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Post-soviet Kazakhstan trajectories of a cosmopolitan space

Abstract. In the world of cosmopolitan redefining the very word ‘cosmopolitanism’ has numerous shades additionally associated with social conditions, social and cultural processes and individual behavior. The present study focuses on the condition of ‘cosmopolitanism’ in Kazakhstan. The fact that there are a number of factors which define the dynamic in the post-Soviet Central Asia, such as social and cultural conditions, the world view, a simultaneous influence of various elements, according to the method of ‘concentric circles’ to study the phenomenon of ‘cosmopolitan world’, as well as a behavior, an attitude or a predisposition, which can be acquired to a larger extent through the experience, especially travelling, became a starting point of the analysis. The study concentrates on the relationship between the space and transitional identity in Kazakhstan during the post-Soviet period.

On cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanism has become a renewed field of enquiry since the 2000s. A very simple meaning of cosmopolitanism is ‘a way of being in the world’[1] and as a willingness to engage the Other. The idea of cosmopolitanism has evolved from Kantian philosophical tradition [2]. Over time, questions have been raised about Kantian philosophy of Enlightenment and the concept has been reframed in the light of social and cultural contexts that transcend bounded and nation-state formulations. The idea has expanded to include a wide range of social and cultural theories stretched across cultures and disciplines–philosophy, sociology, political theory and anthropology. With such changes in methodological approaches to cosmopolitanism, the term came to denote a social position in which individuals and communities tend to have meaningful attachments. Today, the impression about cosmopolitanism is multiple allegiances to peoples, places and traditions that lie beyond the boundaries of the nationstate [3].

Multiple cosmopolitanisms also suggest ‘cosmopolitan sociability’[4]. There are two strands of cosmopolitan sensibility here: the older one that subscribes to the nation-state project and is primarily linked to elites, intellectuals and others; and the revised concept that seems to disapprove of the nation-state perspectives and is rooted in sensibilities of the diaspora and diverse socio-cultural groupings. But there are also sociable behavior patterns that go beyond these binary trajectories and have a shared sense of common sensibilities. Here we need to examine Asian discourses about plural loyalties-standing in many circles but having a common ground. This perspective takes researchers beyond the prism of binaries, i.e. exclusion versus inclusion, sameness versus difference and into the domain of cosmopolitan openness.

As the discussion moves to Asian cosmopolitanisms, one needs to consider the varieties that one gets to see here. The South Asian and Southeast Asian settings and perspectives are woven together in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, [5] in which the appeal lies in the connect- ing–across space and time–and a new cosmopolitanism is forged. The implication is imposition of nationalist frames on these historical and spatially interconnected formations and dispensations is erroneous.[6].

Variables of cosmopolitanism in Kazakhstan

Here, I am concerned with Kazakhstan’s cosmopolitan setting determined by the relationship between space and transitional identity. There are diverse and multiple engagements that should be looked into. The study tries to focus on such engagements in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, especially in the present millennium when its ‘competitive profile’ increased, either through eastward integration or through Eurasian partnerships or through collaborative ventures with East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. The interest lies in regional initiatives, especially linked to connectivity corridors and integrating oil-and-hydrocarbon resource based economies like Kazakhstan and Vietnam. In pursuance of its aims to diversify its economy, Kazakhstan has ventured into newer domains like East Asia and Southeast Asia. President Nazarbayev’s fascination for successful Asian models was reflected in his much – publicized autobiography The Kazakhstan Way: ‘My point is that the quest for the best model is still going on around the world. Here in Kazakhstan I’m trying to adopt the good experiences of other countries and get rid of the bad practices of the past.’[7]. The Kazakhs are keeping all their options open: seeking a central role in the New Silk Road initiative of the US, permitting pervasive Chinese presence in their economy, promoting bilateral and institutional ties with the EU, becoming a member of the Eurasian Union and looking for alternatives in Southeast Asia. "Diversification" is the name of the new Kazakh game.

