Cultural Diversity Reflects Gains in Kazakhstani Democracy

By Scott Hogenson | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

(Editor's Note: The author is representing as part of a Visiting Writers Delegation to Kazakhstan at the invitation of the administration of the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan.)

Almaty, Kazakhstan ( - Ivan Bernardovich Zinkevich describes Kazakhstan's transformation from communism to democracy as one that resulted in his Polish heritage being "reborn."

The re-birth of ethnic and cultural identity among Kazakhstan's minority populations was demonstrated in no small part Sunday afternoon when a crowd of about 100 ethnic Poles rose to their feet as a nine-member youth choir sang the Polish national anthem during a cultural celebration in Almaty, an act that would have been considered criminal a few decades ago.

Zinkevich, the 60-year old chairman of Almaty's Polish Cultural Center, called this and other public displays of cultural heritage a "very significant" freedom for Kazakhstanis, who have been laboring to make democracy work since the nation declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

While the vast majority of Kazakhstan's 15.6 million residents are either Kazakh or Russian, people representing more than 100 other ethnic groups also live in this sparsely populated central Asian nation whose geography makes it the ninth largest country on Earth.

But Zinkevich made it clear that he and the estimated 47,000 ethnic Poles living here do not want to be separate from the rest of the nation. Speaking through a translator, Zinkevich said Poles "want to be Kazakhstanis but also want ethnic identity," within Kazakhstan.

Born in Kazakhstan in 1940, Zinkevich is the son of Polish parents who, like millions of other non-Russians, were deported to this region of the former USSR in 1936 under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin. More than half a century later, the mass deportation of people to Kazakhstan has resulted in a population that is among the most diverse in the world.

While many of the new nations created from the demise of the Soviet Union have struggled with varying degrees of ethnic strife, Zinkevich said there are "no social conflicts," among Kazakhstan's ethnic peoples, a view shared by the leader of the country's National Democratic Party.

Hasen Kozha-Ahmet, who heads one of the numerous opposition parties to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, described the country's indigenous Kazakh population as "very tolerant," though he said through a translator that there is a "distrust" of some ethnic Russians among some of the nation's Kazakhs, who comprise roughly 52 percent of Kazakhstan's citizens. Russians are the second largest ethnic group in the country, representing about 31 percent of the population.

A staunch Kazakh nationalist and anti-Communist, Kozha-Ahmet attributed some of the distrust he described to "the humiliation of the Kazakh people," under Soviet rule. But Kozha-Ahmet said he is generally pleased and optimistic about continued harmony between the many ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan.

Although general tolerance among the various peoples plays a large part in keeping Kazakhstan essentially free of ethnic strife, the growth of free-market economics also plays a part in maintaining social and political stability.

Sergey A. Tereschenko, chairman of the majority Otan Party that supports Nazarbayev's administration, said continued emphasis on economic reforms and creating stronger markets are not only key elements of the party's platform, but also represent "the most difficult issue," for his party and the nation.

"If a majority (of citizens) does not have work, they express dissatisfaction," said Tereschenko, a former communist who assumed leadership of the Otan Party after serving as Nazarbayev's first prime minister.

Speaking through a translator, Tereschenko likened the "establishment of a middle-class," in Kazakhstan to the Biblical account of the Jews' 40-year sojourn through the desert.

"It is very difficult to show benefits of capitalism," said Tereschenko, an agricultural businessman who said he repudiated the economic precepts of communism after studying and learning the business structures of the United States and other democracies during the course of his travels abroad.

The economic challenges facing the people of Kazakhstan and their associated political challenges for the Otan Party are not small. With a population that is shrinking due to emigration by some from Kazakhstan and the continuing recovery from the nation's economic contraction following its independence from the old USSR, Tereschenko emphasized the importance of writing legislation and policies "that are clear to the people."

"To accept law is one thing. To explain it is another," said Tereschenko, who added that a primary need for the Otan Party is to "prove the value (of democracy) by demonstration." The Otan Party holds 32 seats in the 77-member Majilis, or lower chamber of Kazakhstan's Parliament. By comparison, Kazakhstan's Communist Party holds four seats in the Majilis.

In attempting to overcome the difficulties of throwing off communism and introducing the relatively unknown precepts of free-market economic policies to a people who have enjoyed little freedom for the past two centuries, Nazarbayev has issued a sweeping package of proposed long-term reforms known as the "Kazakhstan 2030" plan.

Nazarbayev's proposals address a wide range of needs and goals for the nation, covering national security and domestic stability, management of the country's large oil and mineral reserves, the development of a professional class of government employees, education, health care and other social issues, increased economic growth through open markets, and improving the country's communications and transportation infrastructure.

In delivering his Kazakhstan 2030 proposals, Nazarbayev spoke to all citizens in asking the country to "share my vision for the future of our society and the mission of our state," but there also is a strong emphasis on the younger generation of Kazakhstanis and the need to "say once and for all what future we want to build for us and our children."

The long view of Kazakhstan 2030 is reflected in part by Nazarbayev's recognition of the "enormous domestic and external difficulties," facing the country. "Many representatives of our generation won't live to the time when this strategy will be realized," Nazarbayev said. "Our children will estimate its reality and the correctness of the work implemented by us."

While the complete implementation of Nazarbayev's plan remains a distant vision, some of the benefits of the president's stewardship over this infant democracy could be seen in the faces of a dozen teenagers practicing Greek line dancing Sunday at Almaty's House of Friendship, a multi-cultural center in the heart of Kazakhstan's largest city.

The youth smiled as they worked out to the quickening pace of music from Zorba the Greek, executing the sometimes complicated maneuvers of the dance and correcting the errors brought to their attention by their instructor.

The act of espousing a culture foreign to one's homeland may seem small among better established democracies but its significance is not lost on Kazakhstanis who lived through an era in which openly embracing one's heritage was forbidden.

As Polish Cultural Center Chairman Ivan Zinkevich said, the newfound freedom to celebrate their ethnicity is "a big happiness," for Kazakhstanis travelling the sometimes-rocky road to democracy.