Pål Kolstø:

The price of stability. Kazakhstani control mechanisms in a bipolar cultural and demographic situation

Paper to be presented at the conference

"Democracy and Pluralism in the Muslim

Areas of the Former Soviet Union"

at The Cummings Center, University of Tel Aviv,

7-9 November 1999

Professor Pål Kolstø

Dept. of East European and Oriental Studies

University of Oslo

Box 1030, Blindern

N-0315 Oslo, Norway

tel (+47) 22 85 67 99/85 67 97

fax (+47)22 85 41 40

tel/fax home (+47) 51 56 20 82

e-mail Pal.Kolsto@east.uio.no




Kazakhstan has not experienced any ethnically motivated bloodshed since the country achieved independence in 1991. Ethnic violence did occur during the perestroika period, the most serious outbreak being the turmoil in December 1986 during which at least three persons died, possibly more. This gave rise to fears that Kazakhstan would become a crisis zone in the post-Communist world. The fact that political stability has been secured in independent Kazakhstan, therefore, has generally been considered as one of the most important, if not the most important, achievements of the Nazarbaev regime, a point upon which hardly any observer fails to comment.

In one sense, Nazarbaev’s achievement is not unique. Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Saparmurad Niazov in Turkmenistan, for instance, can pride themselves of a similar tranquillity of social life in their countries since independence. In two important respects, however, the preconditions for social peace in these states are very different from those we find in Kazakhstan. Karimov and Niazov preside over countries with much more ethnically homogeneous populations, the titular nation in both cases comprises 70–80 per cent of the total. By contrast, Kazakhstan is a bicultural state. The titular ethnic group makes up no more than half of the total population, while the vast majority of the non-titulars are Europeans and Russian-speakers with a high degree of common identity. According to some perceptive experts on nationalism bicultural societies are extremely volatile. Ethnic conflicts in multi-national states usually take place in the periphery of the system, and the centre may be able to pose as an impartial arbiter, elevated above particular group interests. Ethnic tensions in such societies may be severe, but they do not involve competition for control of the state or threaten its existence. By contrast, in bicultural states, in which two distinct groups of approximately equal size and strength confront each other and vie for power and influence, the prize is the state itself, and the entire state construction is at stake.

The potentially explosive ethno-cultural situation in Kazakhstan, one might think, would necessitate the employment of harsher control measures than the ones used by the authorities in the other Central Asian states, but the opposite has been the case. If Karimov’s regime is harshly authoritarian and Niazov’s seems to have elements of both Stalinist totalitarianism and Oriental despotism, the political system in post-independence Kazakhstan has been considerably less repressive. Press censorship and harassment of journalists certainly does take place, but, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, the media are freer here than in any other Central Asian state. A number of political parties have been allowed to register and operate. Elections are frequently tinkered with but the fact that Nazarbaev’s political opponents find it worth while participating in them indicate that they are not regarded in Kazakhstan as mere façades.

In December 1992 Bess Brown reported that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan had embarked ‘on the road to democracy’. One year after independence this was perhaps a reasonable analysis, and was shared by many observers. Some years later, however, these optimistic expectations had been replaced by much more sombre assessments. In 1996 Ian Bremmer and Cory Welt insisted that

Despite early hopes that Kazakhstan would be a beacon of democracy in otherwise bleak Central Asia, prospects of a civil Kazakh society have evaporated. Human rights violations, rigged elections and rule by decree have shown Kazakhstan to be well in line with the Central Asian state-building model.

This analysis, perhaps, overstates the point somewhat and misses the important differences that still exist between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, on the one hand, and the other Central Asian republics, on the other. Writing in the same year as Bremmer and Welt the German researcher Beate Eschment maintained that ‘Nazarbaev does not rule with an iron fist. In order to characterize his system this is basic.’

Before I plunge into the debate on what is written on the outside of Nazarbaev’s political tool box -- democracy-building, authoritarianism, or something else --I will pull out some of his preferred tools of governance and expose them to closer scrutiny, try to explain how they are being used, and demonstrate some of the effects they have produced. While Nazarbaev, like any other ruler, certainly uses a wide variety of ruling techniques in order to achieve his political objectives, this paper will focus on those tools in particular which are being used to cope with to the cultural-demographic bipolarity of the country. This bipolarity, I will argue, has presented him not only with a serious problem usually not found elsewhere, but also with some unique opportunities, in particular, with a chance to play the age-old game of divide-and-rule. In this game he has employed, among others, two tools which I identify as ‘the image of the irreplaceable internationalist’ and ‘the parallel parliament of the peoples’.

