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In Pursuit of Mind Modernization: What Ideological Work is Done by Kazakhstan?

«The importance of ideological work for Kazakhstan is understandable: a new wave of awakening of “Kazakhstani patriotism” is necessary due to the outflow of educated population from the country», – mentions analyst Anuar Temirov in his article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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This year Kazakhstan is going to celebrate several milestone anniversaries that carry an ideological component: the 175th anniversary of the birth of the great poet and philosopher Abay Kunanbayev, the 1150th anniversary of the outstanding oriental thinker Abu Nasr al-Farabi and the 750th anniversary of the Golden Horde. These events are aimed primarily at the young generation of Kazakhstan, which, in addition to numerous ethnic groups, is quite diverse in composition. Some of the young people are more traditional, some are looking westward, others are immersed in religious movements that have never been practiced in Kazakhstan before. Consequently, what unites all these people, and what ideological work is being carried out in the context of national identity formation?

Is the Rukhani Zhangyru program successful?

The leadership of Kazakhstan in recent years has begun to speak more actively about the need to form its own ideology and identity. In 2017, the first president of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, wrote an article in which he outlined his vision of spiritual modernization (Kazakh – Рухани жаңғыру) of the Kazakhstani society. He noted the importance of preserving national identity, increasing the level of competitiveness and openness of society to change, promoting the cult of knowledge and the gradual, evolutionary, not revolutionary, method of development of the country.[1]

Logo of the “Rukhani Zhangyru” program. Photo: Sputnik / Vladislav Vodnev

To solve these strategic tasks for the nation, the need was noted for switching the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to Latin before 2025, translating the 100 best world textbooks into Kazakh language, educating the younger generation in the spirit of love for both the small (the place where they were born) and the big motherland. It was also proposed to engage in the promotion of domestic culture abroad and the search for new “heroes” of modern Kazakhstan for the list of “100 new faces” of the country.

All these initiatives are of great value for the formation of the Kazakhstani nation. However, not in all cases, it was possible to correctly convey its message while implementing a program. For example, instead of a broad discussion of the initiatives themselves, Kazakhstanis concentrated on being suspected of plagiarism and criticizing the program’s logo.[2] Some public figures criticized the program because, apart from the symbol, the main message of modernization was not clarified.[3]

Various Rukhani Zhangyru centers have been created in the regions, where, according to the director of one of these centers, Gulnar Kurbanbaeva, people even complain about community facilities, which are the prerogative of Akimats (city halls) of cities and villages.[4] This fact underlines the need to increase the level of citizens’ trust in local authorities, since regional modernization centers should not be involved in matters that are not within their competence.

Moreover, in the execution of instructions related to the program, in some cases, quite strange methods are still used locally that do not correspond to the current trends. Consequently, portraits of the winners of the project “100 New Faces” of Kazakhstan, who have achieved high achievements in various fields from medicine to creativity, hang on the fences and walls of houses under construction. Not so long ago, a collective request was voiced in the country’s parliament from the winners of the project to remove their faces from the fences.[5] In turn, most of the “new faces” of Kazakhstan, with the exception of some, are still not very active in social networks and on television, where they could talk about their success stories to the younger generation and contribute to the ideological work of the country, and what’s interesting for free.

The parliament of Kazakhstan announced a collective request from the winners of the ‘100 New Persons of Kazakhstan’ project to remove their faces from the fences.

“Rukhani Zhangyru” has long transformed into the plane of virtual reality, where billions of people watch films and cartoons, series, read social networks that contribute to the formation of personalities. For successful ideological work in the spirit of patriotism, it is important today to produce high-quality national animation content primarily for children and adolescents. The head of the association of animation film studios in Kazakhstan proposed to consolidate at the legislative level a plan for the annual release of two full-length and ten short films.[6] It would be worth adding to this initiative an assessment of the quality of the material itself so that Kazakhstani cartoons are not released just for the sake of appearance and to fulfill the plan itself.

Kazakhstan animated films Muzbalaq and Kultegin

The next important point is the very access to information. Kazakhstan has a rather large Internet coverage among the population (see Chart 1). The logical continuation for the Rukhani Zhangyru program is the widespread introduction of practical online courses for various categories of people. At the same time, the country’s authorities must ensure the smooth operation of web resources. The creation of such platforms for online education, where it would be easy and affordable to place courses in the Kazakh language and literature, the natural sciences, as well as the development of abilities and skills, is an excellent opportunity for digitalization and spiritual modernization at the same time. For example, translating the most popular course on the Coursera website “Learning how to learn” into Kazakh[7] fits perfectly into this initiative, although it was carried out by business resources, without a state order.

