Migration Flows—and Not Just Russian Flight—a Problem for Kazakhstan

By Paul Goble
Almost all discussions about migration to and from Kazakhstan focus on the departure of ethnic Russians and other Russian speakers since 1991. This emigration wave has increased the dominance of the titular nationality there. But while the Russian exodus has cost Kazakhstan some of its more highly educated specialists, it has generally not created the difficulties, including outright violence, sometimes associated with other kinds of migration. Indeed, the return of ethnic Kazakhs from abroad, illegal immigration by various groups the state has been unable to control, and increasingly large migration flows within the country have left some regions without the necessary workforce and imposed untenable burdens on others.
In a new article for the CentrAsia.ru portal, Fazilya Yunsaliyeva says it is important not only to look at these various kinds of migration but also to recognize that what matters in most cases is “not so much their size as their structure and their territorial distribution.” Even small shifts in numbers caused by in- or outmigration can have serious consequences for a place’s ethnic, age and gender distribution (Centrasia.ru, May 6).
Since 1993, the Kazakhstani government has sought to regulate patterns of ethnic migration by means of quotas governing not only how many people may enter the country but also affecting, if not determining, the number leaving or moving from one region to another. And since 2007, Astana has expanded this program to regulate not only ethnic patterns but also the age, gender and skill sets of people on the move. Generally, it has been successful, but not always. And as a result, migration has left some regions without the people they need, and others with new burdens. That reality has sparked tensions and even conflicts that in, several cases, have involved deaths.
Among the most serious migration problems have arisen as a result of the government’s campaign to attract Kazakhs living abroad—a group known in the Kazakh language as “oralmans.” More than 800,000 of them have returned from other countries in Central Asia, China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation, but they have insisted on settling almost exclusively in Kazakhstan’s urban centers, where their skill sets are less in demand. Oralman immigrants have generally refused to move to more rural areas, where they could be put to better use.
This imbalance, Yunsaliyeva says, has sparked conflicts between the oralmans and employers as well as between these newcomers and native-born Kazakhs. On occasion, such situations have “ended in bloodletting,” a euphemism for deaths and serious casualties. But these conflicts have had yet another consequence, prompting many of the oralmans who had come back to Kazakhstan to try to leave, this time often for Russia, Germany and Ukraine. They have also prompted many more ethnic Russians to think about leaving Kazakhstan, further worsening the country’s overall stock of human capital.
Indeed, the journalist says, looking forward one can see that while outmigration to Russia has declined since the highs of the early 1990s, more departures by members of this community are likely, making Kazakhstan more Kazakh but leaving it, for a time at least, without the skilled personnel it needs for modernization.