Wednesday, 24 April 2024

Kazakhstan Resurrects Golden Horde in Political Messaging Featured

Published in Analytical Articles

By Dmitry Shlapentokh

April 24, 2024

Recently, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev delivered a public address wherein he underscored the significance of the Golden Horde, also known as Ulus Jochi, to Kazakhstan. He emphasized that Kazakhstan stands as the true descendant of the Golden Horde, equating its historical importance to that of the Roman Empire. Tokayev emphasized the importance of ensuring international recognition of this fact. Additionally, he announced the commissioning of a comprehensive multi-volume history of Kazakhstan, with a dedicated volume specifically focusing on Ulus Jochi and its pivotal role in shaping Kazakhstan’s history. Tokayev’s recent revival of this ideology suggests that Kazakhstan, in stark contrast to Russia and implicitly other post-Soviet states, espouses principles of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

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BACKGROUND: Eurasianism, which emerged among Russian emigres in the early 20th century, became a prominent ideology in the post-Soviet era, particularly in Russia and Kazakhstan. Its central premise revolves around the assumption that Russia and the USSR represents a unique civilization, blending Slavs—predominantly Russians, historically Orthodox—and mostly Turkic peoples, historically Muslims. Eurasianism found eager acceptance among segments of the Russian and Kazakh populations as it addressed the interests of the elite. For the Russian elite, Eurasianism primarily served as a manifestation of its enduring claim over the post-Soviet space, promoting an ideology of symbiotic relations between Russians and ethnic minorities. This implication of Eurasianism held particular significance for Kazakhstan, given its multiethnic population and the predominant presence of ethnic Russians in the northern part of the country.

As time progressed, Eurasianism declined in both Russia and Kazakhstan, driven by a variety of factors. In Russia, events such as the wars with Chechnya, ethnic riots—including those in Kondopoga and Stavropol—and a growing aversion towards migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia eroded the notion of “Eurasian” symbiosis, transforming the Soviet-era slogan of “friendship of the people.” In Kazakhstan, fear of Russian separatism and declining numbers of Russian speakers also prompted a shift among the elite away from the original ideals of Eurasianism.

The manifestation of this decline in Eurasianism was evident in various Russian cinematic portrayals. In the film “Mongol,” Russia, personified by Genghis Khan, was depicted as mistreated and ultimately seeking brutal revenge. Conversely, in “Horde,” Mongol/Tatar characters were portrayed as savage brutes unrelated to peaceful Christian Russians. A similar message was conveyed in “Kolovrat”, which focused on the Mongol invasion.

Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and confrontation with the West, the notion of “Eurasian” symbiosis did not experience a resurgence. Instead, any rapprochement with Asia was driven by pragmatic geopolitics or economic interests. This lack of resurgence did not lead to an ideology of trans-ethnic “Eurasian” symbiosis, and the policy of Russification continued unabated. Indeed, “Russianness” became associated not with ethnicity or citizenship but with language and culture, shaping the concept of the “Russian world.”

IMPLICATIONS: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 raised concerns in the Kazakh government. However, it did not disrupt the ongoing process of “Kazakhization.” Parallel to the “Russian world,” “Kazakhization” implied that ethnicity played a minimal role, and anyone could be considered Kazakh if they spoke the Kazakh language. This concept was exemplified in the film “Tomiris,” which depicted the defeat of the Persian King by the Massagetae. In the film, Queen Tomiris, portrayed with Indo-European features, spoke an “ancient Turkic language.” This model closely resembled the “Russian world,” which suggested that anyone could be viewed as “Russian” regardless of their ethnicity.

Kazakhstan maintained its commitment to similar policies, with President Tokayev emphasizing the crucial role of the Kazakh language. However, this decision to advance with “Kazakhization” was tempered by a renewed interest in Eurasianism, as evidenced by the elevation of the Golden Horde, implicitly praised as a mighty and advanced civilization. Yet, in this context, it represented more than just military prowess. It symbolized mutual tolerance and a “symbiotic” coexistence of different ethnicities and languages. It was this aspect, rather than solely cultural or economic advancements, that elevated the Golden Horde as a great and civilized state.

