Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital city, has been drawn into the bitter debates between Kazakh nationalists and the Russian-speaking community. Recently a resident of Almaty sued the popular Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty Kazakhstan for spelling the name of the city as “Alma-Ata,” ignoring the officially adopted post-independence Kazakh spelling of the name, “Almaty.” In response, the staff of the paper launched a massive campaign against the charges, mobilizing opinions from well-known public figures and intellectuals in favor of the old Soviet-style name of Alma-Ata. But Almaty’s Medeu district court ruled against the newspaper.
For the majority of the population, the spelling of the city’s name is not a top inter-ethnic issue. Careless public statements by several prominent figures close to official circles apparently triggered the fuss. Speaking at a festival of traditional songs in September, Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, said it would be nice to return the old name of Alma-Ata (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, September 7). Her comments were picked up by intellectuals from the older generation, nostalgic for the past.
Passions were further heated by calls from the Russian community, supported by the city’s mayor, Viktor Khrapunov, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Almaty. Nationalists, however, argue that Almaty is at least 1,500 years old and was settled long before the erection of the Verny military fort as a symbol of Russian colonization. While the dispute is widening the existing rift between the country’s two major ethnic communities, official ethnic policy is hardly conducive to building trust between them.
Many observers point to the fact that key positions in governing bodies are increasingly being filled by Kazakhs, officially referred to as a “titular nation.” The nationalistic bias was seen as early as the 1999 parliamentary elections. Among the 16 elected senators there was not a single Russian. The lower house of parliament (majilis) was comprised of 58 Kazakhs and only 19 Russians. Kazakhs make up 80% of the parliament members elected this year.
It can be argued, of course, that the election process is free from ethnic prejudices and the skewed ethnic composition of the legislative body is a result of the country’s changing demographics. According to the National Demography and Migration Agency, by the beginning of 2000 Kazakhs made up 53.4% of the population, significantly outnumbering Russians who had dwindled to 30%. Demographer Makash Tatimov puts the current Kazakh figure at 58%.
Over the last twelve years Russians were gradually removed from key government positions. On October 12 the chairman of the National Bank and Deputy Prime Minister Grigory Marchenko, who had a reputation as a financial expert of high standing, resigned his post to take up the rather insignificant job of a non-staff advisor to the president. Out of 20 cabinet members in the present government, there is only one Russian, Vladimir Shkolnik, the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources. Among the14 regional governors there is only one Russian, Sergei Kulagin, the governor of the Kostanay region, which shares a border with Russia.
The state’s current approach to manning governing bodies draws criticism from Russians as well as from some sections of the Kazakh population. Polls conducted by the Association of Social and Political Scientists in the spring of 2003 revealed that 50% of Russians and every sixth Kazakh were against the titular nation holding the overwhelming majority in the government. The director of the Institute of Socio-Economic Information of Kazakhstan, Sabit Zhunusov, maintains that the mono-ethnic structure of governing bodies creates a breeding ground for corruption and nepotism and encourages lawlessness (Megapolis, October 21).
Obviously, nationalistic feelings are partly fuelled by a sense of political and demographic uncertainty. Not long ago President Nazarbayev approved a set of amendments to the citizenship law that allows foreign workers employed in Kazakhstan to obtain Kazakh citizenship. Presumably, this decision was dictated by the need to fill the gap in training local specialists in the oil and energy sectors. But the revised law has aroused fears. Political scientist Azimbay Gali believes that the law throws open the doors to Russian specialists who will take up the best-paid jobs, creating an ethnic division of labor. “This is nothing less than a legalized form of colonization,” he warns. Even Bolatkhan Taizhan, a diplomat and advisor to the deputy chairman of the pro-presidential Otan party, could not conceal his critical attitude: “When I first heard of the law I came to the conclusion that it was prepared by people who do not bother about the future of Kazakhstan as a state. There are many migrants in our country who live and work here, and who disrespect our laws” (Turkestan, October 14).
Both moderates and nationalists understand very well that building a mono-ethnic society in Kazakhstan, even in the distant future, is not realistic. The official policy line boils down to fostering a feeling of civic patriotism irrespective of ethnic origins. Addressing a session of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev put forward an idea of creating “a Kazakhstani nationality,” an entirely new and highly controversial notion, designed to give a sense of unity to all citizens of Kazakhstan. Many political scientists have already expressed their deep skepticism about uniting all peoples of the country into an artificially created “Kazakhstani nation.”