It is not my contention that Nazarbaev has had a superior master plan by which he been able to outwit his opponents. Rather, I believe that he, like most politicians, has developed and employed ruling techniques in response to political situations as they have arisen. It is in the ability to develop effective tools and employ them at the right moment that he has shown his mastery.

The image of the irreplaceable internationalist

Writing in 1994, a noted expert on Central Asian politics, Martha Brill Olcott, reported that

Although 1994 saw a steady rise in political demonstrations, as well as increasing reports of clashes between Kazakhs and members of other nationalities (mostly Cossacks), Kazakhstan has nevertheless managed to survive enormous political and economic upheavals in relative peace. This continued stability is largely due to the popularity of Nursultan Nazarbaev, head of Kazakhstan since June 1989, who satisfies Kazakh national pride because he is a Kazakh, but who also reassures Russians, because he was a prominent Soviet. The Russians also know that Nazarbaev is far more likely to be sympathetic to them than would any possible successor, who would inevitably be Kazakh.

In a straightforward, literal sense the last sentence of this quotation is obviously wrong: the Russians in Kazakhstan, of course, have no way of ‘knowing’ how Nazarbaev’s successor will behave. The assertion, moreover, is not supported with any survey data or other evidence. Even so, Brill Olcott may well have a point in the sense that a large part of the Russians in Kazakhstan possibly believe, or have believed, that Nazarbaev is the best Kazakhstani president they can ever hope to get, and have supported him for that reason. My question, then, will be: if this is the case, how did they come to embrace this belief? And my tentative answer is: by being told so by Nazarbaev himself and his propaganda machine.

Nazarbaev’s first challenger for the highest post in Kazakhstan’s political structure was a 42-year old composer and chairman of the nationalist Zheltoqsan party, Hasen Kozha-Akhmet. A former dissident who, in 1977, had been sentenced to two years imprisonment for slandering the Soviet system, his reputation as a staunch fighter for the Kazakh cause had been reinforced by his active participation in the December 1986 events. According to two insightful Kazakh journalists, Kozha-Akhmet ‘enjoyed the support of a part of the Kazakh intelligentsia and of those among the common people who hoped for "fast changes" in society’.

In the December 1991 presidential elections Kozha-Akhmet tried to register as a candidate, the only one to run against Nazarbaev. It seems reasonably clear that if he had been allowed to do so, he would not have stood a chance of winning. Few, if any, Russians would have voted for him and important segments of the urban Russian-speaking Kazakh population also rejected his programme. By letting him run the political establishment could have demonstrated its commitment to democracy without running any risk of losing power. It decided, however, on the more radical solution: to deny Kozha-Akhmet registration altogether. Since this was a clear case of political overkill one wonders why it was done. My own hunch is that it has something to do with the country’s bipolarity: it was a bait for the Russian-speakers to make them swallow Nazarbaev’s hook even further.

Martha Brill Olcott explains that Kozha-Akhmet was denied registration since he failed to collect the necessary hundred thousand signatures in support of his candidacy required by law. So, indeed, the official media claimed. The main reason why he failed to reach the required number, however, was that when 60,000 signatures had been collected his campaign stands in Alma-Ata were forcibly removed on orders from the local authorities. In the upshot, Nazarbaev was elected Kazakhstani president with 98.6 per cent of the vote, running unopposed. When similar near-unanimity results were produced in Soviet times it was in the West usually seen as proof of the sham character of Communist elections. When Nazarbaev achieved such a landslide victory, however, it was generally interpreted as sign of his popularity and the confidence he enjoyed in all parts of the population.

No doubt, Kozha-Akhmet espoused -- and espouses -- a more nationalistic programme than Nazarbaev did and does. According to Bess Brown his political party, Zheltoqsan (December), ‘does not call for the forcible expulsion of Kazakhstan’s Russian population, as does the much more radical party Alash, but it believes that the Russians should be encouraged to leave.’ This was very close to the position taken by a number of influential nationalist parties in Estonia and Latvia and certainly enough to send chills down the spines of the local Russians.

A political biography of Nazarbaev published in Kazakhstan in 1993 asserted that ‘apparently the internationalism of the President served as the social cement which united the Kazakhstani voters on 1 December 1991. He proclaimed, as it were, that the preservation of inter-ethnic harmony would be one of the fundamental principles of state policy.’ This certainly was one of the strong messages sent by Nazarbaev to the electorate during this pre-election campaign, and not only through his public statements and appeals. Equally important in pressing home this point, I will argue, was the treatment accorded to his rival. By turning out in overwhelming numbers in support of Nazarbaev the Russians in Kazakhstan not only rallied behind his political programme but also tacitly condoned the methods he used. This set an important precedence for the future.