Since the beginning of the initiation of the program, a lot of budget funds have been spent on modernizing the consciousness of the population in Kazakhstan. Thus, according to the approved plan, until 2022 a total of 54 billion tenge (about 160 million US dollars) was allocated for the implementation of the program.[8] In 2019, the program implementation plan included the holding of 209 various image events, conferences, and forums.[9] However, after the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, instructed to optimize funds and focus on the practical needs of Kazakhstanis,[10] the number of events and, accordingly, the costs for 2020 within the framework of the Rukhani Zhangyru was almost halved.[11]

The goal of replacing quantity with the quality of events and allocating funds only for targeted projects that can bring results should be a priority while implementing the modernization of consciousness program. Moreover, the emphasis should be directed precisely to the plane of the Internet, from where most Kazakhstanis get their information. Moreover, the support of real feedback with the population about whether they feel the modernization of public consciousness, carried out with the help of sociological surveys and raising Kazakhstani sociology as a science in general, will positively affect the implementation of further ideological work. The success of the launched program, which in the future should be rethought once again, will become more dependent on this factor.

Abay’s ideology as a method to take a fresh look at modernization

In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the republics, including Kazakhstan, were faced with the task of re-elevating the role and legacy of key historical figures, re-creating historical science, fully revealing all the details that, for some reason, were silent. Kazakhstan, similar to other countries of Central Asia, while reviving its historical memory, embarked on the path of the exaltation of great warriors from the past and the most ancient thinkers of the East. However, the identification of Abay as a central historical person who had lived closer to our time, and the popularization of his works and thoughts today, is, in fact, a historical chance to more accurately formulate ideological postulates for modern Kazakhstani society.

The key challenge for Kazakh officials during the celebration of important historical dates is not to turn them into grandiose celebrations. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev rightly emphasized the need to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the poet Abay Kunanbayev without a big feast and  high cost, but in good quality. [12] It must finally come to an understanding that for successful ideological work, concerts and forums where the same people participate are ineffective.

One can call successful the poetic marathon for reading Abai’s works, launched on social networks, which was picked up by both the head of the Kazakh state and many other famous personalities, such as the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, French actor Samir Naseri, and Kazakhstani singer Dimash Kudaibergen.[13] This flash mob did not require any expenses from the budget but brought wide recognition and increased the attractiveness of reading works of the of Kazakh literature classic.

Celebrating the anniversary of Abay is also an opportunity for the city of Semey to “gain a second breath” and recieve a new status as a historical center for its further development. The Semipalatinsk nuclear test site during the years of the Soviet Union hit hard on the environmental situation in the eastern part of Kazakhstan as a whole. Moreover, according to Kazhydromet for 2019, air quality in Semey was observed with an increased level of pollution.[14] As part of increasing the role of the Semey, where many famous Kazakh philosophers, poets and scientists were born, one could build or create there a university on the basis of existing educational institutions with a focus on the study of environmental problems, renewable energy sources. In the future, while maintaining a large number of emissions throughout the country, the profession of an ecologist will be in great demand, and ecologists will be waiting for proposals for improving the situation. Moreover, this initiative is consistent with the instructions of the first President Nazarbayev to create at least one competitive university in each region of the country.[15]

The great poet Abay has written in one of his poems: “Hold your foot harder, go bold, and then your work will not die.” It is now important for Kazakhstani society to take decisive steps along the path of political and economic reforms, by preserving their own identity. Abay’s desire to elevate the cult of knowledge and reading among Kazakhs, as well as to abandon an idle lifestyle, is achievable, provided that the officials and the whole society work hard.

Conclusions and recommendations

It is no longer possible to achieve modernization of consciousness with the help of logos, posters, and forums in the understanding of modern society; however, a more in-depth approach is needed using the Internet and new technologies. The importance of ideological work for Kazakhstan is understandable: a new wave of awakening of “Kazakhstani patriotism” is necessary due to the outflow of educated population from the country.[16] In this regard, the following recommendations should be considered, in order to improve ideological work as a whole:

  • The lion’s share of ideological work within the framework of  Rukhani Zhangyru should be carried out in virtual reality. This includes the creation of high-quality domestic content in the form of films, series, cartoons, and music.
  • As part of the transition to the Latin alphabet, it’s worth working out an accessible online course that will be understandable to both the young and adult generations.
  • To make the work of the Rukhani Zhangyru centers more transparent in terms of reporting on the spending of public funds on programs.
  • The widespread popularization of the Kazakhstani project “100 new faces” is possible when attracting winners to work with public opinion, their active use of social networks.
  • It is worth noting that for the implementation of the Rukhani Zhangyru program, a state commission was created, headed by the State Secretary of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It should be also noted that, during the meetings of this commission, the program of events for the year is adopted. To increase efficiency, it is worth inviting public figures, opinion leaders, as well as youth, who will give a fresher vision to many points of the program, to participate in the program.
  • Within the framework of the anniversary year of Abay Kunanbayev, it is worth paying attention to the environmental problems of the poet’s native land, to study the possibility of launching programs to train highly qualified personnel in the field of ecology.
  • To choose significant personalities as central figures for each region of Kazakhstan, and to popularize their ideas and values ​​among the population.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

[1] Article of the Head of State “Looking into the Future: Modernization of Public Consciousness”, Official Website of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, April 12, 2017, URL: https://www.akorda.kz/ru/events/akorda_news/press_conferences/statya-glavy -gosudarstva-vzglyad-v-budushchee-modernizaciya-obshchestvennogo-soznaniya (accessed: 02/12/2020)

