News | Central Asia The War in Ukraine Is Changing Kazakhstani Identity

Russia’s invasion has sparked new conversations about language, nation, and neutrality



Talgat Aralkhan,

Entrance to the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Photo: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

Identity issues are a hot topic in Kazakhstan, as well as other republics of the former Soviet Union. After gaining independence more than 30 years ago, these countries are still in the process of forming their post-Soviet identities. In modern Kazakhstan, identity is not homogeneous: different social groups in society share different values and cultures, speak different languages, and promote different security agendas.

Taglat Aralkhan studies international relations at the German-Kazakh University in Almaty.

The military conflict in Ukraine has exacerbated identification processes in Kazakhstan. The war “overlapped” with internal identification processes already well underway, exacerbating tensions between social groups that identify themselves differently.

Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, which began on 24 February 2022, also sparked discussions in Kazakhstani society regarding the status of the state language (Kazakh) and its use in everyday life, issues of decolonization and rethinking the Soviet past in this context, as well as the situation with the so-called relocants[1] — Russians who fled to Kazakhstan to evade mobilization.

The Language Question

Language politics are not a dominant issue in all post-Soviet countries because, despite the dominant role of the Russian language in the Soviet period, the level of proficiency varied across the union republics. The highest level of Russian language proficiency, with the exception of Russia itself, was recorded in Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Language is an important component of identity, and therefore, after the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet republics implemented different approaches and policies in the use of the state and Russian languages.

For example, the Constitution of Ukraine adopted in 1996 stipulates that the state will promote the protection and free use of the Russian language and languages of other national minorities. After the adoption of the Law on the Fundamentals of State Language Policy in 2012, the Russian language, together with some other minority languages in Ukraine, received the status of a regional language in certain regions of the country, which allowed it to be used in almost all spheres of life on an equal footing with the state language, Ukrainian.

More serious changes in language policy occurred after the events of 2014. Ukraine began the process of strengthening the role of Ukrainian as the state language and expanding the spheres of its compulsory use: the introduction of language quotas on radio and television, or revision of the use of Ukrainian in education. In 2019, the “Law on Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language” was adopted, according to which the use of the Ukrainian language in public institutions, services, trade, medicine, and other public spheres became mandatory. The outbreak of war further accelerated the process of strengthening the Ukrainian language. Many Ukrainian citizens began refusing to speak Russian, which was explained by the desire to cut ties with Russia as a result of the hostilities.

In terms of the language situation in Kazakhstan, according to the 1995 constitution, Russian has the status of official language, and Kazakh has the status of state language. The legal equal use of the Russian language and the state language is possible in federal state bodies and local self-government bodies.

A similar provision is enshrined in the “Law on Languages” passed in 1997. The Russian language is quite widespread among the population of the country, despite the outflow of the Russian and Russian-speaking population from Kazakhstan in the 1990s, and it continues to play an important role as a language of inter-ethnic communication. The use of the Russian language covers practically all spheres of life, from education to the service sector.

However, it should be noted that in Kazakhstan, knowledge of the Kazakh language is mandatory in some areas. For example, when entering the civil service, candidates must pass a Kazakh language test. In the service sector, when providing public services to citizens, knowledge of the Kazakh language is also mandatory, as people must receive services in the language they apply in. In non-governmental organizations, the requirement for a candidate’s knowledge of Kazakh or Russian depends on the specifics of the work and the rules established by the organization itself. However, in recent years, it is more common to see vacancies where knowledge of both languages is required.

With regard to the use of languages in mass media, radio, and television, Article 18 of the Language Act also provides that the volume of television and radio programmes on television and radio channels in the state language must be equal in time to the total volume of television and radio programs in other languages.

A Kazakh Revival?

The war in Ukraine has once again raised the issue on social media that Kazakhstan needs to further strengthen the position of the Kazakh language, which, according to some activists, does not occupy a proper place in the life of the country and is instead conceding its rightful place to the Russian language. The language issue in Kazakhstan is quite sensitive, and recent geopolitical turmoil has made the topic even more relevant.

Rhetoric about the need to decolonize consciousness and reject the generally accepted Soviet-era assessments and narratives of key events of the past is becoming widespread.

Since late February 2022, Kazakhstani media has published many articles touching upon the language issue in the country. On the one hand, a series of publications focused on how Russian-speaking citizens began to purposefully learn Kazakh, while on the other hand, it was discussed that bilinguals (people with equal proficiency in Kazakh and Russian) were consciously refusing to use Russian in everyday life. The abandonment of the Russian language in favour of the Kazakh language was declared a way to unite the country.

