Focused Discussions, Race & Society

Nation Building in Central Asia Working Group I

Nation Building in Central Asia

On January 21-22, 2018, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) convened a working group on “Nation Building in Central Asia.” The working group took place under the larger CIRS research project which aims to examine various social and political processes that have been taking place in Central Asia following the dismantling of the Soviet Union. With the establishment of the new successor states in the early 1990s, Central Asian powers undertook the enormous task of building cohesive, unified states, while still contending with the legacy of the USSR and the challenges of trying to accommodate various minority groups and dislocated populations, all while struggling to assert full sovereign control over their newly established territories. These efforts introduced or mobilized competing ethnic, nationalistic, and territorial claims, the effects of which are still emerging. During the January working group, the group of assembled experts’ primary objective was to identity original research questions in relation to Central Asian nation-building processes and provide guidance on where the focus of the project ought to be. Some of the topics that scholars addressed during the working group included: migration and transnationalism; regional integration; food culture and identity; national identity in Kazakhstan; religion and identity in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; and language policies in Kyrgyzstan.

Ruslan Rahimov led the first of the working group discussions, focusing on “Migration, Transnationalism, and Nation Building in Central Asia.” The fall of the Soviet Union left the newly formed Central Asian states with the encumbrance of weak territorial boundaries. Population transfers and interregional mobility patterns that had taken place during the Soviet Union’s own state formation efforts have left their imprint on the region, and these effects can be felt until today. Migration and mobility continue to be challenging features of the region that have impacted nation-building efforts of Central Asian states, particularly for the smaller states of the region. One of the key questions that still needs to be fully explored is the capacity of a small state to build a coherent nation within the context of mass migration, continuous movement and mobility, as well as brain drain as skilled citizens leave. In addition, other important current areas which need further study are the consequences of internal migration; Chinese migration to Central Asia; dependency on remittance flows from Russia; and how migrants may serve as a political tool in Post-Soviet countries’ interstate relations.

Nargis Kassenova continued the discussion by examining “Regional Integration and Nation Building in Central Asia.” Focusing on a case study of Kazakhstan’s regional foreign policy, Kassenova stated that while there is an established scholarly literature on the country’s relations and policies towards global actors such as the Russia, the European Union, Eurasia and the United States, there has been far less work on how Kazakhstan engages with its immediate neighborhood. Kassenvoa highlighted six understudied areas where there is a need for further research. First with regards to regional cooperation at the sub-state level, how do national business try to work in the region? Second, how do Central Asian youth feel about their region and their place in it? Third, what does Central Asian identity mean in terms of actual mobility and attributes of collective identity? Fourth, is Central Asia limited to the former Soviet states, or its boundaries could be extended to other countries, such as Afghanistan? Fifth, what role did the withdrawal of Russia from the region play in consolidating a Central Asian identity? Finally, to what extent is Central Asian identity influenced by outside actors such as Russia, US and others?

Aida Alymbaeva shifted the discussion to “Food Culture and Identity in Central Asia.” In her discussion, Alymbaeva highlighted the politicization of food both at the state and societal levels. In her discussion, she focused on Kyrgyzstan raising questions on multiple issues, among which: the role of media in localizing dishes, the construction of cuisine in the Soviet era versus current time, and how comparing food traditions and dishes across regions can draw a different geographical map.  Alymbaeva also discussed issues around hospitality, the role of modernization and globalization in influencing the local, national, and regional cuisine, the role of food in the nationalization process, how economics influence food traditions, the revival of Islam and its influence on food culture, and the takeover of fast-food chains.

Aziz Burkhanov focused the discussion with his presentation on “National Identity and Nation Building in Kazakhstan.” Burkhanov listed four main issues that deserve further study. First is multiculturalism and the policy of ethnic particularism sponsored by the Kazakhstani government. He argued that the state funds ethnic (non-Kazakh) cultural centers questioning how this relates to “civic Kazakhstani nationhood”. Second, Burkhanov raised a question on youth, born after 1991, and their perception of Kazakhstaniness/Kazakhness in light of the rural (Kazakh)-urban (non-Kazakh) divide in the societal discourse. Third, he highlighted the usage of urban public spaces (monuments, billboards, etc.) and how the state uses such pomp for its national identity propaganda. Finally, he argued that most scholarship is based on Russian-language sources and discourse, while Kazakh-language discourse tends to be somewhat overlooked. This makes the Kazakh-language discourse, for its important and interesting discussions on various visions of identity, worth exploring.

Laura Yerekesheva shifted the discussion to “Religion and Nation Building in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.” Yerekesheva argued that the deterministic approach in studying nation-building based on political, economic, and social organization doesn’t accommodate other areas of development in ideas, consciousness, memories, traditions, etc. Thus, the concept of identity and culture–as a conglomeration of symbol-based traditions—is in fact equally or more important than political and economic variables. Yerekhsheva insisted that one has to make a distinction between cultural identity and national identity. Cultural identity can be considered as more cohesive and represents the broader identity affiliations of a group, while national identity is often imposed by the state, and tends to be narrowly defined. Germane to this discussion, Yerekesheva argued that religion is a key variable in cultural identity but in Central Asian national identity development projects, religion is often not included as a result of state restriction. In Central Asia the role and influence of religion has in principle been highlighted in the historical realm of the region without an adequate attention paid to how it informs or influences contemporary modes of identify formation. Yerekesheva suggested that as a result there are multiple areas that need further study when it comes to religion in Central Asia, and among other things suggested the need to examine: the heritage and influence of Sufism in Central Asia; national cultural heritage programs and religion; the influence of religious radicalism and state efforts to address this threat; and the role of Arab countries in preparing teaching, training, and supporting Muslim scholars and Imams in Central Asia.

Mukaram Toktogulova led the final discussion of the working group and explored “Language Policies and National Identity in Kyrgyzstan.” Toktogulova argued that language policies in Kyrgyzstan are ostensibly influenced by the pervasive ideologies adopted at the realm of the state. Since language policies are closely linked to language practice, the public interprets such policies in their own way as they practice language. In the nation-building process that has started post-independence, differences in language and dialects became more important for people as a tool to differentiate between ethnic identities. This is reflected in the integration and assimilation with first Arabic and Latin, and then Cyrillic writing systems. Toktogulova argued that the use of Russian, national language, or a mix of both has naturally resulted in a mixed language, which the state then has exerted palpable efforts to “purify”. Such efforts included issuing laws on official language, and requiring passing standardized Kyrgyz language tests for state employees. Such societal and state efforts raise questions around the pushing for regional integration as replacing Russian with Kyrgyz language obliterates one common variable that peoples across the region share. The state’s replacement of Russian with the national language also raises questions about the future of migration to Russian.

Scholars have been now invited to study some of these research questions, among others, in written papers to be presented and critiqued at a second meeting to be held next the summer. CIRS aims to publish the written contributions in an edited volume in the near future.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Aida Alymbaeva, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Aziz Burkhanov, Nazarbayev University, Republic of Kazakhstan
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Nargis Kassenova, KIMEP University, Kazakhstan
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Ruslan Rahimov, American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan
  • Mukaram Toktogulova, American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Laura Yerekesheva, R. B. Suleimenov Institute of Oriental Studies

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS