On September 29 around 300 ethnic Kazakhs from 32 countries gathered in Astana for the Third World Congress of Kazakhs. For many participants this was their first time to see the booming new capital in the land of their ancestors. They were obviously impressed to see what great economic progress Kazakhstan has made since the First World Congress of Kazakhs in 1992, which was held in Turkistan city, a holy place that Kazakhstan’s Muslims worship as the second Mecca.
Regular events of this magnitude bring Astana considerable international attention. The keynote speaker at the Congress, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, used this opportunity to highlight the major economic and political achievements of the country and concluded, “Our economic model is a good example for developing countries” (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, September 30).
The president cited quite impressive economic data. Over the last ten years per capita GDP rose from $100 to $3,400. Furthermore, the government plans to raise that figure to $9,000 by the year 2012. That task sounds feasible taking into account that, over the last seven years, Kazakhstan’s annual growth economic rate ranged between 9% and 10%. The total GDP equals $60 billion, surpassing the total GDP volume of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Nazarbayev told the Congress that Kazakhstan is “the uncontested leader in the region” (Khabar TV, September 29).
Nazarbayev’s speech was frequently interrupted by bursts of applause, which partly demonstrated the pride ethnic Kazakhs take in the their homeland’s evident economic successes and partly their admiration for Nazarbayev himself, for his skill in navigating the economy through hard times. Ethnic Kazakhs welcomed the announcement that Astana has eliminated all the problems inherited from tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union along the 14,500-kilometer border with China, “once and for all, without any doubts and reservations.” According to Nazarbayev, there is not one disputed patch left on the Kazakh-Chinese border. Nazarbayev also described relations with Russia as “good neighborly.”
Even more significant than foreign policy, Kazakhstan has achieved demographic security by regulating migration. Since Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991, more than 110,590 families of ethnic Kazakhs have returned to Kazakhstan from abroad for permanent residence. Coupled with the growing birth rate, the returnees boosted the population growth among Kazakhs to half a million, exceeding the population level of the once dominant Slavic population. Nazarbayev reiterated that Kazakhstan, by pursuing a wise migration policy and encouraging natural population growth, corrected the “ethno-demographic disproportions” of the past (Khabar TV, September 29).
Recently the Kazakh government raised the quota for ethnic Kazakh settlers from abroad to 15,000 families per year. The largest Kazakhs diasporas are in China (1.7 million) and Uzbekistan (1.5 million). Many participants at the Congress hoped to hear a clear and definite answer to long-standing questions related to granting citizenship, housing, and social assistance for Kazakh settlers returning from abroad. But the answer was ambiguous. Nazarbayev said that since every third Kazakh lives abroad, it is difficult to bring them all home at one time, and apparently there is no need to resettle them. He added that if ethnic Kazakhs wish to return to Kazakhstan they should rely on their own financial means to cover all costs. However, he did promise that amendments to the migration law would be introduced to make it easier for returnees to acquire Kazakh citizenship (Express-K, September 30).
This ambiguity signals a perceptible change in Astana’s policy towards ethnic Kazakhs. In the first years of independence Kazakhs repatriated from abroad were warmly welcomed. Their presence would counterbalance the Soviet-era Slavic dominance that turned Kazakhs into a minority in their own land. Through financial aid and regulations the government offered housing and job benefits to repatriated Kazakhs. Over the past 14 years the number of Kazakhs has increased to make up 60% of the population.
With the demographic target achieved, some government officials see no reason to leave the door open for repatriated bethren from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, or Mongolia with low job qualifications. Ethnic Kazakh migrants are increasingly becoming an economic burden in overpopulated cities where jobs and housing are scarce. At the same time, many Kazakh settlers are deeply disappointed by broken promises of housing, social assistance, and job opportunities. They believe they were better off in their adoptive countries. For example, Dalelkhan Mamikhan, a delegate to the World Congress of Kazakhs, said that Kazakhs in China get social assistance from the government and have sufficient resources to preserve their language and culture (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, September 30).
The Third World Congress of Kazakhs fell short of many expectations. Astana made it a political event, rather than addressing the immediate economic and social problems of ethnic Kazakhs. Next autumn Kazakhstan will, for the second time, host the Congress of World Religions. It remains to be seen what results it will produce.