Nazarbayev, historical revivalism, and national legitimacy in Kazakhstan

By Ellen Leafstedt

On 1 December 2019, Kazakhstan celebrated its first Day of the First President since Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation from the presidency earlier that year. The national holiday has been celebrated since 2012, but this year was particularly significant as Kazakhstan’s first post-Soviet leader had been celebrated not as its president, but as a symbolic figure: the ‘leader of the nation’, Elbasy.

Nazarbayev takes pride in this role, and the celebrations of his leadership last December focused not only on Nazarbayev as the state-builder, but also the nation-builder of contemporary Kazakhstan. As president, Nazarbayev placed great importance on creating new shared histories, myths, and symbols for Kazakhstan, which form an important part of any nation-building project.[1] Having written several books on pre-colonial Kazakh history, the former president’s central place in these nation-building efforts is significant, given that much of Kazakhstan’s official post-1991 history has been centred around his cult of personality. His interest in revitalizing interest and awareness of pre-colonial history results from his publicised concerns over the fact that ‘over 150 years, Kazakhs nearly lost their national traditions, customs, language, religion’ during Russian/Soviet colonial rule, which in his view has diminished Kazakh national identity too far.

Indeed, as a multi-ethnic country with a major fault line running through its middle between the predominantly Kazakh south and the largely Russian north, it is in Kazakhstan’s interests to bring a sense of legitimacy, continuity and national authenticity to the entire country.[2]

Kazakh photo 1
Billboard of Nursultan Nazarbayev
in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Source: Jeffrey Beall

However, maintaining legitimacy is complicated for a country with flawed democratic institutions and political processes governed more by patronalistic self-interest than by the rule of law. Therefore Kazakhstan’s claim to Weberian legal legitimacy, which derives from trust in the rationality and predictability of a political system based in the rule of law, is devalued by the patronal character of the Kazakhstani system. As a result, legitimacy deriving from other sources, such as historical tradition, perhaps take a greater role in justifying the regime’s political authority in Kazakhstan than elsewhere.

For these tasks, the rewriting of history is a useful tool with which to ground hegemonic discourses about what it means to be Kazakhstani (a civic identity) and Kazakh (an ethno-cultural identity) on the state’s preferred terms.[3] The former president has institutionalized his push for greater pride and awareness of this Kazakh nomadic past through cultural policies, such as the ‘Spiritual Revival’ program, which proposes to ‘modernize historical consciousness’ through the production of documentary films, new museums and a park dedicated to ‘The Great Names of the Great Steppe’, as well as an archive digitization project, Archive-2025.

Projects such as these have tended to focus on the period immediately preceding tsarist conquest, the Kazakh khanate period (15th-19th centuries). The Kazakhs’ nomadic chiefdom system, comprised of three ‘hordes’ (in Kazakh, zhuz, meaning hundred) and many clans within each horde, long set them apart from other peoples inhabiting the steppe.[4] As a society featuring strong leadership, spiritualism, collectivism, and defined social roles, the khanate period is often portrayed in contemporary Kazakhstan as a semi-utopian golden age. National holidays, museums, and monuments created in the post-Soviet period have linked contemporary Kazakhstan to this ‘golden age’ in an effort to draw on traditional legitimacy.

Moreover, as a project led by the symbolic head of the state, Kazakhstan’s historical revival serves to legitimize not only the existence of the nation-state, but also the form which the state and the nation take in Kazakhstan. More specifically, Nazarbayev’s historical revivalism legitimises the domination of Nazarbayev’s presidency and personality over the public sphere. Historical Kazakh symbols and Nazarbayev’s own symbols are intentionally placed side by side to highlight the links between the country’s heroic past and glorious present.

Astana's_Arc_de_Triomphe_(6519600963)
Arc de Triomphe in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana). The gold letters on its face read ‘Eternal Nation‘ in Kazakh, after the name of one of the pillars of the Spiritual Revival program. Source: Wikimedia commons

In front of the Nazarbayev Museum, in his former official residence, a statue of the founders of the first Kazakh khanate, Kerey and Zhanibek, stands as a visual reminder of the two pillars of the regime: historical tradition and personal charisma. Thus, these projects have the effect of not only reinforcing the central place of historical Kazakhs in the country’s national symbols, but also of cementing Nazarbayev’s own place in Kazakhstan’s history.