Three more times since 1991 a leading personality has been groomed as the focal point of the opposition and as Nazarbaev’s potential successor. These are, in chronological order, Olzhas Suleimenov in 1992, Murat Auezov in 1996, and Akezhan Kazhegel’din in 1998. A broadly based popular movement supported each of these politicians: Kazakhstan’s People’s Congress, ‘Azamat’, and the Congress of Democratic Forces/The Republican People’s Party, respectively. All of these contenders have represented political programmes that are significantly different from Kozha-Akhmet’s. While none of the opposition leaders have Russian or Russophone roots they have generally been regarded as sincere supporters of the rights and interests of the non-titular population.

To be sure, the ‘internationalism’ of Nazarbaev’s new rivals is not something that can easily be read out of their programmes or speeches. All three opposition movements have tried to embrace as much of the political spectrum as possible, and in their addresses to the public they have done their best to avoid divisive issues. The national question is clearly such an issue and has often been downplayed or addressed in bland on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand declarations. Thus, for instance, on the national issue the programme of Kazhegel’din’s Republican people’s party of Kazakhstan states that ‘We should not remain content with the fact that until now we have not experienced the kind of conflicts in Kazakhstan that have broken out in some neighbouring states. Our party supports the real equality of all nationalities living in Kazakhstan. […] We are opposed to a division of the population into indigenous and non- indigenous segments.’ However, the programme goes on to assert that ‘The territory of Kazakhstan is the ancient land of the Kazakhs, their historical homeland.’ This was not very dissimilar from the dualism which characterised Nazarbaev’s rhetoric on the national question.

The main reason why these opponents nevertheless have generally been regarded as more truly internationalist than the president’s team, is that all of them have been supported by a high number of widely respected Russophone politicians and community leaders. In Petr Svoik, the vice chairman of the socialist party, Auezov had one of the ablest Russian politicians in Kazakhstan as his Azamat co-chairman, , Indeed, Svoik may well have been the real driving force behind their movement. Kazhegel’din, for his part, enjoyed the express support of, inter alia, the chairman of the Slavic Movement Lad, Viktor Mikhailov, of Valerian Zemelianov from Kazakhstan’s Communist party, and of the independent democratic politician Vladimir Chernyshev. This list of rivals undercuts Olcott's assertion that all possible replacements to his rule would inevitably be less to sympathetic to the Russians than he has been

Nazarbaev’s propaganda machine, however, continues to insist that he can and will defend the interests of the Russophone better than the opposition. Thus, for instance, during the 1998 presidential election campaign an article in semi-official Kazakhstanskaia pravda said that

There is no denying that it is precisely Nazarbaev who has been able to steer the ship of the state clear of all dangerous reefs, and preserve the political stability of the country. […]

N. Nazarbaev’s critics stubbornly refuse to accept that it is his name and his authority among all citizens of Kazakhstan, irrespective of nationality, that has played a crucial role in saving the country from plummeting into the maelstrom of internecine chaos. [He] has been, and remains, the guarantor of the rights of the Russophone population, not in words but in deeds.

This statement links tightly together the protection of the rights of the Russophones, on the one hand, and the safeguarding of political stability, on the other. The subtext seems to be that if ethnic violence is once again unleashed in Kazakhstan the Russians will be the first targets of the mob. And only Nazarbaev can keep the mob at bay.

However, an increasing number of observers have concluded that Nazarbaev’s record on the national question has been the exact opposite of what is proclaimed in the above quotation: While he has defended the rights of the non-titulars in lofty declarations his deeds have often belied his words. Under his presidency Kazakhification has continued unabatedly in most social and cultural fields. Laws have been adopted in the areas of dual citizenship and migration for instance that assure ethnic Kazakhs rights while denying them to non-titulars. Streets, cities, and oblasts with Russian names have been renamed en masse and given Kazakh toponyms, even in compactly Slavic parts of the country. Top-level positions in politics and administration are increasingly filled by Kazakhs. There are hardly any Slavic governors or akims left, even in the north. The most prestigious institutions of higher learning, such as the School of International Relations at the Kazakhstan Al-Farabi State University, which trains future diplomats, are overwhelmingly filled with ethnic Kazakhs. The statements made by Nazarbaev’s aides and official experts on ethnopolitics and inter-ethnic relations are gradually moving closer to the statements of the Kazakh nationalist opposition.

