Kazakhstan Makes Geopolitical Point With Statehood Celebrations
Kazakhstan has launched festivities to mark over half a millennium of Kazakh statehood in a celebration designed to shore up patriotism at home and make a geopolitical statement abroad.
“We pay tribute to the memory and deeds of our ancestors, remembering that the history of our sacred land dates back several centuries,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in Astana at the kickoff to a month of nationwide celebrations.
There will be festivities in Astana this weekend ahead of the main events in the southern city of Taraz in October as Kazakhstan marks 550 years since the khans Kerey and Zhanibek created the first Kazakh khanate.
The date seems arbitrary to some critics, but Nazarbayev defended it when he announced the plans for the celebrations last fall.
“The statehood of the Kazakhs dates to those times,” he said. “It may not have been a state in the modern understanding of this term, in the current borders. … [But] it is important that the foundation was laid then, and we are the people continuing the great deeds of our ancestors.”
The declaration that Kazakhstan would celebrate its statehood came amid regional geopolitical tensions over the conflict in Ukraine. Nazarbayev announced the plans shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to question Kazakhstan’s validity as a nation state and suggested that it was a frail construct only two decades old that may struggle to withstand the eventual but inevitable departure of its founder, Nazarbayev.
Putin’s remarks sparked outrage in Kazakhstan, which is a close ally to Russia. Many Kazakhs interpreted his statement as a veiled threat made at a time when Russia was encroaching on the sovereignty of another neighboring state, Ukraine.
Analysts saw the announcement of the statehood celebrations as a riposte to Putin’s dismissive comments, which heightened sensitivities in Astana as it looked on askance at Russia’s role in the Ukrainian struggle to preserve territorial unity.
Launching the statehood celebrations, Nazarbayev was careful to hail Kazakhstan’s “centuries-long joint historical path with the peoples of Russia, first and foremost with the Russian people.”
The statehood celebrations are also designed to shore up patriotism at home in multiethnic Kazakhstan, where Kazakhs make up around two-thirds of the population. Russians are the country’s largest minority, accounting for one-fifth of the population.
Nazarbayev has long stressed the importance of tolerance, unity and ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan, but he has stepped up this rhetoric amid the troubles in Ukraine.
“Independence was hard won by many generations of our ancestors, who defended our sacred land with blood and sweat,” he said on Independence Day in December. “Independence is the unflinching resolution of each citizen to defend Kazakhstan, their own home and the motherland to the last drop of blood, as our heroic ancestors have bequeathed us.”
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.