Cosmopolitanism in Kazakhstan attracted widespread attention especially in the context of post-Soviet nation-building. Basically the interest is in the performance of post-Soviet regimes as Kazakhstan. In dealing with the ‘appearance’ of a post-Soviet set-up, the assumption is about new forms, rather than old forms-a sudden break rather than continuity of past political and social traditions. What is interesting is the extremely varied nature of these views and also the variety of interpretations about historical and contemporary events. It is the diverse opinions that make Kazakhstan’s cosmopolitan setting a unique case study.

Cosmopolitanism, extremely attractive to an international audience, is often posited as the opposite pole of ethno-nationalism in Kazakhstan. Broadly speaking, the cosmopolitans are an internationalist group that comprises of a wide-spectrum of intellectuals in the political, cultural and economic spheres. Most of the cosmopolitans belong to what may be loosely called "the new sector" in Kazakhstan, and have carved a niche in the economy and politics of Kazakhstan. Cosmopolitanism is often labeled as ‘cosmopolitan consumerism’, whereby the ability of Kazakhstan, with its large market potential, to influence people’s attitudes and purchase behavior also has an effect on consumer willingness to buy domestic and foreign goods in Kazakhstan and therefore also affects its integration into world economy [8]. States like Kazakhstan are being advertised as ‘brand states’, the success of which depends to a large extent on trust and customer satisfaction. So, here we are talking about the state’s personality and the preference is increasingly about Kazakhstan’s global image as an oil-rich country which can compete with other aspirants like China and Vietnam that have been looking for an entry into Kazakhstan’s oil fields since the late 1990’s. This brand named Kazakhstan has a completely different take on the management of its resources-and this makes its collaborative stance towards its eastern neighbours more appealing and attractive.

These profiles of Kazakhstan-the national, the regional and the international-make its attractive over others. The national profile is pitched on Nazarbayev’s governance which depicts an unusual combination of urban transformation (centred round Astana and Akmolinsk oblast) and a selective treatment of its ethnic groups (preferences being for the titular nationality or the otanlar, which is a generic name for those belonging to the Kazakh homeland). But what stands out is the wider milieu of a cosmopolitan Almaty which is the home of educated Russian population and the cultural elite which is juxtaposed to citified Astana that has been recommended by Nazarbayev’s government as the ‘appropriate site’ of the Kazakhs’ steppe identity. The variety is also seen in the case of Uyghur neighbourhoods of Almaty, in the frontiers of Akmolinsk oblast reminiscent of Tsarist Russia’s Cossack military fortresses, in gulag (concentration camp) memorials near Akmo- linsk/Tselinograd/Astana and in the Caspian hub Atyrau that is iconized as the oil fountain of the present century and the game changer of Kazakh economy.

The hypothesis of this study is the cosmopolitan environment of diverse settings and not only of capital cities, Almaty and Astana. It is true that the iconic capitals have generated a lot of hope among the rich and the powerful. But, what cannot be ignored is the wider reach of Eurasian and global engagements in which western port cities like Atyrau play a prominent role. TCO and the Kashagan oil project (now dumped by the government) are the rallying point of several western companies as well as collaborative projects that are being showcased in a major way. Also attractive is the Russian environment in northern Kazakhstan with Kokshetau, situated at the junction of the Kazakh- Siberian Railway network and emerging as the regional centre of Akmola oblast with a city akimat exercising authority that is beyond the President’s control. It thrives as an eco-region with government’s development programmes on the priority list.

At the same time, there is creeping disillusionment among Kazakhs about the regime’s modernization projects like transfer of capital from Almaty to Astana and more recently the devaluation of the tenge. While the euphoria among the capital’s elite groups about Nazarbayev’s governance persists, there is a wide variety of relational shifts between Kazakhs and Russians, Kazakhs and Germans, Kazakhs and Koreans, Kazakhs and Mongols and so on. The present study takes into account such variables of cosmopolitanism in Kazakhstan.

