstan is discourse analysis in which a number of works focus on texts and discourses on national identity in the country. Marlene Laruelle analyzed nation-building narratives, emphasizing three main themes— Kazakhness, Kazakhization, and transnationalism. The scholar highlighted the blurred boundaries between the Kazakhness and Kazakhzation paradigms.2 The absence of a clear division between the two discourses reflects the contradictory and ambiguous state rhetoric and nation-building policies of the regime. One the one hand, the government seeks to promote civic Kazakhstani identity, but on the other, it supports the ethnocentric nationalizing policies.3 The government is trying to straddle two worlds to appeal simultaneously to the interests of Kazakh nationalist groups as well as to the Russian-speaking population, the large Slavic majority. As evidence suggests, government officials apply an “old wine in a new bottle” approach by replicating Soviet nationality policies in the post-independence period. The crux of the Soviet model was to create “one big family” headed by an older Russian brother, which was enacted by preserving ethnic identities while creating a supranational Soviet identity. In the post-independence period, the roles were switched whereby Kazakhs now represent the “older brother.”4 Thus, the authorities of Kazakhstan have not departed significantly from the Soviet model of nation-building. Other Central Asian states were much quicker and more radical in the implementation of their nation-building projects. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, for instance, the shift from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet was effected in the early 1990s, while Kazakhstan has decided to make this move only in 2017. The status of the Russian language was also profoundly reconsidered in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In all three states, Russian was granted the status of interethnic communication, which is lower than that of the “official language” that exists in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This cautious policy of nation-building in Kazakhstan is stipulated both by internal contextual factors, such as the existence of a large number of ethnic Russians and other minorities, as well as a significant number of Russian-speaking Kazakhs who are not very supportive of the rapid promotion of the Kazakh language. External factors include pressure and control of other states and the “demonstration effect” of the Ukrainian case. Scholars have also paid attention to cultural factors, such as cinema and literature, and their impact on nation formation. Rico Isaacs highlights the existence of competing ethnocentric, civic, religious, and socioeconomic narratives in Kazakhstani cinema. He concludes that this diversity of discourses is due to multiple agents who seek to influence identity formation in Kazakhstan. As a result, our understanding and interpretation of a nation and national identity are “ambiguous, re-invented and negotiated by various actors” including by Kazakhfilm, a statefunded national company.5 Other scholars also focus on literature, cityscapes, and monuments in their analysis nation-formation processes. Diana Kudaibergenova examines the role of literature in nation-building during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods in Kazakhstan,6 while Adrien Fauve focuses on the production of nationalistic material symbols, mainly monuments, in the capital city of Astana, and how these contribute to nation-building in Kazakhstan.7 Some research has also been done at the micro-level with scholars exploring the determinants of national civic and ethnic identities in Kazakhstan.8 Finally, the most contested issue in nation-building examined by scholars is the status and usage of the Kazakh language. William Fierman compared language policies across ex-Soviet republics to show that the decline of the Russian language has been particularly fast in the Baltic states and the Caucasus, more so than in Central Asia. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are two states in which the usage of the Russian language has not significantly shrunk. According to Fierman, the poorer countries of the Central Asian region could not afford pursuing policies “that would raise the status of the titular languages,”9 and so the Russian language continues to play an important role in higher education and mass media. Bhavna Dave also touches on the issue of language and ethnicity. She argues that the language issue was depoliticized by the Russianspeaking Kazakh elites, showing the discrepancy between the real situation and the declarative rhetoric of the state on language policy.10 The latter is related to the expansion of Kazakh language in public sphere and governmental agencies.

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