It was not coincidental that Tokayev likened the Golden Horde to the Roman Empire. In this comparison, the glory of Rome was not solely attributed to its military might, but rather to various attributes of its greatness. Rome established a “Pax Romanus,” a Roman world characterized by peace and tolerance, where numerous ethnicities and languages coexisted despite the dominance of Latin. Similarly, the Golden Horde represents a nation of diversity and multiculturalism, embodying essential attributes akin to those found in modern Western states that trace their origins back to the Roman Empire.

From this perspective, the Golden Horde, with its Eurasian multiethnic culture, paved the way for the creation of a multicultural Kazakhstan, akin to a distinct Asian variant of the Roman Empire. This analogy highlights the role of the Golden Horde in fostering a society where different ethnicities and cultures could flourish, contributing to the development of a diverse and harmonious nation reminiscent of the ideals embodied by the Roman Empire.
Another implication is that Kazakhstan, despite its physical location in Asia, could be perceived as a Western country characterized by tolerance and the symbiotic coexistence of all ethnicities and languages, regardless of the promotion of the dominant language, Kazakh. This appeal to multiculturalism, as embodied by the Golden Horde, carries significant relevance for Kazakhstan’s elite.

Their concern stems from the conflict in Ukraine, where linguistic and cultural differences between Eastern and Western Ukraine escalated tensions and provided a pretext for Russian intervention. Additionally, the presence of restless Russian minorities in some Baltic states posed a potential parallel to historical events, such as the Sudetenland crisis preceding the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. This historical context underscores the elite’s apprehension regarding the potential consequences of linguistic and cultural divisions within Kazakhstan, prompting a reevaluation of the country’s approach to multiculturalism and ethnic relations.

President Tokayev is evidently cognizant of the significant Russian-speaking population in the northern region of Kazakhstan, which harbors the potential for separatist sentiments. Additionally, he is aware of statements made by certain members of the Russian establishment, such as Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Duma deputy, who persists in claiming that Northern Kazakhstan is essentially Siberian territory, populated and developed by Russians, and that its transition to Kazakhstan was arbitrary and unlawful.

Furthermore, Tokayev is mindful of assertions made by Russian politicians, including President Putin, insinuating that Kazakhstan, along with other post-Soviet states, was artificially created by Lenin to fragment the cohesive Russian empire and appease minority groups. These statements highlight Tokayev’s awareness of external pressures and challenges to Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity and underscore the importance of his diplomatic and political maneuvers to address such concerns.

Tokayev endeavored to safeguard himself by maintaining a diplomatic rapport with the West, following the tradition established by his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and also fostering stronger ties with China. Additionally, he sought to bolster relations with neighboring Uzbekistan. Nonetheless, Tokayev recognized that in the event of significant turmoil, akin to the events experienced by Kazakhstan in 2022, these alliances will offer limited protection, particularly given the proximity of Russian forces. Indeed, in 2022, Russia temporarily deployed its military to Kazakhstan to quell unrest.

However, Tokayev acknowledged that the current situation might evolve, and President Putin could potentially exploit grievances among ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations to either advocate for the secession of Northern Kazakhstan or to transform Kazakhstan into a puppet state. Sensing these potential risks, Tokayev sought to “resurrect” Eurasianism, complementing his ongoing Kazakhization efforts. By praising the Golden Horde as a unique Eastern counterpart to the Roman Empire, which respected local minorities, Tokayev conveyed a clear message: while Kazakhization will continue, the rights of minorities, particularly the Russian-speaking population, will be upheld and respected.

CONCLUSIONS: The trajectory of development in Kazakhstan has mirrored the Russian model, suggesting a departure from the traditional trans-ethnic concept of “Eurasianism” towards a more nationally focused narrative. In both instances, the emphasis has shifted away from ethnic or biological attributes towards culture and language.

Simultaneously, the resurgence of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural tensions, as well as the looming specter of conflict or war, have prompted President Tokayev to revive Eurasianism by promoting the Golden Horde as the progenitor of Kazakhstan’s statehood. The Golden Horde symbolizes a distinct aspect of Kazakhstan’s historical prominence and underscores its claim to significance in the post-Soviet landscape. Moreover, it highlights Kazakhstan’s commitment to multiculturalism, even amid the ongoing process of Kazakhization. This juxtaposition underscores the complexities of Kazakhstan’s identity formation, as it navigates between national consolidation and the preservation of its diverse cultural heritage.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.

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