How Kazakhstan ensures interethnic harmony

The focus of the last twelve months has undoubtedly been on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and returning the world to normalcy. Yet alongside this global challenge, conflicts have continued to persist. Many of them, unfortunately, contain ethnic dimensions.

Kazakhstan’s history and geography have combined to create a society where over 100 ethnicities live within our borders. Ethnic Kazakhs account for approximately 70% of the overall population, meaning that other ethnic groups make up 30%, including Russians, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Ukrainians, Germans, Turks, Koreans, Azerbaijanis and others. In addition, 18 religious denominations are represented in the country with approximately 3,800 religious associations. Yet despite this diversity, Kazakhstan has enjoyed social and political stability since its independence exactly 30 years ago.

This ethnic harmony was not guaranteed. In fact, when Kazakhstan became an independent state in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the risk of interethnic conflicts was one of the most critical problems for the post-Soviet nation. Substantial political and societal effort was required to preserve interethnic harmony, ethnic diversity, and the equality of citizens, regardless of their ethnic and religious affiliations. 

One of the key steps that was taken by Kazakhstan’s First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was to establish in 1995 the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a unique civil society organisation that brings together representatives of 130 ethnic groups. Nursultan Nazarbayev was one of the first to draw attention to the need to build a model of inter-ethnic tolerance and social harmony. Since its first days of independence, Nazarbayev’s strategic vision and forward looking policy helped to shape Kazakhstan’s modern multi-ethnic society, making the diversity of the country one of its biggest strengths. Given the numerous ethnic conflicts around the globe, it is an accomplishment in which all citizens of Kazakhstan, whatever their ethnicity, can take a great deal of quiet pride.

The main goal of the Assembly is to implement the national policy, ensure social and political stability in Kazakhstan and increase the efficiency of cooperation between state institutions and civil society in the field of interethnic relations. Importantly, the Assembly acquired constitutional status in 2007, and received the right to delegate nine members to the Kazakh parliament (Majilis), the highest legislative body of the country. This means that over the last 25 years, the Assembly has evolved from a consultative advisory body to a legitimate advocate of the interests of Kazakhstan’s society, including through parliamentary representation. In addition to promoting efforts of various ethnic and cultural associations, the Assembly also develops language policy, supports ethnic communities and strengthens interethnic relations through art. More than 1,000 ethno-cultural associations are located throughout Kazakhstan and 40 friendship houses have been created for the ethno-cultural associations in all regions of the country.

Overall, since its creation, the Assembly has contributed to the establishment of a unique model of interethnic and interreligious accord in Kazakhstan, with an atmosphere of trust, solidarity and mutual understanding, where every citizen, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, enjoys full civil rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. This is exemplified by the fact that two languages are utilised equally in Kazakhstan – Kazakh and Russian.

It should be noted that the United Nations and the OSCE have previously commended Kazakhstan’s model of encouraging interethnic relations based on respect, and its efforts to strengthen the unity of the nation. The Assembly of the People has also established formal links with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Center for Global Dialogue and Cooperation, and state and non-state structures of numerous countries.

Undoubtedly each country’s situation is unique. Nevertheless, the successful experience and policy of Kazakhstan in the field of maintaining interethnic peace and harmony should be of interest to other multi-ethnic countries.

The challenges associated with ensuring peace among numerous ethnicities and the tangled relationship with politics and power of this task is precisely why it is crucial for governments and political leaders to be actively involved in this process.

Ultimately, in the 30 years since Kazakhstan’s independence, the country has worked diligently to build an inclusive society which promotes ethnic dialogue and harmony. This is celebrated annually on May 1, when the country marks the Day of Unity of the People of Kazakhstan. This policy is being maintained and developed to this day by the country’s President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan continues to play an important role in this.

Galym Shoikin
Galym Shoikin
Galym Shoikin is Chairman of the Committee for the Development of Interethnic Relations of the Ministry of Information and Public Development of Kazakhstan.