Since 1994--95 many Western and Russian observers have reported that the mood among the Russophones in Kazakhstan is shifting. After pinning their hopes on Nazarbaev they feel increasingly betrayed by him. Those who abandon the ‘loyalty’ option, however, do not necessarily rally behind the opposition (in Alfred Hirschmann’s terminology: they do not choose ‘voice’). More commonly they retreat into political apathy or opt for ‘exit’. For several years after independence the migration of Russophones from Kazakhstan was low compared to other Central Asian states, but in 1994--96 it picked up, and nearly a million Russians and approximately 700,000 Germans have left the country since independence. While the causes of this migration are complex and related also to such factors as personal economy, family reunion, etc., a growing feeling of social marginalisation in Kazakhstan is clearly one of the push factors. These sentiments of frustration and resentment the opposition may be able to capitalize on.

All of Nazarbaev’s centrist challengers have been seasoned administrators and/or highly respected cultural figures, and the methods which worked so well to eliminate Kozha-Akhmet could not be expected to give a similarly easy victory. Even so, Nazarbaev has shown that he is up to the task. How he persuaded Suleimenov to pull out of the political race and accept an appointment as ambassador to Italy, we don’t know. The ambassadorial post was certainly a juicy carrot in itself, but Nazarbaev may have used the stick as well. Co-option worked well also with Auezov, who accepted a position in the ministry of foreign affairs. His Azamat co-chairman Petr Svoik, however, was made of tougher stuff and some strong-arm tactics were needed to neutralize him. In the winter of 1997 Svoik was badly maltreated by unidentified thugs.

Attempts have been made to scare also Kazhegel’din into silence, perhaps even to kill him. On 14 October 1998, right after his falling out with the President, someone fired a shot at him but without hitting him. Several of his aides and supporters have been accorded similar treatment. When Kazhegel’din was prevented from registering as a candidate in the January 1999 presidential elections on the flimsiest of pretexts the OSCE refused to send observers. This event seems to have marked a turning point in Western assessments of the prospects for democracy in Kazakhstan.

A parallel Parliament of the Peoples -- or of the President?

An important obstacle to the establishment of Nazarbaev’s personal rule has been the existence of an independent legislature. Elected in the spring of 1990, in a manner slightly more democratic than the President, Kazakhstan’s Supreme Soviet did not depend upon Nazarbaev for its authority and on several occasions the legislators showed that they were willing to flex their muscles. In December 1993 the President had had enough. Against the backdrop of the recent political turbulence in Moscow --the shelling of the While House in October and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s strong showing in the Duma elections in December -- Nazarbaev’s supporters in the Kazakhstani Parliament took the initiative to its socalled selfdissolution.. New elections were held in April next year, but contrary to general expectations also the new parliament refused to act as a band of docile yes-men. These developments are well accounted for by other researchers and will not be given any broader analysis here. My intention, rather, is to demonstrate how Nazarbaev has played upon the inter-ethnic bipolarity of Kazakhstan’s population in order to eliminate also this source of opposition to his personal rule.

Many observers have presented the parliament as a stronghold of Kazakhstani nationalism. Thus, for instance, an article in The World Today in the winter of 1994 maintained that while Nazarbaev was doing his best to maintain ‘Kazakh-Russian binational power’, the results of the 1994 parliamentary elections ‘have caused fears among Slavs in Kazakhstan: outof 176 members of the Supreme Kenges, 105 are Kazakh and only 49 Russian.’

One way of increasing the power of the President over the parliament has been to allow the President to appoint a special quota of MPs, the so-called state list or gosspisok. In the second parliament 42 of 172 deputies belonged to this list and were beholden not to the voters but to the head of state. A noted Kazakh researcher, Zh. Kh. Dzhunusova, acknowledges that this system runs counter to generally accepted ideas of democracy, but defends it as necessary in order to protect the rights of the minorities in the Kazakh-dominated political body:

the stringent selection criteria according to nationality and sex means that the [April 1994] elections were not democratic in the full sense of the word. But that would not have been possible in the transition period, when the most important political objective in a multinational society is to safeguard stability. Without taking the interests of the major national groups into consideration, it would have been impossible to achieve such stability. This is exactly what guided the president then he selected candidates for the gosspisok.