Officials in Kazakhstan are trying to maintain a balanced language policy. The positive importance of the Russian language for the country was emphasized during the reign of the first president, N. Nazarbayev. The second president Kasym-Jomart Tokayev, maintaining continuity in the language issue, stated in October 2022 that the Kazakh language should not be used for political games, one should not refuse to learn other languages, and a balanced policy should be pursued in the language issue.

At the same time, in his public speeches, Tokayev, like N. Nazarbayev before him, constantly emphasizes the importance of accelerating development of the Kazakh language, which should become the language of interethnic communication instead of the Russian language. Certain steps have been taken in this direction. Thus, in January 2022, the Law on Amendments in the field of visual information came into force, according to which the Kazakh language became the only mandatory language in advertising, announcements, price lists, price tags, menus, and signs. Prior to the law entering into force, all visual information had to be duplicated in Russian in non-governmental organizations as well.

Another significant change at the end of Tokayev’s first presidential term was the discussion in November 2022 of a bill to amend the law on citizenship, according to which ignorance of the Kazakh language and history of Kazakhstan is grounds for denial of receiving or restoring citizenship. This measure was explained by the desire of the Kazakhstani authorities to respond to some public fears due to the influx of a large number of Russians fleeing mobilization. However, the bill was not passed by the country’s parliament in April 2023, and the timing of its approval is unknown.

At the international level, the current president of Kazakhstan recognizes the high importance of the Russian language for the former Soviet republics. Thus, for example, within the framework of the informal summit of heads of state of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in December 2022 in St. Petersburg, Tokayev again confirmed the important role of the Russian language in the CIS and proposed creating an international organization under the auspices of the CIS to support the Russian language, as 2023 is declared the year of the Russian language in the CIS.

Thus, we can say with certainty that Kazakh officials desire to gradually, without drastic changes, strengthen the position of the Kazakh language as the state language and make it the language of interethnic communication. This is evidenced not only by Tokayev’s rhetoric, but also by the pre-election programs of the six parties that were passed to the parliament following the results of the elections on 19 March 2023, which declared the importance of the development of the Kazakh language as their pre-election guidelines.

The Spectre of “Decolonization”

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the issue of “decolonization” in Kazakhstan is also becoming increasingly popular both in the media and on social networks. However, the process is neither systematic nor consistent. Discussion of the issue is largely limited to social networks and the media. Rhetoric about the need to decolonize consciousness and reject the generally accepted Soviet-era assessments and narratives of key events of the past is becoming widespread.

One example is the recognition of the 1930s famine in Kazakhstan as a deliberate policy of the Soviet authorities, as was the case with the mass famine in Ukraine known as the Holodomor. At the official level, the famine in Kazakhstan is recognized as a tragedy, while the country’s authorities, represented by the Chairman of the Senate M. Ashimbayev, stated back in 2021 that this issue should be approached from a scientific point of view and not be politically motivated.

In addition to the reassessment of the Soviet past, the transition to the Latin alphabet of the Kazakh language, which currently uses the Cyrillic alphabet, can also be attributed to “decolonization”. On 27 January 2023, the final version of the Latin alphabet was chosen in Kazakhstan. The process of transition to the Latin alphabet began long before the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine under the first president of Kazakhstan, N. Nazarbayev, when the development of the Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language began. This process was slated for completion by 2025, but in 2021 the government of Kazakhstan reported that the transition to the Latin alphabet will be implemented in the period from 2023 to 2031. Latinization of the Kazakh language is perceived by a certain part of society as decolonization of public consciousness and rapprochement with Turkic countries.

The authorities are implementing gradual changes aimed at both strengthening the position of the Kazakh language and rethinking the Soviet legacy.

Officially, the Kazakh authorities do not claim that they are carrying out “decolonization” in the country, but some of their actions can be assessed in this way. For example, on Tokayev’s initiative, the State Commission for Full Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repressions carried out during the Soviet era was established in 2020. As part of the activities of this Commission, work was carried out in state archives in order to study classified materials from the Soviet period. As a result, two collections of materials and documents on repressions in Kazakhstan were published in 2022. Work on the publication of new compilations continues.

The loudest scandal during the work of this commission was the statement of Berik Abdygaliuly, the chairman of the subcommittee on the gradual declassification of closed archival funds of the Commission, a deputy of the Majilis (lower house of Parliament), with a proposal to rehabilitate the members of the Turkestan Legion, which fought on the side of Nazi Germany during World War II. He justified his proposal by the fact that the members of the Turkestan Legion were captured and forced to fight on the side of Hitler. This proposal was negatively perceived by a certain part of society in Kazakhstan and was not pursued further.

