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Opinion: Kazakhstan's unique Assembly of People maintains ethnic harmony

By
John C.K. Daly

On April 22 Kazakhstan celebrated the 20th anniversary of a unique sociopolitical advisory body, the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan (APK).

The government's success with the APK and other initiatives in reconciling the nation's diverse ethnic groups has allowed the country to avoid the ethnic strife roiling nations from Lebanon to Ukraine.

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The accomplishment is all the more remarkable in that Kazakhstan is home to about 120 ethnic groups and nationalities. The 2009 census enumerated Kazakhs at 63.1 percent of the population, significant minorities include Russians (23.7 percent), Uzbeks (2.8 percent), Ukrainians (2.1 percent), Uyghurs (1.4 percent), Tatars (1.3 percent) and Germans (1.1 percent), that combined account for 95.6 percent of the population.

The ethnic mosaic of post-Soviet Kazakhstan extends far beyond the 95 percent, however, including Koreans, Turks, Azeris, Belarusians, Dungan, Kurds, Tajiks, Poles, Chechens, Kyrgyz, Bashkirs, Ingush, Moldovans, Armenians, Greeks, Mordovians, Chuvash, Udmurt, Georgians, Lithuanians, Persians, Bulgarians, Mari, Romany, Chechens, Ingush, Jews, Cossacks, Turkmen, Bulgarians, Dagestanis, Karachais, Balkars, Chinese, Karakalpaks, Assyrians, Czechs, Estonians, Latvians, Ossetians, Lezghins, Iranians, Buryats, Hungarians and Rumanians.

Established in 1995, the APK is a presidentially appointed advisory body designed to represent the country's ethnic minorities, an initiative of President Nursultan Nazarbayev designed to provide an effective dialogue platform to ensure that all ethnic groups residing in Kazakhstan could safeguard and promote their interests in an interethnic environment and has emerged as a fundamentally new civil society institution without any precedents either in the Soviet era or contemporary world. Nazarbayev intended the APK as a mechanism where all minority ethnic concerns could be raised and addressed.

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Without such farsighted policies, Kazakhstan's political development since the December 1991 implosion of the USSR could have been very different. Given the ominous portents surrounding ethnic issues as the USSR slowly unraveled, Kazakhstan's success in maintaining ethnic harmony is all the more striking.

According to first census held in 1897 by the Russian Empire, Kazakhs made up 81.7 percent of Kazakhstan's population, which included approximately 60 nationalities. From 1917 to 1991, Kazakhstan shared the fate of the other republics of the Soviet Union, whose policies altered the nation's demographics. A little more than two decades into the Soviet experience, as a result of Stalin's repression and the great famine that followed forced collectivization, by 1939 the proportion of Kazakhs in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic had shrunk to 37.8 percent, making Kazakhs a minority group in their own homeland. The last Soviet census in 1989, two years before the collapse of the USSR, reported that ethnic Kazakhs constituted only 39.7 percent of the population, with Russians and other Slavs comprising around 45 percent.

Russian academic G. Kesian noted that the formation of independent states in the former Soviet Union was followed by ethnic unrest. During 1988-1991, more than 150 conflicts erupted in the former Soviet republics, and in 20 of them, people were killed.

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In the worst violence, three years before the collapse of the USSR, Armenia went to war with Azerbaijan in February 1988 over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, with military operations lasting until May 1994 at a cost of 30,000 lives, when a ceasefire brokered by Russia left Armenia controlling Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts, approximately 20 percent of Azeri territory. A final peace treaty has not been signed. The violence in Ukraine is the most recent iteration of a minority, in this case ethnic Russians in the east of the country, resorting to armed resistance to a government established by the Ukrainian majority in Kiev.

The decisions taken by the APK, not only on issues of inter-ethnic harmony, are implemented by the state bodies of Kazakhstan because the Assembly is headed by the president himself. According to its website, "The main task of the APK is ensuring the consolidation of the interests of ethnic groups on the basis of partnership between government and civil society and organizing effective inter-ethnic cooperation and the formation of single political, legal and cultural fields."

