Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 237

Kazakhstan’s Independence Day, observed on December 16, prompted President Nursultan Nazarbaev to grope for a definition of the country’s national and cultural identity. In several speeches on the occasion, Nazarbaev attempted to strike a balance that reflected the complexity of the issue. Decrying the suppression of Kazakh "national" consciousness and historical memory under Tsarist and Soviet rule, the president called for nurturing the national identity and "national idea" in independent Kazakhstan. At the same time, Nazarbaev proclaimed 1998 "the year of national unity and national history."

While the national identity and history are those of the Kazakhs, the formula of "national unity" reflects the country’s multiethnic makeup and the government’s goal of forging a nation based on common citizenship across ethnic lines. Today’s authorities must deal with the long-term consequences of Russian settlement and Soviet ethnic engineering, which turned Kazakhs into a minority in their republic and marginalized the Kazakh language. Nazarbaev’s Independence Day addresses illustrated the authorities’ preoccupation with defusing any potential for ethnic tensions. The president called for a "balanced and gradual implementation" of the language law, which elevates the Kazakh language to state language. He termed "unacceptable" proposals to reduce substantially Russian-language teaching in the school system. And he attempted to transcend the controversy over "bilingualism" — a concept advocated by Russian groups — proposing instead to move toward "trilingualism" by the widespread teaching of the English language in the schools.

Nazarbaev also described Kazakhstan as an "Eurasian" rather than an Asian country. The formula reflected the European origin of a substantial part of Kazakhstan’s population and the country’s location at what Nazarbaev termed as crossroads between Russia, China, and the Muslim world.

Independence Day commemorates the December 16, 1986, mass protests in Almaty against Moscow’s appointment of a Russian as First Secretary of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party and thus as leader of the republic. Dozens of protesters were killed by troops and many more were wounded or jailed. Addressing a meeting on anniversary day, Nazarbaev interpreted that event as the first public demand for Kazakhstan’s independence. (Russian agencies, December 15-17)

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