Constitutional framework of political order and ethnopolitical clashes in the Republic of Kazakhstan

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011

Author: Sarsekeyev Massat, Kazakh National Pedagogic University, Almaty, Kazakhstan

A constitution is a code of legal norms which has supreme legal force and regulates the basis for relations between a person and society on the one part and the state on the other part. A constitution has a sociopolitical dimension, which means that it is a kind of a social contract which regulates the political interests of social groups. Failing such a contract it would be difficult to reach consensus in the society. [1] However, process of discussion and adoption of the Constitution can trigger off political and legal conflicts.

Legal conflicts connected with mass events have certain features. As a rule, these are political and ethnic relations between a group of population, social strata and political parties. Legal aspect of such mutual relations does not arise at once instead it is being formed as far as relations are get institutionalized. For instance, subject of self-determination of a nation, idea of establishment of the state and then proclamation of sovereignty, delineation of state borders, etc. arises in an ethnopolitical conflict. It is impossible to clench all these matters without adoption of relevant legal acts. Meanwhile, legal aspect of a conflict is formed from that moment and further it can evolve within legal procedures. Ethnopolitical confrontations in Kazakhstan between the Kazakh and the Russian population during discussion and approval of the Constitution of the country had the very same features.

One of points at issue was a text of the preamble of the Constitution which reads as follows: “We, the people of Kazakhstan, united by a common historic fate, creating a state on the indigenous Kazakh land … accept this Constitution.”. [2] As a rule preamble of the Constitution sets out conceptual provisions which represent its platform and axiological values which convey philosophy of the basic law of a country.

Preamble of the Constitution purports that the people of Kazakhstan is a main subject and is a sole source of state power in the country. However, it contains not only political and legal aspect but also historical and cultural context. On the one hand it reflects the existing political reality, i.e. polyethnic composition of the population. On the other hand this wording of the preamble tried to find an idea and political compromise which would help reach some common denominator in polar positions held at that time by representatives of the Kazakh and the Russian ethnicities in their views of both their history and shared political future. Indeed the wording “people united by a common historic fate” is an appeal to collective historical memory which implies common achievements, experience and hardships with an urge to proceed to creating common statehood, to become a full subject of joint future for every ethnos and national minority residing in the republic. At that mentioning of “the indigenous Kazakh land” in the Constitution on the one hand is an idea which confirms a thought of a continuous process of ethnogenesis of the Kazakh nation and on the other hand a stating fact of new political reality, i.e. proclamation of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It only confirms the thought that citizens in this state must not be derogated from their rights in terms of ethnic affiliation and at the same time priority should be given to symbols, standards and values of the Kazakh culture during a process of political socialization of a person. That is why this formula of interethnic consensus is quite compromise both in terms of content and form and it has been fixed in the Constitution of the country.

Another matter of dispute between representatives of the Kazakh and the Russian ethnicities was clause 1 article 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan “The Republic of Kazakhstan is a unitary state with a presidential form of government.” [3] Following USSR collapse former Soviet republics marked their political frontiers which divided previously uniform space into separate territories. Territories of residency of different ethnicities in the Soviet Union did not always coincide with the administrative borders. The former USSR had the widest settlement of the Russian ethnos. One of biggest Russian diasporas outside their historical native land stayed in Kazakhstan. If one studies geography of settlement of the Russian ethnos in Kazakhstan, the Russians made the bulk of the urban population and major industrial centers as well as in northern and north-western regions of Kazakhstan. That fact was attributed to both socioeconomic and historical and geographic reasons.

Northeastern region of Kazakhstan was turning into one of seats of separatist attitude in the republic. That time the region had strong pro-Russian attitudes. Moreover, such aspirations were heated by activities of informal regional leaders and politicians of Republic-wide and Union-wide level. In particular, well-known deputies of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR Petrushenko A., Vassilyeva T., and deputies of the Republic’s Parliament Galenko A., Vodolazov A. were active organizers of numerous political separatist campaigns. In particular, Vassilyeva T. has repeatedly advocated separation of the right bank of Irtysh River of Kazakhstan and its joining Russia or establishment of a national autonomy. [4] Developments following a Transdniestria variant could have lead to bad political after-effects.

Another separatism seat was formed in western Kazakhstan when in June 1990 Ural Cossacks established a revival committee which adopted the Declaration of establishment of autonomy for Ural Cossacks, revision of the borders of the Kazakh SSR, restoration of the territorial division of Russian in the borders existing before 1917. The adopted manifest substantiated separation of a number of oblasts of Kazakhstan to the benefit of Russia. Anti-separatism meetings held in cities of the republic were a response to that initiative. Azat public movement came up with that idea and it managed to mobilize thousands of supporters against celebration of 400 years of service of autocracy by Ural Cossaks.

Tension began to get more exacerbated on September 15, when 800 representatives of the Cossak communities wearing military uniform presented themselves in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The atmosphere reached its peak at midday. The authorities decided to take the Cossaks away to railway stations and to send them to their homes in order to avoid outrages. Departure of Cossaks and then supporters of Azat GDK who earlier arrived in the city allowed easing tension which finally subsided. [5]

Another subject of ethnopolitical conflict was a principle of single citizenship which is fixed in clause 3 article 10 of the Constitution reading as follows “Foreign citizenship of a citizen of the Republic shall not be recognized.” [6] In such manner it was legislatively determined that no citizen of Kazakhstan can have valid citizenship of any other state. Citizen of Kazakhstan can receive and have citizenship of Kazakhstan provided that he/she simultaneously does not have any other citizenship.