Another example of decolonization may be the roadmap for renaming ideologically outdated names for 2022–2025 in Kazakhstan. Since 2022, the names of 68 localities have already been changed. The renaming of some localities and streets is not perceived positively everywhere in Kazakhstan. However, the country’s authorities are determined to continue this work, while demonstrating a desire to listen to the opinions of those people living in the localities planning to have their name changed.

The Arrival of the Relocanty

On 21 September 2022, partial mobilization was announced in Russia. During the first days of mobilization, huge queues of cars could be seen on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia, and in Kazakhstani cities bordering Russia, the streets were crowded with young men of Slavic appearance, who often did not carry much with them. According to Kazakhstan’s Minister of Labour and Social Protection Tamara Duisenova, 400,000 Russians arrived in Kazakhstan after mobilization was announced, of which about 100,000 stayed in the country.

Some residents of Kazakhstan were sympathetic to the arriving Russians. Not all Russians initially had enough money to live in Kazakhstan, so local activists organized aid stations for Russians in border towns where relocants could get food and overnight accommodation. The state, for its part, set up Population Service Centres (CSCs) only for arriving Russians so that they could quickly and efficiently obtain legal residency in Kazakhstan.

However, the situation with relocants was not so clear-cut — along with people who provided assistance and support to Russians, there were also those who perceived the migration of Russians to Kazakhstan extremely negatively. The massive influx of Russians caused some Kazakhstanis to fear that competition in the labour market would intensify and Kazakhstani specialists would be less competitive than the newcomers. The country has seen a sharp increase in rental prices both in border towns and in the capital, Astana, and in the largest city, Almaty. Narratives that relocants are to blame for this situation have been massively circulated in social networks.

There have been cases conflicts erupting between Russian arrivals and the local population. In order to suppress possible conflicts on ethnic grounds, the Kazakhstani authorities began to monitor the information space more closely and to apply administrative penalties against those who attempted to incite conflict. Russian citizens who arrived in Kazakhstan and violated public order or provoked conflict were also subject to certain measures, up to and including expulsion from the country.

The different attitudes of Kazakhstanis towards Russians fleeing mobilization demonstrate the degree of identity fragmentation in Kazakhstani society, which can be partly explained by different attitudes towards the war in Ukraine. A sociological survey conducted among Kazakhstanis in March 2022 by the Demoscope Bureau of Express Public Opinion Monitoring showed that the society is seriously divided on this issue. Thus, 38.9 percent of respondents supported Russia, and only 8.5 percent supported Ukraine, while 36.3 percent believed that Russia is conducting a “special military operation against Nazis in Ukraine”, and 13.2 percent shared the statement that Russia wants to annex Ukraine.

In November 2022, the second sociological measurement of public opinion in Kazakhstan regarding the war in Ukraine was conducted, which showed some changes in assessments. Thus, Ukraine in November 2022 was supported by 22 percent, while 13 percent of respondents were in favour of Russia, mostly elderly people regardless of nationality. The share of those who agreed with the statement that Russia was conducting a “special military operation against the Nazis in Ukraine” decreased almost threefold and amounted to 15 percent of respondents. At the same time, the share of those who believe that Russia was “waging a war against Ukraine for the purpose of its occupation and further annexation” increased to 22 percent.

The majority of Kazakhstani respondents (59 percent) preferred to adhere to neutrality, in March the share of “neutral” respondents was 46.2 percent. We can see a trend towards a decrease in support for Russia and an increase in support for Ukraine, but the majority of Kazakhstanis still prefer not to make a choice and take a neutral position.

Thus, the war in Ukraine has generally impacted how Kazakhstani society identifies itself and to a certain extent has strengthened nationalist sentiments relayed in the media and social networks. Discussions on the language issue, the process of decolonization, and the assessment of the impact of relocants on the situation inside Kazakhstan have received a new impetus.

Against the backdrop of continued official rhetoric about the importance of the Russian language and partnership with Russia, the authorities in Kazakhstan are implementing gradual changes aimed at both strengthening the position of the Kazakh language and rethinking the Soviet legacy. So far, these are the new trends being recorded in the country and society. The future will show whether these trends will be transformed into sustainable tendencies.

Translation by Bryan Gigantino.

[1] In Central Asia, the term relocants refers to citizens of the Russian Federation who immigrated to the region after the war in Ukraine began, especially after the declaration of partial mobilization in Russia.