Dzhunusova here explicitly links the imperfections of Kazakhstani democracy to the need to protect the interests of ‘the major national groups’. (In the context this expression must refer to the Russians since the interests of the Kazakhs were already all too well represented in the parliament.) In her view it is precisely as a result of the strong power of the President that the Russians can expect to get their due share of deputies and influence in the national assembly, through his active and deliberate use of ethnic criteria in determining the composition of the gosspisok. The strong message sent to the Russians is that they have a vested interest in the limitations placed on democracy in Kazakhstan, and that only by supporting a strong presidential power may they hope to achieve justice and equality in society.

But is this really the case? Certainly, Russians and other non-titulars in Kazakhstan could easily been secured a reasonable share of the MPs by other mechanisms than the gosspisok, for instance by the introduction of a proportional rather than a majority electoral system. Another mechanism could be fixed quotas of representation for non-titulars. The latter option would amount to the introduction of an element of consociational democracy in the political system of Kazakhstan.

Consociationalism is a model of democracy which has been tried out in various forms in several countries of the world in order to promote stability and democracy in plural societies. While this model has been enthusiastically advocated by some Western political scientists, it has also been severely criticized by others. For their part, the Kazakhstan leadership has clearly rejected it. At a CSCE conference in Almaty in February 1996 first deputy prime minister Nagashbai Shaikenov, one of the most influential thinkers in the Kazakhstani government, declared that ‘if we make an attempt to fill up the parliament on the basis of proportional ethnic representation, then we would have to do the same with regard to social groups as well.’

At first glance it may seem as if the Kazakhstani leadership is pursuing a contradictory policy, rejecting ethnic quotas on the one hand, and introducing the gosspisok on the other. In my view, however, this does not amount to an inconsistency since the gosspisok as a conflict-reducing mechanism is radically different from any models of ethnic quotas. The gosspisok depends entirely upon the President as the guarantor and arbiter of stability and inter-ethnic peace. He does not have to use the gosspisok to redress any ethnic imbalances in the parliament. To the extent that he does so it is as an act of grace handed down from the ruler to his subjects, and not anything they can claim as a right. What is freely given can also be freely taken away. This arrangement, then, leaves the non-titulars at the mercy of the President. Therefore, they ought to support the present one, the benevolent Nazarbaev, lest someone less philanthropic should replace him.

There is evidence to suggest, however, that the much-touted gosspisok system is once again a case of protecting the rights of the non-titulars in words rather than in deeds. The oppositional Kazakh political scientist Nurbulat Masanov has analysed the voting pattern of the gosspisochniki in some parliamentary roll calls in December 1994 and demonstrated that they did not necessarily express the interests of the non-titulars any more than do other deputies; if anything, the opposite is true.

As the Kazakhstani parliament elected in 1994 turned out to be no more controllable that the one that had been removed through ‘self-dissolution’, Nazarbaev began to look for an excuse to dissolve also this one. He found one in the critical remarks made by Western election monitors regarding certain irregularities in the election procedures. These remarks had been brusquely brushed aside by Kazakhstani authorities when their were first presented after the elections but were now unearthed. Rather than decide that new elections had to be conducted in some districts, Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Court declared the elections invalid in their entirety. On the basis of this decision the President dissolved the parliament and organized two referendums. In the first one, held in March 1995, the voters were asked to support the prolongation of the President’s term in office till 2000 (that is, four years beyond the five-year period he was elected for). In the second, in August the same year, they were asked to vote in favour of a new constitution which did away with both the independent judiciary and the independently-minded legislature -- the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Kenges -- and replaced them with two much more pliable bodies --a Constitutional Council and a two-chamber parliament, the Mazhilis and the Senate. In both referendums overwhelming majorities supported the President’s proposals. What is interesting in the context of this paper is to what extent Nazarbaev managed to play on the bipolar ethno-cultural situation in the country to achieve his goal.

On 1 April 1995 -- exactly one week before he ordered the dissolution of the Supreme Kenges-- President Nazarbaev signed a decree on the establishment of an Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan. As one observer dryly remarked, this was a most ‘felicitous coincidence’, or, expressed in less ironic language, a shrewd act of political engineering. According to Adam Dixon,

The functions of President Nazarbaev’s new Assembly, both in political terms and in terms of legislative capacity, were unclear. The President’s continuous evocation of two issues of particular concern to the population at large, namely the possibility of inter-ethnic strife and the ever-increasing level of crime, and the undefined way that the new assembly could contribute constructively to these questions, should have provided some warning that its real function might be to provide a surrogate representative body to a population about to be deprived of its Parliament.

