President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev won Kazakhstan’s June 9 elections with 70 percent of the vote, while his closest challenger, Amirzhan Kosanov, obtained around 16 percent. With the Central Asian nation’s transition of power now complete, policymakers in the capital Nur-Sultan can focus on improving the lives of 18 million Kazakhstanis. Part of their work is maintaining respect and tolerance toward the country’s minorities and religious diversity.
Ethnic and Religious Groups
For a country with a fairly small population, Kazakhstan has always stood out for its diversity. The country reportedly has 130 nationalities, according to the Kazakhstani embassy in Washington, DC; they include Kazakhs, naturally, as well as ethnic Russians (the second largest group), Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans, Tatars, and Uighurs, among others.
Similarly, the country is well known for its religious diversity; Sunni Muslims constitute the majority, followed by Christians. According to the US State Department, other religions and denominations include Shaffi Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Christian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahais, and Jews, among others. Unsurprisingly, major cities and town have a diverse religious infrastructure. One obvious example is the Hazrat Sultan Mosque in Nur-Sultan, which opened in 2012, while Almaty hosts the Ascension Cathedral. The late Pope John Paul II visited Kazakhstan in 2001, and in 2003 he elevated Astana (now Nur-Sultan) to an archdiocese. As for the country’s Jewish community, it is mostly centered around Almaty.
Kazakhstan’s constitution dictates that the country is a secular state (Article I), and individuals cannot be discriminated due to their religion (Article XIV), while other laws state that it is illegal to coerce a person into changing his or her religious beliefs.
To his credit, the rule of long-term President Nursultan Nazarbayev (1991–2019) was marked by internal stability and general tolerance toward the country’s plethora of ethnic groups and varied religious beliefs. For example, it was during his presidency in 2003 that the Kazakhstani government organized the first Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, the most recent of which took place in October 2018. Hence, Kazakhstan has not experienced a civil war like neighboring Tajikistan (1992–97), nor has it faced separatist regions like in Nagorno-Karabakh, between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Similarly, the country has not experienced major terrorist activities caused by radical fanatics in recent years, the tragic attacks of 2016 notwithstanding. This situation is aided by the country’s geographical location, as the four other Central Asian countries (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) serve as a barrier that has so far prevented Afghanistan-based violent extremists from reaching Kazakhstan. In contrast, Kazakhstan’s neighbors have suffered from this type of violence recently. For example, four cyclists (three European and one US citizen) were murdered by Islamic State fighters in July 2018 in Tajikistan, while Uzbekistan is now known as a territory ripe for recruitment for ISIS.
An obvious concern for Nur-Sultan is preventing extreme ideologies, masked under the veil of religion, to expand and foment violent activities—terrorist incidents in Kazakhstan are few, but they have occurred, like the 2011 suicide bombing and 2016 attacks in Aktobe. To this end, the Kazakhstani government has created an agency tasked with cracking down on extremism and illegal activities, called the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Civil Society, which in June 2018 was renamed as the Ministry of Social Development.
Other countries have passed draconian laws to stop extremism from expanding—for example, Kyrgyzstan passed laws that allow the imprisonment of individuals who possess “extremist materials.” The government of China has gone even farther, as it has sent tens of thousands of Uyghurs (as well as ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs) to so-called “education camps” in Xinjiang. Beijing argues that these centers are aimed at imprisoning extremists, but they are generally regarded as China’s attempt to eradicate Uyghur culture and identity. While there have been some concerning incidents against religious organizations or individuals, like Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the situation in Kazakhstan is significantly more tolerant than in neighboring states.
Kazakhstan is Washington’s closest ally in Central Asia, as Nur-Sultan has maintained a US-friendly attitude in recent years. The most recent high-level meeting between the two governments occurred very recently, in early July, when Foreign Affairs Minister Beibut Atamkulov met with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in Washington, DC, on July 2 to discuss bilateral cooperation. The State Department “welcomed recent statements by [Tokayev] on increasing political participation in Kazakhstan and actions to strengthen the protection of fundamental freedoms for the people of Kazakhstan.”
Without a doubt, the arrest of many Kazakhstanis who protested the elections on June 9 has left a sour taste in the mouth of the international community. Hence, it is important for President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to change this perception by opening up to the country’s civic opposition movements—he has promised as much already. Since achieving independence almost three decades ago, Kazakhstan has performed a commendable job at protecting its ethnic and religious diversity, but this is obviously a never-ending task. Keeping Kazakhstan stable and peaceful can only be achieved by promoting unity among its people.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: Fishing in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, with the Ak Orda Presidential Palace in the background. By Акимхан Бозтай, via Pixabay.