In the first years of independence, ethnic Kazakhs barely made up 40% of the population of Kazakhstan. In a bid to regulate the ethnic balance, particularly in the heavily Russian-populated northern regions of the country, the government is encouraging oralmans (“returnees,” i.e. ethnic Kazakhs returning from abroad) to resettle in Northern Kazakhstan. According to the state Agency for Migration and Demography, as of April 1, 2004, 322,500 oralmans had returned to Kazakhstan since 1991. The government launched an assistance program to lure the Kazakh diaspora, providing them with cheap housing, livestock, and financial aid. Kazakhs repatriating from Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and China have done much to reshape the ethnic composition in Northern and Eastern Kazakhstan, but the emigration of about 2.5 million Slavs, mainly Russians, from Kazakhstan in the early 1990s left a wide demographic gap that cannot be filled simply by encouraging Kazakhs to return to the land of their ancestors. Different sources say that slightly over 4 million ethnic Kazakhs still live abroad.
Nevertheless, at a July 7 press conference in Astana, the chairwoman of the Agency for Migration and Demography, Altynshash Zhaganova, was highly optimistic about the demographic prospects of the country, saying that Kazakhstan has overcome the negative effects of migration. According to her, the number of people coming into Kazakhstan for permanent residence exceeds the number of emigrants. Zhaganova also stated that, as of May 28, 2004, the population of Kazakhstan exceeded 15 million people. To commemorate this remarkable date in Kazakhstan’s history, Zhaganova announced that every child born on that day would be awarded the title of “15 millionth resident” of Kazakhstan. She believes that if the current upward trend is maintained, the population of Kazakhstan will rise to 17.5 million by the year 2010 and will increase further to 20 million by 2015. “Our forecasts are based on the fact that people born in 1986-1987, the years the greatest number of babies, about 419,000, were born, have now reached reproductive age,” she explained (Khabar TV).
This is the first time Kazakhstan has registered positive population growth in 12 years. President Nursultan Nazarbayev had announced the goal of 20 million people by the year 2015 in his annual message to the nation in 2003. However, critics doubted the target could be met. Maternal and child mortality rates are high in many regions, and nearly 40% of the population does not have access to adequate medical services. The average life expectancy is 65.5 years (Azat, April 21, 2004). Young families continue to migrate from rural areas, where birth rates are relatively high, to overpopulated cities with little affordable housing suitable for raising families. Two years ago the government promised young families financial aid to encourage a baby boom, but few families have really benefited from the program.
The traditional Kazakh family usually has five or six children. But given their strained economic circumstances, many young couples limit their families to one or two children. The government initially offered free housing to encourage ethnic Kazakhs abroad to return to their homeland, but that assistance has been exhausted. With soaring real estate prices, the Migration and Demographic Agency could only offer one-time payments to returnees, and the grants are not sufficient to buy a decent home. To complicate things further, repatriated Kazakhs often cannot find stable work due to their limited language skills. After decades living in China, Mongolia, or Afghanistan, the returnees have neither the Russian proficiency needed for professional careers in the cities nor adequate Kazakh to communicate in villages.
Shiap Alimov, chairman of the North Kazakhstan regional Department of Migration and Demography, believes the difficulty of assimilating into Kazakhstan’s society is one of the main reasons preventing many Kazakh emigres from returning. “This year, according to government quota, we expected 750 families from Uzbekistan, but only 198 families arrived. Most of them are settled down in Kazakh auls [villages] where they feel free from language problems. Young families would prefer to live in the city, but we are short of funding to buy houses for them,” says Alimov. Given these obstacles, the Migration and Demographic Agency will be challenged to implement the draft demographic program for the years 2005-2015.