There were no elections to this new organ. Instead, the President himself appointed forty of its 260 delegates while the remainder were selected by the local governors, the akims, after consultations with their respective organs of local government, the maslikhats. As the akims are appointed by the President and belong to the so-called ‘presidential line of command’, this system effectively ensures that most of the deputies to this body will support the president and express his viewpoints.

In the first years of its existence the Assembly was directly subordinated to the Office of the President. This status as being pri prezidente, according to Assembly spokespersons, proved that this structure enjoyed real power and influence in society. Unlike the Mazhilis and the Senate, both of which function (in principle) on a regular basis, the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan is an instrument that can be activated and deactivated at the President’s will. For long periods of time he has chosen to let this tool lie idly on the shelf, but then the Assembly has suddenly been brought into the limelight again when the need has arisen.

The most important document produced by the Assembly during its 1995 founding session was a resolution petitioning the President to suspend the 1996 presidential elections and continue in office until the year 2000.

Guided by the higher interests of enhancing stability and inter-ethnic harmony, and the objective necessity of securing the continuity of the reform policy, in order to avoid a schism in society in connection with a struggle for presidential power, and in a situation in which there is no worthy alternative to N.A. Nazarbaev, the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan urgently recommends that the President of the Republic in the nearest possible future shall conduct an all-people referendum on the prolongation of his plenipotentiary powers to December 2000.

Here, Nazarbaev had found a group of people willing to formulate one of the central tenets of his presidency, that he represents an irreplaceable guarantor of inter-ethnic peace. Some Russophone organizations, most notably the Slavic Movement Lad (Harmony), protested against both this and the next referendum, believing that they represented dangerous steps away from democracy and the rule of law. However, many Russians trusted the official propaganda more than the warnings from this organization. As two researchers have remarked,

In the public discussions of the new draft constitution it was frequently asserted that ‘the country will enjoy stability until the year 2000 if Nursultan Nazarbaev -- the guarantor of the new constitution -- stays in power.’ The urge for stability is an important factor determining the outcome of the referendum. Although […] some Russophone organizations and movements have claimed that the results of the referendum were rigged, it is clear that many Russians in Kazakhstan in all sincerity voted for the motion in order to support stability in the country.

The national, all-Kazakhstan structure of the Assembly is supplemented by a network of local branches at oblast levels. These are called the ‘Small assemblies’ (malye assemblei). The members of the small assemblies are selected from among the leaders of the various local national-cultural centres (organising for the most part the non-titular part of the population, but among them one will find also the Kazakh tili language association that promotes the spread of Kazakh language and culture). The Assembly is presided over by a special representative of the akim. Also these local branches of the Assembly speak with their master’s voice. Kazakhstan’s leading socio-political journal Mysl’ regularly features articles on the work of the Assembly, centrally and locally, under the caption ‘The Assembly: our motto is unity and closed ranks’. Thus, for instance, in the April 1997 issue of the journal the deputy akim of Torgay oblast praised the work of the local Assembly under the headline ‘A guarantee of stability’. In particular, the author pointed out that the local small assembly participates actively in the dissemination of state propaganda:

N.A. Nazarbaev’s works, such as The Ideational Consolidation of Society as a Precondition for Progress in Kazakhstan, On the Threshold to the 21 century, and On The Situation In The Country And The Main Directions Of Domestic Policies For 1997, provide the practical guidelines of our work together with his other reports and speeches, especially those which he has delivered at the sessions of the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan.

In September 1998 a voice of dissonance was added to the otherwise unison chorus of praise for the Assembly. Seisen Amirbekuly, a former member of the all-Kazakhstan Assembly, wrote an article in the Kazakh-language journal Dat under the long-winded title of ‘What Is The Assembly Of The Peoples Of Kazakhstan? An Organization Promoting The Friendship Of The Republic’s Nations, Or An Instrument Of Political Games Used By The President During Various Campaigns?’ This provocative question Amirbekuly answered in favour of the latter alternative. He believed that the Assembly could and ought to be allowed to play an active role in the prevention of inter-ethnic strife in the country, lest it slide into ‘the Yugoslav scenario’. The paltry financial means set aside for this task, however, had exasperated many of the deputies, he claimed:

In the corridors of the Assembly one can hear angry words addressed to the head of state: ‘After all, it was thanks to our services that it was possible to dissolve the parliament, to conduct the referendum and to adopt presidential decrees with the force of law.’ One gets the feeling that the President has used us whenever he needed us and as soon as he has achieved his objective he assigns us to oblivion.

