UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Kazakhstan - People

Kazakhstan is very ethnically diverse, with only a slight majority of Kazakhstanis being ethnic Kazakh. Other ethnic groups include Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, German, and Uyghur. Religions are Sunni Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Protestant, and other. Kazakhstan is a bilingual country. The Kazakh language has the status of the "state" language, while Russian is declared the "official" language. Russian is used routinely in business; 64.4% of the population speaks the Kazakh language. Education is universal and mandatory through the secondary level, and the literacy rate is 98.4%.

In 1929, Soviet authorities replaced traditional Arabic-based alphabets used by Muslim minorities in the Soviet Union with Latin-based national alphabets. In 1940, the Latin alphabet was replaced with Cyrillic -- the alphabet used for the Russian language.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev ordered the authorities to come up with a Latin-based alphabet for the Kazakh language by the end of 2017, marking a major shift after nearly 80 years with a Cyrillic-based alphabet. The order is part of a new "strategic plan" for the Central Asian country that was published in the state-run Egemen Qazaqstan newspaper on 12 April 2017. It appears to be part of efforts to emphasize Kazakh culture while distancing the country from Russia and shedding rules and traditions left over after decades of domination by Moscow. In the plan, which was published in Kazakh only -- not in Russian -- Nazarbaev wrote that textbooks in the new Latin-based alphabet must be issued by 2018 and teachers must be trained to use it. Nazarbaev stressed that his 2012 program for Kazakhstan's development through 2050 envisioned a complete switch to a Latin-based alphabet by 2025. It said the Cyrillic-based alphabet will be used in parallel with the new alphabet for a "transitional" period.

At independence Kazakstan was the only former Soviet republic where the indigenous ethnic group is not a majority of the population. In 1994 eight of the country's eleven provinces had Slavic (Russian and Ukrainian) population majorities. Only the three southernmost provinces were populated principally by Kazaks and other Turkic groups; the capital city, Almaty, had a European (German and Russian) majority. Overall, in 1994 the population was about 44 percent Kazak, 36 percent Russian, 5 percent Ukrainian, and 4 percent German. Tatars and Uzbeks each represented about 2 percent of the population; Azerbaijanis, Uygurs, and Belarusians each represented 1 percent; and the remaining 4 percent included approximately ninety other nationalities.

Kazakstan's ethnic composition is the driving force behind much of the country's political and cultural life. In most ways, the republic's two major ethnic groups, the Kazaks and the "Russian-speakers" (Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, and Belarusians), may as well live in different countries. To the Russians, most of whom live in northern Kazakstan within a day's drive of Russia proper, Kazakstan is an extension of the Siberian frontier and a product of Russian and Soviet development. To most Kazaks, these Russians are usurpers. Of Kazakstan's current Russian residents, 38 percent were born outside the republic, while most of the rest are second-generation Kazakstani citizens.

The Nazarbayev government announced plans to move the capital from Almaty in the far southeast to Aqmola in the north-central region by 1998. That change caused a shift of the Kazak population northward and accelerated the absorption of the Russian-dominated northern provinces into the Kazakstani state. Over the longer term, the role of Russians in the society of Kazakstan also is determined by a demographic factor -- the average age of the Russian population is higher, and its birth rate much lower.

One aspect of Kazak traditional culture, clan membership, acquired importance in the post-independence environment. Historically the Kazaks identified themselves as belonging to one of three groups of clans and tribes, called zhuz , or hordes, each of which had traditional territories. Because the Lesser Horde controlled western Kazakstan and the Middle Horde migrated across what today is northern and eastern Kazakstan, those groups came under Russian control first, when colonial policies were relatively benign. The traditional nobles of these hordes managed to retain many of their privileges and to educate their sons in Russian schools. These sons became the first Kazak nationalists, and in turn their sons were destroyed by Stalin, who tried to eradicate the Kazak intelligentsia during his purges of the 1930s.

The Large, or Great, Horde was dominant in the south, and hence did not fall under Russian control until colonialism was much harsher. Substantially fewer Great Horde Kazaks became involved in politics before the revolution, but those who did became socialists rather than nationalists. For that reason, the Great Horde members came to dominate once the Bolsheviks took power, especially after Kazakstan's capital was moved from the Lesser Horde town of Orenburg (now in Russia) to a Great Horde wintering spot, Almaty. Kunayev and Nazarbayev are said to have roots in clans of the Great Horde.

With the collapse of the CPK and its patronage networks, and in the absence of any other functional equivalent, clan and zhuz membership has come to play an increasingly important role in the economic and political life of the republic at both the national and the province level. The power of clan politics has been visible in the dispute over moving the national capital to Aqmola, which would bolster the prestige of the Middle Horde, on whose lands Aqmola is located. In general, members of the Lesser and Middle hordes are more Russified and, hence, more inclined to cooperate with Russian industrial and commercial interests than are the members of the Great Horde. Akezhan Kazhegeldin, prime minister in 1996, was a Middle Horder, as was the opposition leader Olzhas Suleymenov. Although mindful of Russia's strength, the Great Horders have less to lose to Russian separatism than do the Lesser and Middle horders, whose lands would be lost should the Russian-dominated provinces of northern Kazakstan become separated from the republic.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 21-03-2019 01:04:51 ZULU