Kazakhstan is one of the Soviet Union’s successor states, which is located in the heart of Eurasia and encompasses huge territories of 2,724,900 sq. km and has a population of over 19 million people. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan started the processes of nation-building, which has been usually accompanied with various controversies. Historically evolved ethnic heterogeneity (Kazakhstan is populated by the resident of over 100 ethnicities) and complex socio-linguistic situation (i.e., ‘everlasting’ disputes about the official statuses of the Kazakh and Russian languages), have been managed, on the one hand, by propagating inter-ethnic harmony and ‘friendship of people’ as a core value of Kazakhstan’s society, and, on the other hand, by different authoritarian means (e.g., limitation of authority of local executive bodies and strengthening presidential power). Therefore, since 2000s societal controversies and disputes over national identity were merely de-politicized, which generally smoothed waters within the population.
However Kazahkstan’s society has been experiencing considerable transformations in recent years. Unprecedented country-wide violent unrest in 2022 and the full-scale war conducted by Russia, which is arguably the closest political and economic partner of Kazakhstan, uncovered country’s vulnerabilities and triggered controversial public debates. Discursive clashes over national identity, language politics, territorial issues and continuation of political dialogue with the aggressor-state play a central role in societal fragmentation of Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan: reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Official position of the Kazakhstan’s government on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be characterised as a ‘pro-Russian neutrality’. On the one hand, historical development, i.e. having been part of Russian Empire and of the Soviet Union, sharing the longest land border with Russia, still having a numerous ethnic Russian population (ca. 3 million inhabitants or 15,2% from the whole population) and being a member of several Russian-led alliances (e.g., CIS, CSTO, EAEU) hardly leaves Kazakhstani authorities a wide spectrum of choices. On the other hand, Kazakhstan insists on the principle of multi-vectoral foreign policy and tries to keep neutral position in the ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict by appealing for peaceful settlement. However, whatever the official position of the authorities is, this war and imperialist rhetoric of the Russian political regime laid bared structural vulnerabilities of Kazakhstan, triggered fears and concerns among the population and, thus, opened up a floor for controversial public debates. Specifically, the war must have been incorporated into meaning-making structures, reordering of which usually provokes discursive clashes and leads to societal tensions. Not only do these tensions result from conflicting ideological stances of different social actors, but they also uncover competing knowledge regimes, which determine the persistence of societal controversies by implying hierarchies, exclusion and marginalization.
Knowledge regimes, discursive struggles and societal coherence
We define knowledge regimes as symbolic orders, which strive to be established as ‘true’ in a society through discursive struggles and influence the ways of how the world is experienced and performed. Our central argument is that the war in Ukraine and its consequences gave momentum to reorganisation of the relationships between different knowledge regimes, which determine how certain events are interpreted and how action is structured. Accordingly, the war undermines existing meaning boundaries in a way that it is discursively instrumentalised by different social actors and, thus, destabilises prevailing status quo between knowledge regimes, which has turned from the element of maintaining societal harmony to the element of polarisation.
Sociological surveys show that Kazakhstani society distances itself from supporting either of the conflict parties in the Russian-Ukraine war. Discourse analysis of public debates in social media, however, demonstrates that the war has actually exhibited deeper fault lines, which undermine certain principles of societal security in Kazakhstan.
There are still proponents of a pro-Russian position, who base their argumentation on the originally established during the Tsarist and Soviet rule Russian-oriented knowledge regime, which defined ethnic Russians as a ‘civilizing’ nation and ethnic Kazakhs as ‘culturally backward’ people. Accordingly, they argue that Kazakhstan must support Russia in its current mission of restoring its great power status. However, despite the fact that this knowledge regime has been to a greater or lesser extent rejected since Kazakhstan gained independence, it is being primarily delegitimatised today. Proponents of Russian-oriented regime, thus, are labelled as ‘agents of Kremlin’ or as a ‘fifth column’, which – as an argumentation in the debates goes – per se represent direct threats to national security of Kazakhstan.
Concerns about ‘being next after Ukraine’ in the list of Russia’s imperial ambitions provided the Kazakh-oriented knowledge regime with more validity. The Kazakh-oriented discourse continues to reject special status of the ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan and negatively assess Russia’s relevance for the country’s future. Accordingly, it propagates a restoration of the ‘authentic’ Kazakh identity and ethnocratic ways of state-building. Often playing a decolonial card, those positions, however, are accompanied by nationalist sentiments, e.g., by developing the narrative of the ethnic Kazakhs as ‘owners’ of the ‘genuine Kazakh land’ and other ethnic groups as ‘aliens/guests’. As a result, we can observe certain tendencies towards normalisation of this discourse, which gains enough potential to challenge other knowledge claims. Not only ‘leftovers’ of the Russian-oriented discourse has been rejected, but also the official compromise knowledge regime, which promoted ‘the friendship of people’ and for a long time accounted for a political stability in the country, is being contested. Addressing these dynamics, some people actively securitise the controversial public debates themselves, which currently re-emerged in Kazakhstan. Emphasising peaceful co-existence, which is considered as a key achievement of Kazakhstan’s independency, they propose the only way out, namely, not to give in to provocations and to close the controversial dispute for the sake of societal coherence.
The clash of conflicting worldviews based on competing knowledge claims has not yet reached open fights, but continuously reverse certain power relations and discursively challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about such phenomena as identity and language, the meaning of which is unremittingly reconstructed. This opens up prospects for new discursive struggles between proponents of one or the other knowledge regime, which often ends up in disagreements about what should be accounted for ‘true’ national values and state politics.
Towards new perspectives on societal controversies
The questions about different kind of risks, which are caused by Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and imperial ambitions, will continue to (re)emerge in post-Soviet societies. In order to deal with arising risks, new perspectives on societal controversies and interethnic discords have to be generated to profoundly understand the ongoing processes, which can potentially lead to societal division. More specifically, a systematic discourse analysis of public debates and controversy mapping can equip scholars, public and policy makers with new insights about different societal dynamics and reveal deep structures that account for social tensions. We believe that deconstructing and making aware of taken-for-granted and seemingly self-evident knowledge claims can have socially and politically liberating effects, which can be critical in preventing polarization as well as help to deliberate about the better future.
ABOUT THE AUTORS
Filipp Semyonov is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Conflict Studies, Philipps-University of Marburg. He holds a master’s degree in Central Asian Studies from German-Kazakh University (Almaty, Kazakhstan). His research interests lie in post-structuralist security studies and his current research project – funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) – focuses on (non-)conflict dynamics in state- and nation-building processes in post-Soviet Kazakhstan.
Alexander Ten is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the Kazakh-German University (Almaty, Kazakhstan). He received his PhD degree from the University of Augsburg. His fields of research are Sociology of Knowledge, Discourse Analysis and Sociology of Body. He is presently doing research on language, identity and body politics as well as social construction of boundaries of the publicly sayable in Kazakhstan.