Amirbekuly’s article was soon reprinted in the oppositional Russian-speaking press and created a minor scandal. The deputy chair of the Assembly, Pavel Atrushevich, a Belarusian, leaped to the defence in Kazakhstanskaia pravda. He did not deny that the Assembly had played an active role in launching many important policy initiatives supportive of the President, on the contrary, he took great pride in this. ‘The results of these initiatives are evidence of the stabilizing role the Assembly has played.’ Behind the massive attacks on the assembly, Atrushevich ominously claimed, one could discern the political interests of certain groups in society that were opposed to the consolidation of inter-ethnic harmony among the people of Kazakhstan since such harmony could prevent them from reaching positions of power. ‘They stake their bets, it seems, on the possibility of splitting the people apart. If they succeed, they reason, it will become easier for them to fool the people and manipulate them by their selfish schemes.’

This last statement is highly ironical since, as I shall argue below, the Assembly itself has been one of President Nazarbaev’s main instruments for driving wedges between the people of Kazakhstan, and splitting them up into their composite ethnic parts. This, in my view, is the third main function of the Assembly -- besides promoting the policies of the President and helping him outmanoeuvre the parliament -- an aspect of its activities that seems to have been largely overlooked by Nazarbaev’s domestic critics.

If, as I argued in the introductory part of this paper, the cultural and demographic bipolarity of Kazakhstan represents a particular problem from the point of view of preserving social stability, this is a problem that can be tackled in different ways and by various means. One way of dealing with this situation is to ensure that one of the groups in society has the necessary means to keep the other one under control. This can be called methods for bipolarity management. Another cluster of approaches can be grouped together as methods for bipolarity elimination. Whenever state authorities in an ethnically bipolar state choose the latter set of mechanisms they do what they can to alter the cultural or demographic structure of the population away from the volatile bipolar situation.

Theoretically, three paths towards a ‘de-bipolarisation’ of the population of Kazakhstan may be envisaged: assimilation of the non-titulars into the titular group; outmigration of non-titulars; and finally, what the Norwegian political scientist Jørn Holm-Hansen has called ‘multiple re-ethnification’. The first of these options is clearly unrealistic, the second is fraught with dangerous socio-economic side-effects, while the third seems to be a rather promising ruling technique and which has indeed been employed by the Nazarbaev regime.

The category of ‘the non-titulars’ in Kazakhstan is basically homogeneous with regard to language (Russian), culture and traditions (European, Sovietised), but not with regard to ‘ethnicity’. If ethnicity can somehow be turned into the salient cultural parameter in Kazakhstani society -- rather than language or everyday culture -- then the cohesion of the Russophone group will crumble. At the same time, a policy of deliberately strengthening the ethnic identities of the citizens will contribute to a consolidation of the titular ethnic group by undermining or downplaying sub-ethnic loyalties and identities such as clans, zhuses, and regionalisms.

For these reasons, Kazakhstani authorities are trying to resuscitate half-forgotten ethnic identities and trigger ethnic revivals among both titulars and non-titulars. The Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Belarusians, and members of other smaller Russophone groups are invited to turn to the ethnic roots of their forbears in order to be weaned away from the embrace of the Russians. Nazarbaev explicitly reject the term ‘the Russophone population’ In his speeches he often points out that more than one hundred ethnic groups are living in Kazakhstan, and hails the ideal of "polyculturalism" as a progressive factor in the development of Kazakhstani society. In the state museum in Almaty the culture of all major ethnic groups in Kazakhstan are extolled in separate expositions. Kazakh experts recommend the publication of multi-ethnic encyclopaedia, cookery books, literary anthologies, studies of ethnic folk craft, and so on and so forth.

The harsh treatment accorded to such organizations in Kazakhstan as Edinstvo, Lad, Cossack units and Birlesu, all of which have a predominantly or exclusively Russophone membership, may leave the impression that the Nazarbaev regime does not want the non-titulars to establish organisations of any kind. This is very far from the case. The authorities are opposed to only two kinds of organisations among the non-titulars. First, those which pursue independent political objectives, and second, those which try to organise the Russophones on a supra-ethnic basis, as ‘Europeans’, ‘Slavs’ etc. This is clearly the reason why Lad, a perfectly legal and non-extremist organization, has been harassed into marginality. Lad is explicitly a Slavic and not a Russian organization in the narrowly ethnic sense. It consciously cultivates a common identity among the European population of Kazakhstan that is directly opposed to Nazarbaev’s re-ethnification scheme.

