Kazakhstan’s government has reaffirmed its commitment to repatriating ethnic Kazakhs even though many returnees have found it hard to adjust to their new circumstances. (Express Khronika, January 27; Panorama, January 9)
Since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, its government has actively sponsored the return of ethnic Kazakhs from other parts of the former Soviet Union, China, Mongolia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Many Kazakhs fled their native land in the 1920s and 1930s to escape the agricultural collectivization and other policies imposed by the Soviet government. This exodus, coupled with high Slav immigration throughout the Soviet period, meant that Kazakhstan found itself at the 1989 census the only one of the fifteen union republics in which the titular nationality was outnumbered collectively by other ethnic groups. The government has therefore been keen to encourage as many ethnic Kazakhs to return as would. According to official estimates, since 1991 over 160,000 Kazakhs have returned, mainly from Mongolia.
The policy, however, has not been without serious problems. Many of the Kazakh diaspora preserved their language and culture unaltered. Returnees are sometimes regarded with suspicion by those who now speak mainly Russian. Meanwhile, non-Kazakhs have complained about a policy that they perceive as favoring the indigenous nationality. Uighurs, for example, many of whom also fled in the Soviet period, are not automatically entitled to return to Kazakhstan. In practice, too, the government’s policy has put considerable strain on the state budget. Returnees complain about not receiving allowances from cash-strapped regional authorities. They say that, while they have been offered land, frequently there is no housing to go with it. Jobs are scarce because the inability to speak Russian and limited practical experience restrict those returning to agricultural labor. Many have still not managed to gain Kazakhstani citizenship. Those coming from Mongolia with livestock in tow have faced considerable difficulties in transit. (Panorama Shimkenta, September 22, 1996)
The government is proud of the fact that, by 1996, ethnic Kazakhs comprised 51 percent of the population. The policy of encouraging repatriation is only partly responsible for this, however. The main reason is the substantial and continuing emigration by Russians, Ukrainians and Germans. As a result, Kazakhstan has seen a net drop in its population — from about 17 million in the early 1990s to just under 16 million today.
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