The framing of the Kazakh khanate as a semi-utopian society also serves as a moral framework, against which contemporary Kazakhstan is evaluated. Nazarbayev for instance says: ‘Our heroic ancestors willed us to always hold our banner high, wishing us great victories. Since then, all our successes and achievements have been realized under our sky-blue flag’. The imagery of Kazakh ancestors tacitly approving of Kazakhstan’s current course gives a sense of continuity between past, present, and future, and legitimizes the current political course by linking it to Kazakh tradition as the ‘correct’ course. By corralling Kazakhstan’s historical narrative into a linear story, the state is able to lay claim over concepts of patriotism, belonging, and ultimately, legitimate political expression. In this sense, historical reframing has the ability to strengthen the stability of the regime by justifying its present with the use of the past.

Moreover, references to the moral character of Kazakh ancestors also serve to de-legitimize movements and ideas which run counter to the state’s desired political culture, resulting in a hegemonic, rather than democratic, understanding of patriotism.[5] This is seen in discourses on the Kazakh tradition of religious tolerance; an official book commissioned by the Ministry of Education, The World of Values of Independent Kazakhstan, maintains that as a result of the spiritualism of Kazakhs’ nomadic ancestors, ‘religious tolerance and lack of fanaticism’ characterize contemporary Kazakhstan.[6] While religious tolerance might initially seem uncontroversial, it is significant because Islamist political movements have mobilized against Nazarbayev’s regime in the past; the state has thus made a point of deflating undesirable political ideas by framing them as fanatical, and therefore, as an affront to Kazakhstan’s ‘inherent tolerance’, unpatriotic or un-Kazakh.[7]

In this way, conformism with the state-imposed political culture is a prerequisite to contemporary Kazakhstani patriotism as framed by official historical discourse, which thus acts to reinforce the undemocratic nature of the current political system. In sum, Kazakhstan’s state-led historical revival projects play a role in strengthening the foundations of the authoritarian state by grounding it in nationalist, traditional, and charismatic forms of legitimacy. In turn, this historical project informs Nursultan Nazarbayev’s reputation as founder of the new Kazakhstani nation-state and upholder of Kazakh traditions and legacies, and will likely continue to do so long after his departure from office.

Ellen Leafstedt is a master’s student in Russian and East European Studies at Oxford University, where her research focuses on political institutions and legitimacy of authoritarian states in the former Soviet Union. Find her on Twitter @ellenleafy.

References:

[1] A.D. Smith, ‘State-Making and Nation-Building’ in J. A. Hall (ed.), States and History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1986), pp. 228-263.

[2] S. N. Cummings, ‘Legitimation and Identification in Kazakhstan’, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 12:2 (2006), p. 178.

[3] O. Kesici, ‘The Dilemma in the Nation-Building Process: The Kazakh or Kazakhstani Nation?’, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, 10:1 (2011), p.31.

[4] Some Western and Kazakh historians argue the khanate marked the beginning of Kazakh statehood, as these hordes functioned as political and military unions using customary law; moreover, their nomadic lifestyle arguably distinguished them from neighboring peoples enough to give them a sense of national identity and distinctiveness. Martha Brill Olcott, The Kazakhs (Stanford University Press, 1987), 15.

[5] Brudny and Finkel show how this hegemonic conception of patriotism is a marker of authoritarian political culture in the case of Russia, where the regime commands discursive hegemony over what behaviors are considered patriotic and appropriates patriotism to mean alignment with the regime; Y.M. Brudny and E. Finkel, ‘Why Ukraine Is Not Russia: Hegemonic National Identity and Democracy in Russia and Ukraine’, East European Politics and Societies, 25:4 (2011), p. 830.

[6] A. Nysanbayev, Mir tsennostey nezavisimogo Kazakhstana [The World of Values of Independent Kazakhstan] (Almaty, 2011), p. 6.

[7] S. Akiner, ‘The Politicisation of Islam in Postsoviet Central Asia’, Religion, State & Society, 31:2 (2003), pp.103-119.