Perceptions of National Identity in Kazakhstan: Pride, Language, and Religion article by GSPP Assistant Professor Dina Sharipova

The Muslim World, vol 110 (1):89-106.

Dina Sharipova, Graduate School of Public Policy, Nazarbayev University

This article focuses on national identity and nation-building in Kazakhstan through the prism of a bottom-up approach by gauging the opinions of Kazakhstani people. It suggests that citizens’ perceptions of national identity are complex and diverse and might vary across social characteristics. As the study shows, national identity consists of people’s understandings and relationships to citizenship, religion, patriotism, and knowledge of history, to name a few. Previous research has shown that the citizens of Kazakhstan prioritize civic identity first followed by ethnic and regional identities. However, this study demonstrates that civic identity is not dominant in peoples’ self-identification. Ethnic and religious identities also play an important role in defining citizens’ self. Such coexistence of multiple identities with one overarching supra-ethnic Kazakhstani and subnational ethnic identities, highly resembles the Soviet model that continues to shape nation-building in the post-independence period. This study has also shown that the level of general pride associated with being Kazakhstani citizens has grown over the last twenty years. More people are proud to be citizens of Kazakhstan today. 

Although an abundance of research has been done on nation-building in Kazakhstan, little primary research has been conducted on people’s perceptions of national identity, religion, and language. This study is based on survey results in an attempt to answer the following questions: How do people perceive national identity in modern Kazakhstan? And what are the components of civic national identity according to the population? 

To answer these questions, the author used the results of an original nation-wide survey (N = 1600) conducted in January 2016, focus groups held in April 2017, and secondary resources. The survey was administered in both Kazakh and Russian languages (according to the interviewees’ preferences) by the local staff of the Center for Social and Political Research (CSPR). It was conducted in sixteen administrative regions of Kazakhstan—fourteen oblasts and two major cities, Almaty and Astana. A pilot survey of thirty-five respondents was also done before the actual survey was completed. 

Perceptions of National Identity: Civic, Ethnic, and Beyond 

What do Kazakh people think about their national identity? According to the survey, most people (93%) are “proud” to be citizens of Kazakhstan. No large differences were found across ethnic groups, place of residence, or gender. However, it is important to note that the percentage of those who were “very proud” of being Kazakhstani increased over time. For instance, in 2006, 50% of the respondents affirmed that they were “very proud” to have citizenship of Kazakhstan; in 2011, this number was 62%; and in 2016, it increased to 78%. This positive trend can be explained by improved standards of living compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. Kazakhstan has some socioeconomic advantages over other Central Asian states due to substantial oil revenues. Enhanced economic opportunities have contributed to people’s feelings of pride in their country. In addition, state rhetoric promoting a positive image of the country at the international arena and the Central Asian region also contributed to positive attitudes toward the country among the population.

Components of National Identity 

One of the issues explored in this study is the composition of civic national identity. The respondents were asked whether it was important to have citizenship of Kazakhstan, be born in Kazakhstan, or speak the Kazakh language to identify them as Kazakhstani. According to the distribution, most respondents believed that it was important to hold citizenship of Kazakhstan (95%); to be patriotic (94%); to know the history of the country (93%); to respect the law and political institutions (93%); to be born in Kazakhstan (86%); to speak the Kazakh language (71%); and, to confess to Islam (54%). The understandings of national identity among citizens reflect cultural cleavages that exist in society. There is no consensus among different groups on the question of whether Kazakhstan has to choose a civic model based on citizenship or ethnic model of nation-building based on ethnicity for its future development. Even though the government promotes the civic model, the process of ethnicization is also underway. 

The lack of a unifying national idea also mirrors the absence of consensus within society on how the nation should develop. Despite the efforts of the elites, Kazakhstan lacks a unifying national idea that would be appealing to every group in society. State authorities have experimented with a number of concepts and projects including “Kazakhstan 2030,” “Mangilik El,” “Top 50 Developed States,” and others. Although these concepts and strategies were important, to some extent, in providing directions for future development, they had a rather weak effect on the promotion of common national identity. A recent government initiative, the “Rukhani Zhangyru” or “Spiritual Revival” program, launched in 2017 aimed to consolidate society, “modernize consciousness,” and boost the socioeconomic development of the country. Within the framework of the program, a number of projects were implemented, including “Tugan Zher” (Native Land), “Sacred Geography,” and “100 New Faces,” to name a few. Although these programs focus on the cultural development of the country, the effects they might have on the development of national identity and societal cohesion is not yet clear. 