Borderlands and the aspect of belonging

The aspect of shared spaces determines the relationship between the cosmopolitan space that Kazakhstan represents and its borderland identities. The Kazakhs’ attachment to their homeland is a constant-but the question is whether that territorial reality fits into other paradigms of identity and belonging. Such questions arise in the case of Mongolian Kazakhs and Uyghurs of Semirechie-in both cases the sentiment of place is far stronger compared to the overwhelming global experiences of the mainland Kazakhs. The emotional attachment is far greater in these two cases.

The Uyghurs have a strong attachment to their place of origin, i.e. Semirechie. Compact Uyghur settlements in south east Kazakhstan which straddles the China border denote an autochthonous community with a localized Semi- rechien attachment. Here, the emphasis is more on the meaningful presence of the Uyghurs as a dynamic Central Asian community originating in the Semirechie region and living in compact settlements in south east Kazakhstan, mainly in the Almaty district.

The sense of belonging is different in the case of the Kazakhs of western Mongolia. Mongolian Kazakhs live in the Western aimaq (province) of Bayan-Ulgii, a region that is near Kazakhstan yet separated by small strips of territory that belongs to Russia and China. Similar to the perceptions of Chinese Kazakhs, the attractiveness of better life in Kazakhstan created an urge to immigrate to the ethnic homeland. Alexander Diener argues that some of the earliest migrants were Kazakh elites who lived in Ulaanbaatar and who believed it was important to raise their children in the Kazakh homeland.

These migrants were followed by those searching for economic opportunities as conditions in Bayan-Ulgii quickly deteriorated in the early 1990s. Ironically, the Mongolian Kazakhs have preserved Kazakh culture and language to a greater extent than many Kazakhstani Kazakhs whose first language is often Russian. A significant number of Mongolian Kazakhs chose to return to Mongolia after spending several years in Kazakhstan. Unlike others, they have chosen not to migrate to their Kazakh homeland [9].

The Kazakhs’ attachment to their homeland is a constant; what is variable is whether that territorial reality fits other paradigms of identity and belonging. So, it is the element of hybridity that has entered the debate about ‘transnationalism’ and ‘diaspora’ which is extremely relevant in the context of Mongolian Kazakhs who trace their origins to Kazakh territories in western China but have been blocked from the other side of the Altai due to the creation of international borders in the 1930’s that made Mongolia a Soviet ally and cut it off from Chinese Altai. In the aftermath of Soviet disintegration, the predicament of the bordering regions increased. The factor of emotional attachment was far greater-the emotional connection with specific landscapes is extremely strong rather than cultural association with the Kazakhs. There seems to be a stronger ‘place identity’ rather than a desire to be part of the global experience. The Uyghurs with a Semirechien attachment have experienced a feeling of ‘in-between-ness’. The emphasis here is on the Uyghurs as a dynamic Turkic community having a meaningful presence in the Central Asian region.

Memories of exclusion

Other non-titular nationalities like the Germans and the Koreans who became victims of Soviet deportation share a different psyche. Memory-driven consciousness among the Kazakhs as victims of Soviet deportation come alive in Alzhir Memorial Complex in Malininka village 40 miles west of Astana where a memorial complex-the Akmola Deportation camp of Wives of Traitors of the Revolution. The memorial bears testimony to broken families and sorrows of women and children of Kazakh, Uzbek, Azeri, Polish, German and Korean backgrounds who were forced into a life of seclusion in these camps in the 1930s.

There are variations in the psyche of people in other regions of Kazakhstan. The continuity of tribal tradition is the dominant feature in the Akmolinsk oblast. Astana is at the centre of this oblast. Situated beside River Ishim and its tributary Esil it is the Heart of Eurasia (with depictions of steppe settlements like Bozok that originated in the medieval period and was transformed into a city ‘that never sleeps’)[10]. In Almaty, the feeling of attachment prevails among generations with live-in experience. The factor of emotional attachment is strongest in the case of the Uyghurs of Semirechie who live in compact settlements in Zarya Vostoka district of Almaty. Kokshetau, a quaint provincial town in north Kazakhstan is a living memory of Soviet past, immortalized by the regional museum Istoriko-kraevedcheskie muzei under the patronage of Department of Culture of Akmolinsk Oblast (Upravleniya Kultury, Akmolinsk Oblast) stored with memorabilia belonging to Soviet patrons of music, sports and art. Kokshetau is also immortalized as the native place of the Kazakh ethnographer Chokan Valikha- nov who belonged to a noble Kazakh lineage.