Non-titular centres and clubs that organise a minority on an ethnic basis and for explicitly cultural and non-political activities, on the other hand, are not only tolerated but actively stimulated. In the building of the regional Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan in Semipalatinsk/Semei, which I visited in September 1996, the various ethnic centres in the city had their own offices, some of them also teaching facilities for the resurrection of their forgotten languages. In the largest office of the building, at the top of the stairs, was the representative of the akim, keeping a close eye on the activities of his underlings. Lad also had an office in the building of the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan, but the door was locked. Instead, I found the local Lad activists in their homes: they lack the means to man their office and also feel unwelcome in the Assembly building.

One of the most important elements of the re-ethnification strategy is a special affirmative action programme for the recruitment of minority students into institutions of higher learning. Ten per cent of all student slots are reserved for non-titular youth. The programme is administered not by the universities themselves but by the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan which in this way is invested with an important lever of real power. In the 1995--96 school year something less than 2,000 non-titular students were accepted into Kazakhstani universities and other institutions of higher learning under this programme; the next year the figure had risen to more than 2,600. Members of all ethnic groups may apply -- with the exception of Russians. This symptomatic limitation sends a very strong signal to the non-Russian non-titulars that they would do well in seeking their future outside the Russophone community.

Apparently, the policy of re-ethnification in Kazakhstan is met by a measure of success. When Lad leaders appealed to the voters not to support the prolongation of Nazarbaev’s term in office in the 1995 referendum, some Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Polish spokesmen criticized Lad for this stance. A Kazakh researcher saw this as evidence of these nations’ greater loyalty. Not the Russophones, but the Russians alone were the main opponents of the Kazakhs, she believed.

A political analysis printed in a pro-Nazarbaev Kazakhstani newspaper in February 1997 noted that ‘Over the five last years it has become clear that the country’s leadership has been able to work out a system of control over the inter-ethnic relations and ensure that they remain stable. This has been achieved in various ways, such as by supporting the activities of the national-cultural centres; by establishing the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan, and by means of important domestic and foreign policy steps’.

In 1998 Nazarbaev expanded the prerogatives of the Assembly with a new element. In a speech to the Mazhilis he linked his two assemblies -- the national assembly and the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan -- closer together, with himself and the gosspisok system as the connecting medium. The gosspisok system had been retained in the 1995 constitution for the upper house, the Senate, and Nazarbaev suggested that ‘we should enable a broader representation of national and religious minorities in the parliament. In order to achieve this a number of the senators whom the President appoints to the parliament, must be chosen from a list of candidates compiled by the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan.’ This proposal, however, was devoid of any real substance. ‘A number of the senators’ could mean anything from two-thirds to a tiny fraction. In any case, as pointed out above, the members the Assembly are handpicked by the President and his men and it is quite unlikely that they would put forward any independently-minded candidates. But Nazarbaev’s suggestion was important in reinforcing the notion that the President represents the main political voice of the non-titulars. At the same time he managed to reinforce also the idea that they are ‘minorities’, in spite of the fact that, taken together, they still comprise roughly half of the total population.


President Nazarbaev has managed to secure political and social stability in Kazakhstan since independence in a demographical and cultural situation that is arguably more difficult to control than is found in most of the new countries in the former Soviet Union. This, moreover, has been achieved without having recourse to quite as repressive methods as those employed by his colleagues in neighbouring states like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Repression, as I have shown above, certainly has been administered also in Kazakhstan, but in a more selective fashion. While Nazarbaev occasionally employs the baton he seems to prefer more refined instruments whenever he can find them.

In official Kazakhstani propaganda it has been presented as if Nazarbaev’s preferred political tools have not only been of the dual-purpose design, but have had even more useful applications. Allegedly, they have simultaneously promoted both democracy and the rights and interests of the non-titular population as well. For a while this claim was accepted at face value–in the West, in Russia, and in Kazakhstan -- but of late it has become increasingly discredited. However, the fact that this version was believed for so long by so many Russophones in Kazakhstan has clearly been one factor promoting stability.

Stability, however, while extremely important, has clearly not been the only main objective of the Nazarbaev regime. An equally important one is self-preservation. In his political tool box Nazarbaev has consistently looked for dual-purpose instruments which can be used to achieve both of these objectives simultaneously. At the same time he has shunned those stability-enhancing tools which would have anchored social stability in structures and institutions outside of his personal control. A crucial question is of course what Nazarbaev will do if and when he cannot find any more dual-purpose tools and has to make a choice between tools that promote stability and those that prop up his personal power. This situation has not yet arisen, and no one can know for sure whether it ever will.