At that time representatives of not indigenous population accounted for 60% in the ethnic structure of the republic. Moreover, a lot of them had their historical native land, for instance, ethnic Germans, Poles, Greeks. That is why it was impossible for the principle of single citizenship not to become a subject of high-pitched arguments in poliethnic cultural environment. However, it was still the ethnic Russians who voiced the strongest protest in that problem. Several reasons were behind such behavior. First, disagreement with a loss of one big native land and their formerly dominating politico-economical and sociocultural status in it and second, concerns in connection with possible complication of trade and economic and humanitarian relations between neighboring regions of the two countries.

Nevertheless the Constitution has recognized single citizenship principle which was advocated by national patriotic forces and that decision was substantiated by the following arguments of political and legal nature. Military service in Kazakhstan is universal and every citizen of conscription age must do military service for a regular term in the armed forces of the country. It is also a constitutional obligation of a citizen which is confirmed in the Constitution where it is stated that protection of the Republic of Kazakhstan is a solemn duty and obligation of each its citizen. In case if any citizen of Kazakhstan has citizenship of another state it will be impossible for such citizen to discharge this constitutional obligation to protect his native land because foreign citizens do not have a right to serve in the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Another political and legal conflict which would arise in case if dual citizenship principle was approved in the republic is that it would be impossible for any citizen to exercise his/her elective right, namely to be elected and to elect to the state agencies, to participate in republic-wide referendums or to have access to civil service because due to legal and political reasons such rights cannot be recognized for a citizen of any other nation. This principle has also been fixed in the Constitution of Kazakhstan.

Still key point at issue was determination of a status of the Kazakh language and the Russian language and political and legal position of Kazakhstan as a sovereign nation. 1990s were featured with growing tension in northern regions caused by ambiguous response of the Russian speaking population with respect to the status of languages and system of state in Kazakhstan. In late November a local Soviet in Ust-Kamenogorsk initiated amendments to a draft of new Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The country began discussing a new version of the basic law which entailed growing tension on inter-ethnic grounds.

The population began to send to Ust-Kamenogorsk Soviet hundreds of remarks, amendments and suggestions related to a draft of the new Constitution. Essentially they concerned status of the languages, establishment of two chambers in the Parliament, i.e. Soviet of the Republic and Sovient of Nationalities, deleting the word “unitary” from draft wording. Deputies of the City Soviet sent their proposals to Almaty. Not all suggestions were adopted and it caused outcry of a part of the population voiced at large-scale meetings throughout the republic. [7].

Discussion of a constitutional status of the state language has caused maximum exacerbation in Kazakhstan’s society. The Constitution assigns state status to the Kazakh language while the Russian language is used along with it in state organizations and bodies of local self-government and the state sees to creating conditions for studying and developing languages of the people of Kazakhstan. [8]

National and patriotic movements were not broadly developed in post Soviet Kazakhstan due to historical and political reasons. Nationalism ideology failed in the republic and did not develop into a dominating trend of internal policy. That is why history of Kazakhstan and especially the language gained meaning of a national idea among national patriots. They assigned to the language a part of rousing national feeling of the Kazakhs which was amorphous at that time and integration of the people based on political idea. Language was used as a tool to identify the Kazakh ethnos and to shape a new sociocultural contest of its existence in political and legal conditions of the post Soviet period. But on the other hand having provided the Kazakh language with a status of an equivalent of the national idea it was difficult to avoid assigning sacral meaning to it. The Kazakh language was begun to be perceived as a treasury of the national culture and therefore its role and position were determined by the moral and ethical mission which was imposed on it in the work of reviving national self-awareness.

Meanwhile, representatives of Slavic movements of Kazakhstan maintained an opposite view of the language problem. In their opinion the Russian language also has to be assigned status of the state language. Arguments in favor of that stance were its popularity in the post soviet space, wide sphere of application in the republic, poliethnic composition of Kazakhstan’s population. However, status of the official language granted to the Russian language the field of use and opportunities of application of which are not less than those compared to the Kazakh even though guaranteed by the Constitution caused their vigorous protests. Slavic public movements held several campaigns including pickets, meetings, demonstrations and even arranged a number of publications in printed mass media and speeches on TV where they stated their disagreement with unequal in their opinion status of the languages. They argued that it indicated obvious discrimination in terms of language. Thus, a linguistic problem despite constitutional guarantees of ensuring full functioning of the languages was in their opinion direct consequence of unequal legal status of the languages.

It should be said that those statements of representatives of the two ethnoses contained more commitment and political assessment rather than constitutional and legal since in fact a language is rather a tool than a feature of political status or sacred value. First of all it is a tool of communication and exchange of information. And this is functional mission of the use of language. Even though an opportunity to settle linguistic clashes within the constitutional and legal process is first of all connected with use of a functional approach to settlement of language-related problems.


1. Sapargaliyev G. (2007). Constitutional law: academic course. Almaty: Zhety Zhargy, p.6.

2. Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan. (2009). Almaty: Zhety Zhargy, p.72.

3. Ibidem. p.72.

4. Ignatov F. (1990, 9 September). For the sake of concord. Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, p.1.

5. Potential ethnic conflicts in Kazakhstan and preventive ethnoploicy. (1997). Almaty: KISI. P.24.

6. Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan. (2009). Almaty: Zhety Zhargy, p.76.

7. Akava A. (1992, 28 November). Meeting is put off. Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, p.2.

8. Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan. (2009). Almaty: Zhety Zhargy.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011

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