The article seeks to illuminate a contested process of legitimisation of ruling élites (to themselves and to their population/constituencies) in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, the only republic of the former USSR with its titular ethnic group in minority by the time of the Union’s collapse in 1991. Conceptually, the author proceeds from crucial relationship between legitimisation and identification which “are mutually reinforcing” (p. 179). In fact, “identity is usually the ‘basis’ that rulers use ‘for convincing themselves’ of their position of power and their right to issue commands (p. 180).” In my opinion, the most interesting part of the article contains analysis of the reasons behind the fact that Kazakhstani élites who, after 1991, had sought to follow a tripartite model of nation-building (working for ethnic pride of both Kazakhs and numerous minorities and simultaneously promoting the rise of a civic nation), have gradually shifted towards a model of a state of the Kazakhs and for the Kazakhs (pp. 185-96). These reasons, to start with, include (1) good economic performance of the country and de-facto economic decentralisation; (2) peculiarities of the regime, in which authoritarianism alternates with periods of relative liberalisation. Next, the author analyses identity-level disincentives of the élites to foster a civic identity and the desire to cherish ethnic pride of Kazakhs instead: difficulties of positive self-identification for Kazakhs; blurred distinctions between the “Kazakh” and “Kazakhstani” identities; perceived legitimacy of the Soviet order and the ensuing need to challenge it. These conclusions are supported by two sets of interviews with the members of cultural and political élites (the first conducted by the author in 1995-6; the second conducted by the other researchers in 2000-1). Throughout the paper, S. Cummings draws interesting parallels between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
I think that the paper could also provide an inspiring food-for-thought for all those seeking explanations of social and political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Not infrequently, the latter was explained by the fact that the Kyrgyz have created a Kyrgyz state and gained dominance in polity and economy. However, the Kazakhs created a very similar state but with obviously different outcomes for economic progress and political stability. In the critical part of my review, I would note that I am not fully convinced by the author’s conclusions regarding micro-level identities. According to S. Cummings, “. . .inability to find coherence and meaning in justifying rule in terms of representing a Kazakhstani supra-state identity” suggests that “the ‘children’ [ordinary citizens. — N.K] remain unconvinced.” The point is supported by a reference to a newspaper poll of 1995, the results of which demonstrate the low level of people’s adherence to this kind of identity, especially their low support to the idea that they were “proud to be Kazakhstanis” (197-8). First, in my opinion, loyalties and allegiances of ordinary people cannot be taken as a mere projection of state identification projects. Second, empirical support of the author’s point is not solid enough and, probably, not quite representative. For instance, data from the survey of 1996 testify to a more enthusiastic reaction to the same question. Finally, popular attitudes are subject to change ― a fact which adds to a weakness of data from the mid-1990s in a paper published in 2006.