[2] Maria Gareeva, Zhadra Zhulmukhametova, The similarity of the “Rukhani Zhagyru” logo and the French theater came as a surprise to Abaev, InformBuro, 05/29/2018, URL: https://informburo.kz/novosti/shozhest-logo-ruhani-zhayru-i -francuzskogo-teatra-stala-neozhidannostyu-dlya-abaeva.html (accessed: 02/12/2020)

[3] Dmitry Pokidaev, Founder of Seymar company: “We treat our country as a temporary refuge”, Kursiv, 11/07/2018, URL: https://kursiv.kz/news/obschestvo/2018-11/osnovatel -kompanii-seymar-my-otnosimsya-k-svoey-strane-kak-k-vremennomu(accessed: 02.13.2020)

[4] Alina Albekova “Rukhani Zhangyru will cost the state around 54 billion inbusiness.kz, 04/17/2018, https://inbusiness.kz/ru/news/54-milliarda-budet-stoit-gosudarstvu-%C2%ABruhani- zhangyru% C2% BB (accessed: 02/13/2020)

[5] Azamat Syzdykbaev, Should “100 New Persons” Posters Hang on Fences – Discussion in the Mazhilis, Kazinform International News Agency, 11/04/2019, URL: https://www.inform.kz/en/dolzhny-li-plakaty -100-novyh-lic-viset-na-zaborah-diskussiya-v-mazhilise_a3581890    

[6] Serik Sabekov, To introduce an annual plan for the production of cartoons is offered in Kazakhstan, KazInform, 8.01.2020, URL: https://www.inform.kz/ru/vvesti-ezhegodnyy-plan-po-vypusku-mul-tfil- mov-predlagayut-v-kazahstane_a3601631 (Date accessed: 02.16.2020)

[7] Aliya Kadyrova, Barbara Oakli: “Moving a university is like moving a cemetery. Do not wait for help from its inhabitants” Talk about modern education, Vlast.kz, 09/04/2019, URL: https://vlast.kz/obsshestvo/35095-barbara-oakli-peredvinut-universitet-eto-kak-peredvinut-kladbise- ne-zdi-pomosi-ot-ego-obitatelej.html (accessed: 02.16.2020)

[8] Victoria Kolmakova, What was done in 2018 as part of the “Rukhani Zhangyru” program, Nur.kz, 12/13/2018, URL: https://www.nur.kz/1768521-cto-sdelano-v-2018-godu -v-ramkah-programmy-ruhani-zagyru.html (accessed: 02/13/2020)

[9] On the approval of the action plan for the implementation of the “Rukhani Zhangyru” program for 2019, URL: https://tengrinews.kz/zakon/pravitelstvo_respubliki_kazahstan_premer_ministr_rk/konstitutsionnyiy_stroy_i_osnovyi_gosudarstvennogo2020 / 0220id / 2020id02 / 2020id2 / 0220id2 / 2020id2 / 0220id2 / 20id02  

[10] Tokaev instructed to reduce the cost of image events, Zakon.kz, 03.23.2019, URL: https://www.zakon.kz/4962874-tokaev-poruchil-sokratit-rashody-na.html (accessed: 13.02. 2020)

[11] Abaev: In terms of the implementation of the “Rukhani Zhagyru” program for 2020, there are half the number of events, Informburo.kz, 5.02.2020, URL: https://informburo.kz/novosti/abaev-v-plane-realizacii- programmy-ruhani-zhayru-na-2020-god-v-dva-raza-menshe-meropriyatiy-101845.html (accessed: 02/13/2020)

[12] Aisha Tuleubekova, Budget for the celebration of the 175th anniversary of Abay will be cut, Zakon.kz, 7.02.2020, URL: https://www.zakon.kz/5006347-byudzhet-na-prazdnovaniye-175-letiya.html (date treatment: 02/13/2020)

[13] Sholpan Akbalaeva, From a Kazakh schoolgirl to a Chinese billionaire: “Abay Challenge” continues the procession in social networks, Elorda Aqparat, 09.16.2019, URL: https://old.elorda.info/ru/news/view/ot- kazahstanskoy-shkolynicy-do-kitayskogo-milliardera-abay-chellendgh-prodolghaet-shestvie-v-socsetyah (accessed: 02.13.2020)

[14] Information Bulletin, On the State of the Environment of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2019, RSE Kazhydromet, pp. 199-200, https://www.kazhydromet.kz/upload/pdf/ru_1580810045.pdf (accessed: 16.02. 2020)

[15] Top universities in each region: Nazarbayev commissioned the creation of the Zhas Maman program, TengriNews, 01/23/2019, URL: https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/topovyie-vuzyi-kajdom-regione-nazarbaev-poruchil-sozdat- 361893/ (Date of access: 02.16.2020)

[16] Zulfiya Raisova, Infographics: Kazakhstan is the leader in population outflow among the EAEU countries, Cabar.Asia, 11.11.2019, URL: https://cabar.asia/ru/infografika-kazahstan-lider-po-ottoku-naseleniya- sredi-stran-eaes/ (accessed: 02.16.2020)

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