Another important component of civic national identity in Kazakhstan is the sense of patriotism. Many young people interviewed for this research noted that being Kazakhstani also implies being patriotic. However, patriotism is not associated with a sense of superiority when people believe that their nation is superior or better than others; rather, young people believe that every citizen has to contribute to the development of the country and the community, commenting that: “Citizens of Kazakhstan, first of all, should be useful to their country,” and “I want to do something for the country, for instance, help people who live in rural areas.” Many interviewees, however, agreed that the level of patriotism is quite low in Kazakhstan, noting that: “Patriotism is weak in our country,” and “We have a low number of patriots because everyone is on his or her own.” In addition, this study has also shown that the role of Islam in Kazakhstan has become more prominent after the breakup of the Soviet Union. 

Religion as a Part of National Identity

In 2011, the World Value Survey found that religion was important for 55% of the population of Kazakhstan. The number of those who identify with a religion grew by 2016. According to the author’s survey, 67% of respondents identified with Islam, 27% with Christianity, 3.4% with atheism, and 2% with other religions. Despite the identification with Islam or Christianity, the level of religiosity remains relatively low. Religious identification is largely linked to ethnic background. The nexus between religious and ethnic identity among Kazakhs can be traced back to the period before the Russian Empire’s colonization of Central Asia. At that time, people referred to a Muslim community and thus a common Muslim identity that was a mix of local and Islamic traditions. The link between religious and ethnic identity has continued in the post-Soviet period. According to one interviewee, “Islam is a part of the Kazakh identity. Seventy percent of us are Muslims; that is why to be Kazakh means to be Muslim.” 

However, some changes emerged regarding the perceptions of the link between Kazakh ethnicity and Islam. One of the interviewees noted: “In the first place, everyone has a right to choose… My family professes Islam, but I do not think that I am very religious and that I will be living according to the Sharia and only observe Islamic laws. I do not think that you have to be Muslim to be Kazakh.” The association of Islam with ethnicity depends, to a large extent, on family values. Of the respondents, 58% answered that they became religious due to family influence. If a family is religious, then its members will be more likely to associate their ethnic background with a particular religion, although this is not always true. For instance, there is 1% of ethnic Kazakhs who are Christians. 

According to the survey, religion does not overshadow ethnic or national identity. Regarding the statement, “My attachment to the Kazakhstani nation is stronger than the attachment to my religion,” 63% answered positively and 25% disagreed with the statement. The variation was observed across ethnic groups:  Kazakhs (75%) have a stronger attachment to the Kazakhstani nation than to religion, whereas only 40% of Russians and 48% of other ethnic groups believe so. In sum, religion is an important element of national identity in Kazakhstan. The majority of the population identifies with Islam due to the demographic dominance of ethnic Kazakhs. However, the level and degree of religiosity is still quite low since many people do not strictly follow religious rituals, largely due to a long history of atheism during the Soviet period.


As this study shows, language is one of the essential markers of self-identification. Although many Kazakh people claim that the Kazakh language is an important component of Kazakhstani national identity, and the role of the Kazakh language has increased significantly since the collapse of the USSR, its role in everyday life is still limited. Even though the percentage of those who speak the Kazakh language has grown, the Russian language continues to dominate the public sphere. There will be gradual transition from Cyrillic to Latin script when all documents in state agencies, educational organizations and institutions, and mass media will be transferred to Latin script in Kazakhstan. 

Historically, the majority of Kazakhstani citizens identify with either Islam or Christianity, and this religious identity is closely connected to ethnicity. As evidence suggests, more people became religious after the demise of the USSR, especially the young generation. However, the level of religiosity in the population remains low. It varies across Russian-speaking and Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs, with the latter being more religious than the former. We observe a similar trend among Christians. Although there is a high percentage of those who affiliate themselves with Orthodox Christianity and celebrate Christian holidays, very few of them practice religion regularly. 

Overall, the processes of nation-building in Kazakhstan are quite similar to those in other Central Asian states. A common feature is that many countries of the region can be characterized as “nationalizing states,” a concept introduced by Roger Brubaker implying the process of ethnicization when institutions and policies are designed to defend the interests of titular ethnic group. The processes of Kazakhization, Uzbekization, and Kyrgyzation, however, take place to a different degree and with some peculiarities in each country. All nation-building policies of Central Asian states are top-down government projects promoted by the political elites. To consolidate the nation, the elites seek to find common points of reference for various social groups. One such point is the glorification and rediscovery of the past, which result in the revision of history and the search for historical heroes. All Central Asian states refer to their “Golden Age,” or the glorious past, to construct and consolidate the nation. 

In sum, this study shows that people’s perceptions of their national identity are diverse and fluid. In this regard, the bottom-up perspective could shed light on people’s beliefs and attitudes, and provide “reality checks” on the effectiveness of the government’s nation-building policies. Future research should focus on other dimensions of citizens’ self-identification to go beyond the civic-ethnic dichotomy for a more comprehensive picture of nation-construction in Kazakhstan.