Such tangled emotions unfolded right in front of my eyes-during my research trips to Kazakhstan during 2012–2015. Initially, like most global observers, my basic interest was in the appearance of cosmopolitanism, governed by ideologies like Eurasianism that have been nurtured for a fairly long time. Both in Astana and Almaty, such voices of cosmopolitanism are heard and seen-very strongly among academic circles and institutions like Nazarbayev University and Lev Gumilev University (in Astana), Turan University in Almaty and among limited circles in Kazakh National University (KazNu) and R.B. Suleimanov Institute of Oriental Studies in Almaty patronised by the Ministry of Science and Education. Gradually however, the Kazakh conscience representing diverse sentiments tended to unfold and these unravelled more interesting images about Kazakhstan’s past and the present.

The present study takes into account such variables of cosmopolitanism in Kazakhstan. It aims to represent competing narratives about Kazakhstan. Narratives flow from a variety of impressions not just about ethnicity but also a variety of non-ethnic markers of identity (like nomadic tradition), developmental dynamics, relational shifts from the Soviet to the postSoviet periods and intra-regional complexities.



  1. Jeremy Waldron, ‘What is cosmopolitan?’ The Journal of Political Philosophy, 8 (2), 2000, pp. 227-243.
  2. In Kantian philosophy, cosmopolitanism denoted Western prescriptions of allegiance to the world community. Today, it has a resonance in a wide range of cultural, social and political currents throughout the world. But instead of European universalism which has been translated into some kind of European order, revisionist writings have focussed on Asian variants of cosmopolitanism. Gerard Delanty, ‘The cosmopolitan imagination: critical cosmopolitanism and social theory’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol 57, Issue No 1, 2006.
  3. Peng Cheah, Bruce Robbins edited Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
  4. Nina Glick Shiller, Tsypylma Darieva and Sandra Gruner-Domic, ‘Defining cosmopolitan sociability in a transnational age. An introduction’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol 34, Issue 3, 2011.
  5. Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide, New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2011.
  6. Mentioned works of P. Cheah and B. Robbins, Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the nation, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1998; Sanjay Subrahmanyam,‘Connected histories: notes towards the reconfiguration of early modern Eurasia’, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 1997, pp. 735-762 and more in editorial by Sharmani P. Gabriel and Fernando Rosa, Introduction: ‘Lived cosmopolitanisms’ in littoral Asia, Cultural Dynamics, 24 (2-3), 2012.
  7. Nursultan Nazarbayev, The Kazakhstan Way, Stacey International, 2007.
  8. Liza Rybina et al, ‘Patriotism, cosmopolitanism, consumer ethnocentrism and purchase behaviour in Kazakhstan’, Organizations and Markets in Emerging Economies, Vol 1, No 2, 2010.
  9. The ambiguity has been explained in the following research articles: One Homeland or Two? The nationalization and Transnationalization of Mongolia’s Kazakhs, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2009, Diener, ‘Kazakhstan’s Kin state Diaspora: Settlement Planning and the Oralman Dilemma’, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol 57, No 2, March 2005; Diener, ‘Problematic Integration of Mongolian-Kazakh Return Migrants in Kazakhstan’, Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vol 46, No 6, 2005.
  10. ‘Tsentr Evrazii’, www.republika.kz, 5 Iuliya 2012; ‘Astana. Retrospektiva’, No 73, Subbota, 26 Iuniya, 2010 goda. Astana has been promoted by the regime as the "geopolitical center of Eurasia," an image that is inscribed in and through the city’s symbolic and urban landscapes. Astana’s geopolitical and nationalist rhetoric have been shaped by a number of factors: the environment, lived experience, the spectacle, the sport, the international presence and regional differentiation.

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