Focused Discussions, Race & Society

Nation Building in Central Asia Working Group II

Nation Building in Central Asia

On August 12–13, 2018, the Center for International and Regional studies (CIRS) held the second working group under its research initiative on “Nation-Building in Central Asia.” Over the course of two days, scholars were convened to present and critique a number of papers that tackled issues relevant to nation-building, such as: multiculturalism, civic identity, migration, perceptions of national identity, food and culinary identity, Islam, socio-cultural integration, and nomadism. 

Aziz Burkhanov initiated the working group discussions with his article on “Multiculturalism, Civic Identity, and Nation Building in Kazakhstan.” In his paper, Burkhanov examines issues of multiculturalism and civic identity in Kazakhstan. He argues that since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, like many other post-Soviet states, has faced a challenge of creating a new sense of national identity. Burkhanov analyzes three main aspects of the recent trends in Kazakhstan’s ethnic diversity policies. He complements that by incorporating perceptions of the civic ‘Kazakhstani’ national identity in the discourses of Kazakh- and Russian-language media, highlighting the divergent views on civic nationhood in these two linguistic realms. Finally, Burkhanov triangulates his results with data from surveys conducted in Kazakhstan in 2005 and 2016 to explore any substantial dynamics in the respondents’ perception vis-à-vis the ethnic-civic national identity issues. By incorporating these different approaches, this study illustrates the complexity of the Kazakhstani supranational identity project, and how this project is reflected in state policies, media discourse, and popular perceptions. 

Ruslan Rahimov shifted the working group discussions to “State, Migration, and the Nation Building Process in Central Asia: Resources, Perception, and Practices.” Rahimov’s paper demonstrates the various ways in which states dealt with migration and nation-building processes in Central Asia, with a particular emphasis on emergent trends in Kyrgyzstan. Premised on the assumption that nation-building involves the construction of ideational and expressive processes emphasizing the uniqueness of a nation, Rahimov asserts that the ways in which Central Asian countries have dealt with transnational migration have influenced broader nation-building policies.  

Dina Sharipova builds on Burkhanov’s paper in her discussion on “Perceptions of National Identity in Kazakhstan: Evidence from a Nation-wide Survey.” Sharipova argues that although much research has been done on nation building in Central Asia, little has been written on people’s perceptions of their national identity. Hence, she analyzes in her paper the results of an original nation-wide survey (N= 1,600) conducted in January 2016 in Kazakhstan. Based on her analysis, Sharipova argues that national identity in Kazakhstan is multilayered and context specific. Kazakhs use citizenship, patriotism, knowledge of history, respect of laws, and political institutions as well as the knowledge of Kazakh language as identity markers. Sharipova goes in depth to analyze the variant perceptions of civic and ethnic identities, usage of the Kazakh language, and religion as elements of Kazakh’s identities. She concludes that despite the growing significance of religion in Kazakhs’ daily lives, it does not overshadow ethnic and civic identities that continue to be the dominant identity markers in Kazakhstan. 

Aida Alymbaeva focused her discussion on “Nations of Plov and Beshbarmak: Central Asian Food and National Identity on the Internet.” In her paper, Alymbaeva surveys the ways how Central Asian food and nation have been imagined and interpreted in the Internet space. She argues that in the Internet, Central Asian food and cuisine have been directly connected to ideas of nation. In other words, food and dishes have contributed ostensibly to the imagination of Central Asian nations. Ideas of belonging and materiality have been interactively and constantly produced, re-produced, narrated, and contested by various actors–individuals and institutions—in the Internet space. Alymbaeva claims that within the virtual phatic communions of known dishes people now associate or dissociate themselves from nations beyond necessity of contact: imagination became not only visually much available, but has also become simultaneously shareable with the globe because of the Internet.

Mukaram Toktogulva discussed “Islam in the Context of Nation Building in Kyrgyzstan: Reproduced Practices and Contested Discourses.” In her paper, Toktogulva examines local practices of Islam, and diverse, sometimes conflicting, understandings of those practices in Talas, Osh, and Naryn regions of Kyrgyzstan. She focuses on Muslims’ reproduction and recreation of local practices of Islam in ways that are meaningful for them. In addition to illustrations of local practices, Toktogulva explores discourses about the meaning and role of Islam in present socio-cultural context. The analysis of diverse understanding of Islam highlights, on the one hand, how state officials redefine the role and meaning of “proper” Islam through strict regulation of religious sphere, and how different groups of the society respond to those official regulations. On the other hand, this analysis also shows how alternative meanings of Islam are emerged in local practices, and how ordinary people interpret these practices’ significance.

Building on Toktogulva’s discussion, Laura G. Yerekesheva presented her paper on “Religion and Socio-Cultural Integration: Functions of Religion and Dynamics of Nation Building in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.” In her paper, Yerekesheva explores the interlinks between nation building and religion as part of social integration. The author looks beyond the strict institutionalized approaches of social integration by studying: the interactions between the inclusive cultural system and its religious subsystem; and functions of religion on institutional, relational, and cognitive planes. Through these lenses, Yerekesheva studies the nation-building process taking place in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan throughout the last two and half decades.

Finally, Elizabeth Wanucha presented Diana T. Kudaibergenova’s paper on “Bringing the Nomads Back In!: Horses, Warriors, Nation-Building and “Nomadism” Discourses in Central Asia.” Kudaibergenova argues that discourses of “nomadism”, which embody lost heritage of the Eurasian steppe and the core of the authentic Kazakh identity, became the most ubiquitous artistic and literary representations expressed by Kazakhstani Soviet intellectuals and artists since the 1960s. This concept of nomadic heritage also constituted an important part of both the official nation building and independent cultural production. Kudaibergenova also claims that Kazakh writers meticulous researched and constructed the basis and genealogy of nomadic heritage in the post-Stalinist period. This wave of romanticized nomadism was developed further with the formation of the contemporary Kazakh art in the late 1980s and the beginning of 1990s. Post-1991 the political elites incorporated these discourses of nomadic heritage into the official nation-building policy envisioned by the president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. In modern Kazakhstan multiple nomadism discourses are blended in official iconography, heritage management, souvenirization as well as artistic critique. The author concludes that different discourses of nomadism represent a field for contestations and re-contextualization of intellectuals’ own identity in the Soviet period, state’s reconceptualization of national ideology, and a constructed idea of national authenticity.

It is worth mentioning that the aforementioned papers will be published as a special issue of a journal by CIRS 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
  • Diana Kudaibergenova, University of Cambridge, UK
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Abdul Rehmaan Qayyum, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Ruslan Rahimov, American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic
  • Dina Sharipova, KIMEP University, Kazakhstan
  • Jackie Starbird, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mukaram Toktogulova, American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Laura Yerekesheva, Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS