Half of Kazakhstan’s population was born after Nazarbayev took power three decades ago: those aged under 29 comprise 9 million Kazakhstani citizens, or 51 percent of the population.
They have no direct memory of the Soviet regime, only family recollections, though many of them do recall their parents’ struggles in the difficult first decade of the country’s independence. Since the early 2000s, they have lived in a world of political stability and relative material affluence, developing a strong consumerist culture. Even with growing government restrictions on media, religion, and formal public expression, they have been raised in a comparatively free country.
Associate Director and Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.
Marlene Laruelle works on Russia and Central Asia and explores post-Soviet political, social and cultural changes through the prism of nationhood and nationalism.
Who are they? What do they think and wish? What are their social and cultural practices and behaviors? How do they see the world and Kazakhstan’s place in it?
The collective volume “Nazarbayev Generation. Studies on Youth in Kazakhstan” (Lexington, September 2019) edited by Marlene Laruelle answers some of these questions.
The most rapidly changing and receptive segment of Kazakhstani society, youth has been one of the main objects of a new wave of research that is transforming our knowledge of the country and helping us move beyond the usual clichés about “Nazarbayev-stan.” It is not that the natural change of generations was ignored by scholars and the policy community: the expectation of a presidential transition has always been accompanied by discourses about the long-awaited arrival in power of new generations. But the view of these generations was oversimplified, focusing on their political orientations almost to the exclusion of their social and cultural practices. A black-and-white narrative contrasted the Bolashak generation—those trained abroad under the Kazakhstani state program, who supposedly represented liberal, Western-oriented youth—with desperate provincial youth motivated by jihadism and going to volunteer in the Syrian war theater.
What can we say about the Nazarbayev Generation?
The Nazarbayev Generation is quite conformist in its life goals: it believes in family values, marriage, having children, healthy living, and material comfort. Scholars Azamat and Barbara Junisbai and Daniyar Kosnazarov have done the surveys confirming this.
Young Kazakhstanis are not attracted to a quest for knowledge and see higher education only as a tool for getting a good job; they trust that having the right social connections will help them build their lives and careers. The report by Friedrich Ebert Foundation Kazakhstan found that Kazakh youth is far from a revolutionary generation: they do not challenge their parents’ values and ways of life, trust family more than any other institution, and overwhelmingly (more than 90 percent) view their relationships with their parents positively.
They still differ from older cohorts in some respects: they are more individualistic and believe in their uniqueness; they are better disposed toward elements of a market economy, such as a private sector, entrepreneurship, and a banking system; they display greater respect for individual success; and they are less troubled by social inequality and less supportive of the state addressing this inequality. They are thus the children of the economic liberalism that has shaped independent Kazakhstan. Consequently, the feeling of being affected by a class divide is mentioned by only one-third of ethnic Kazakhs—with Atyrau region showing the highest levels; it is also a very serious concern for some ethnic minorities, such as Ukrainians and Chechens, but not for Russians.
Kazakhstani youths’ support for economic liberalism does not translate into them being specifically favorable toward a democratic regime or liberal values. The 2011 World Values Survey found that all generations broadly supported the vague principles of a “democratic system” (while also desiring a “strong leader”), but that 18-to-29-year-olds were, if anything, somewhat less supportive (84 percent compared to 90 percent among over-50s, for example).
Similarly, research conducted by Barbara Junisbai, Azamat Junisbai, and Christopher Whitsel demonstrates that 18-to-29-year-old Kazakhstanis are significantly less likely to express support for democracy than previous generations—or even their generational counterparts in Kyrgyzstan. Less than a quarter of them believe that “citizens should be more active in questioning the actions of leaders,” compared to 87 percent for the population as a whole. While two-thirds of youth declare that they are occasionally interested in politics, less than 10 percent of them discuss politics with family and friends or participate in any form of civic activism.
As Junisbai, Junisbai, and Whitsel conclude, “In Kazakhstan, young people appear to be socialized in accordance with both aspects of the political context under consideration […]: presidential authoritarianism, which in Kazakhstan has a distinctly paternalistic flavor, and patronage politics.”
The 2015 Friedrich Ebert Stiftung surveys confirms how low altruism and participation in citizens’ initiatives fall on youths’ lists of priorities. They are quite happy with society as it is: women, ethnic minorities and religious people are considered to have sufficient rights.
Just as they are not actively pro-democracy, youth are not especially attracted to so-called “Western values.” A 2014 survey of young Kazakhstanis commissioned by the Council for Youth Policy Under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan found that only 5 percent considered the US a good model for development and just 13 percent considered Europe to be, while 22 percent preferred the Russian model and 43 percent favored a unique path for Kazakhstan.
A similar survey conducted in 2015 by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung found that 47 percent of youth identified Russia as the country to which Kazakhstan “should look for its development,” while only 19 percent felt that Europe should be the foremost model, 10 percent China, and 8 percent the US.
However, there are several definition of liberal values. A more refined perception of it helps dissociate the rejection of liberalism in the sense of ultraliberalism or identity politics—laissez-faire capitalism and promotion of individual sexual and ethnic differences—from the backing of a more traditional liberalism—a responsible social democracy that provides good public services and protects basic individual rights.
The Nazarbayev generation displays genuine cultural pluralism. How can this translate into pluralism at the political and institutional level?
The Kazakhstani state administration is quite young on average, with more than 22,000 civil servants under the age of 30 in 2014, but youth work on the administrative side, not the decision-making one. That being said, the long-awaited rejuvenation of elites seems to have begun in the past few years. Several new figures born in the 1970s have taken up ministerial and mayoral posts: Bauyrzhan Baibek (1974) is now mayor of Almaty, the first Bolashak to reach such a high level; Baglan Mailybayev (1975) spent 6 years (2011–2017) as Vice-President of the Presidential Administration; Maulen Ashimbayev (1971), trained at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, is first deputy of the presidential party Nur Otan; and former mayor of Astana Aset Issekeshev (1971) is head of the Presidential Administration. Minister of Information and Communication Dauren Abayev (1979) has become one of the government figures most active on social media. The state-controlled media sector has been reinvigorated with the arrival of a team of young, nationalist-minded figures, such as Erlan Karin (1976), who have dynamized media production, especially in Kazakh, and have reached out to the younger generation. A rapper, ZAQ, even won a seat in Zhas Otan, the youth wing of Nur Otan. To complement that trend, former Press Secretary of Nur Otan Aleksandr Aksyutits has been appointed head of a new social media holding, Salem Social Media.
Over the course of Nazarbayev’s three-decade reign, Kazakhstan has evolved from a “post-Soviet” republic facing the dilemma of a late and sudden independence to a new paradigm where the legacy of the Soviet Union has gradually receded and made room for new realities. First, Kazakhstan is succeeding in its “Kazakhification”: it is the country of Kazakhs, in which ethnic minorities represent a declining part of the population. The old divide between the Russified urban world and the Kazakh-speaking rural world has been transformed: rural dwellers have been moving to cities and confront old urbanites with different cultural habits; cities are progressively becoming a Kazakh-dominated realm, both ethnically and linguistically. The issue of the “Russianness” of Kazakhstani northern regions is likewise gradually losing its political acuity, being replaced by points of contention within the Kazakh nation itself. The 2016 land protests revealed that only the Kazakh-speaking segment of the population saw the authorities as betraying the nation’s interests, while the Russian-speaking part of the population did not mobilize, silently supporting the government.
At stake for the Nazarbayev Generation will be not so much defining Kazakhness in opposition to the Soviet legacy or the Russianness expressed by Russian minorities as defining Kazakhness among Kazakhs.
What will be the role of Oralmans as a “yardstick” of a less Sovietized/Russified/cosmopolitan Kazakhness? How can a balance be found between Western and Southern Kazakhstan, on the one hand, and the rest of the country, on the other, given what seems to be a growing gap in values? What kind of legitimacy will Islam have in the public space? To what extent will mores and values be based on “reinvented traditions” and the search for cultural authenticity, especially in gender relations, or on more cosmopolitan worldviews and behaviors? Should Kazakhstan project itself as leading the Central Asian region or move toward the lonelier trajectory of Kazakh Eli—the “land of Kazakhs,” a name sometimes referred to by those who want to dissociate Kazakhstan from the other “stans”—looking to Mongolia, South Korea, or Singapore as its model? What political regime and political culture will this Nazarbayev Generation promote: a patronal regime with an improved, more efficient, technocratic culture or a more genuine plurality and institutional consolidation?
The transition that just has been made in Kazakhstan is a first step toward answering some of these pressing questions
 See Junisbai & Junisbai and Kosnazarov in the upcoming volume “Nazarbayev Generation. Studies on Youth in Kazakhstan” (Lexington, September 2019).
 Umbetaliyeva, Rakisheva, and Teschendorf, “Youth in Central Asia: Kazakhstan,” 20.
 See Azamat K. Junisbai, “Understanding Economic Justice Attitudes in Two Countries: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan,” Social Forces 88, no. 4 (June 2010): 1677-1702.
 Umbetaliyeva, Rakisheva, and Teschendorf, “Youth in Central Asia: Kazakhstan,” 105-106.
 World Values Survey, “WVS-7 in Kazakhstan.”
 See Junisbai & Junisbai in the upcoming volume “Nazarbayev Generation. Studies on Youth in Kazakhstan” (Lexington, September 2019).
 Serik Beisembayev, “Politicheskie i ideologicheskie ustanovki kazakhstanskoi molodezhi,” “Strategiia” Center for Social and Political Studies, 2013, www.ofstrategy.kz. Shugyla Kilybayeva, Gulnar Nassimova, and Aliya Massalimova, “The Kazakhstani Youth’s Engagement in Politics,” Studies of Transition States and Societies 9, no. 1 (2017), http://publications.tlu.ee/index.php/stss/article/view/533.
 Barbara Junisbai, Azamat Junisbai, and Christopher Whitsel, “What Makes ‘Ardent Democrats’ in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan?” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 489 (October 2017), http://www.ponarseurasia.org/memo/what-makes-ardent-democrats-kazakhstan-and-kyrgyzstan.
 Umbetaliyeva, Rakisheva, and Teschendorf, “Youth in Central Asia: Kazakhstan,” 22.
 Serik Beysembayev, “Tendentsii sotsial’no-demograficheskogo razvitiia kazakhstanskogo obshchestva (na baze sotsiologicheskikh issledovanii),” Tsentral’naia Aziia i Kavkaz 14, no. 2 (2011): 83–100; Molodezh Kazakhstana 2014 (Astana: Council for Youth Policy under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2014).
 Umbetaliyeva, Rakisheva, and Teschendorf, “Youth in Central Asia: Kazakhstan,” 155-170.
 See Galym Zhussipbek & Zhanar Nagayeva in the upcoming volume “Nazarbayev Generation. Studies on Youth in Kazakhstan” (Lexington, September 2019).
 Z. Bukanova and B. Masatova, “Obshch’estvenno-politicheskoe uchastie kazakhstanskoi molodezhi v kontekste modernizatsii gosudarstvennoi molodezhnoi politiki,” Research Center of Youth, 2014, http://youthpolicycenter.kz/ru/.fundamentalnye-issledovaniya/obschestvenno-politicheskoe-uchastie-kazahstanskoymolodezhi-v-kontekste-modernizacii-gosudarstvennoy-mol.html, p. 155.
 Gul’nara Bazhkenova, “Kazahstanskie ‘Semidesiatniki’ v Politike,” Radio Azattyq, August 13, 2015, https://rus.azattyq.org/a/semidesyatniki-blog-bazhkenovoy/27186368.html.