The Assembly consists of 384 representatives of all ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan drawn from the Regional Assemblies of the People. Kazakh law stipulates that all AKP decisions be considered by public authorities and civil society institutions; its deputies participate in the legislative process and can propose legislation. The AKP vets all Parliamentary legislation to ensure that they conform to Article 39 of the 1995 Constitution's criteria defining ethnic harmony and equality.

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After establishing the Assembly Nazarbayev remained acutely conscious of the importance of ethnic harmony: On January 21, 1999 he told the APK, "We must accept as undeniable truth that maintaining independence and a strong state, which safeguards the rights of all citizens, is only possible in conditions of ethnic peace," adding that Kazakhstan's model of a multiethnic secular state consisted in developing the country's Kazakh nucleus while creating conditions for all other ethnic groups to develop while fostering bilingualism.

The APK's mandate expanded in 2007 when it received constitutional status and the right to elect nine members to sit in Kazakhstan's 107 delegate Majlis lower legislative chamber.

Kazakhstan's pioneering policies for addressing ethnic issues have received international recognition.

On June 8, 2009, following a visit to Kazakhstan where he discussed linguistic policies, state language teaching and questions concerning the effective participation of national minorities in public life, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner for National Minorities Knut Vollebaek remarked, "The authorities and people are very much aware of the complexity of those issues and they devote a lot of attention to minority matters unlike many other countries," adding that Kazakhstan's innovative approaches included multilingualism, the APK and searching for ways in which minorities could be represented in policy making. The APK has established close cooperation with international organizations and institutions; with the assistance of the OSCE it established the Centre for Humanitarian Studies for the study of interethnic relations.

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In the entire post-Soviet space, only in Kazakhstan are two languages working equally in the official and everyday environment, the state language, Kazakh, and the official language, Russian. Kazakhstan even has a "Day of the languages of Kazakhstan" holiday, which is celebrated on September 22. On April 24, 2013, Nazarbayev addressed the 20th APK session and stated, "The Kazakh land has united more than 100 ethnic groups. Of course, good cement is needed to turn all this multi-ethnic diversity into a united nation. Today, the main factor cementing the nation is the Kazakh language, the state language." Nazarbayev then cited the examples of the U.S., France, Germany and China, whose citizens speak one official language, adding, "We have historically been different, so it is difficult for us to be like them, but we have to try to ensure that one language finally unites us, our children and grandchildren. When you are one people, one identity, then it will be easier to develop, the country will actually become a land of opportunity for all who live in it."

Kazakhstan now has over 800 ethnic and cultural unions, and these national cultural centers are strengthening their ties with their historical homelands. The most active are the Azeri, Armenian, Greek, Dungan, Jewish, Korean, German, Polish, Tatar, Turkish, Turkmen and Ukrainian diasporas, while Russians maintain close contact with the Russian regions bordering Kazakhstan.

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If the original work of the APK was to ensure the revival of the language, traditions and cultures of ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, its main agenda now is to promote the nationwide "Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy" and assist in introducing the "new Kazakh patriotism" concept.

As for the future, in two decades the APK has become a key element in Kazakhstan's ongoing efforts to create a state model of inter-ethnic harmony, which is in turn a powerful stabilizing societal factor. The APK has not replaced parliamentary institutions nor did it turn into a bureaucratic instrument of control over ethnic groups but rather, the APK has become the country's central institution for promoting and protecting the interests of all ethnic groups, helping to ensure full respect of the rights and freedoms of all citizens, regardless of ethnicity and religion.

The APK has allowed Kazakhstan to avoid politicizing ethnic relations while serving as a platform to resolve potential conflicts. Accordingly, the foundation of interethnic harmony in Kazakhstan now favors a civic polity rather than ethnic community. Given the ethnic violence traumatizing the globe, it is an accomplishment in which all citizens of Kazakhstan, whatever their ethnicity, can take a great deal of quiet pride.

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Dr. John C.K. Daly is a non-resident Senior Scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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