Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 36

In his annual message to the nation last April, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev expressed concerns about the worsening demographic situation in the country. He challenged government agencies to boost population growth in order to reach a population of 20 million people by the year 2015. Although the means to achieve that objective were not specified clearly, Nazarbayev pointed to the community of ethnic Kazakhs living abroad as a potential source of population growth. This broadly outlined demographic policy raised skepticism among experts at that time, and the prospects of reaching the 20-million target within a decade are rapidly dwindling.

The demographic gap caused over the last decade is simply too wide to bridge in such a short time span. Estimates suggest that Kazakhstan’s population shrank from 16.5 million to under 15 million between 1989 and 1999. Last May the State Statistical Board celebrated the birth of the 15 millionth citizen of the country. But analysts note that the much heralded growth level merely brought Kazakhstan back to the demographic growth index of 17 million registered 20 years ago. In reality, between 1999 and 2002 Kazakhstan’s population decreased by 132,000, while the world population grew from 6 billion to 6.3 billion (Central Asian Monitor, February 11).

Kazakhstan, with a vast territory five times larger than France, needs an accelerated growth rate for its ethnic Kazakh population, which makes up 57.5% of the entire population, for at least two reasons. First, in contrast to the densely populated southern region, Kazakhs are still a minority in the northern regions bordering Russia. Second, the critically low birthrate, the illegal influx of war refugees, and the growing Chinese and Russian inflow all signify potential threats to Kazakhstan’s national security. At the same time, Kazakhstan cannot entirely rely on natural growth, as some 134,000 abortions are performed each year, although the Kazakh community regards the procedure as an unpardonable sin. Roughly 30,000 of these abortions are by young girls from the countryside, often as their last refuge from shame and ostracism (Kazakhstan-Zaman, February 11).

In addition to changing moral standards, rampant corruption in the agencies regulating immigration may also be to blame. Last year the government switched from providing housing for oralmans (repatriated ethnic Kazakh) to cash payments. But the new funds circulating through regional governments have encouraged embezzlement and corruption. A recent Audit Chamber investigation revealed that 2.4 million tenge ($18,000) allocated for oralmans in Astana had gone missing. Further scrutiny disclosed similar financial improprieties in five other regions. These crimes occurred in 2004, when only 13,807 ethnic Kazakh families arrived; the government quota was set at 15,000 (Yegemen Qazaqhstan, February 12).

In previous years the oralmans quota was primarily filled by Kazakh from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. These countries, in all probability, will remain the main suppliers of Kazakh oralmans in next few years. Two-thirds of this year’s quota was designated for ethnic Kazakh immigrants from Uzbekistan. However, media sources say that with border delimitation complete, the tide of oralmans from Uzbekistan has begun to ebb. One reason for this negative trend is believed to be the inadequate housing assistance for oralmans. Indeed, the $1,000 offered to returnees is not enough to buy even a modest shelter in the outskirts of a provincial town. Nevertheless, the 2004 World Congress of the Kazakh Diaspora announced that 3 million ethnic Kazakhs were willing to return to Kazakhstan (Qazaq Yeli, February 2).

The expected stream of immigrant Kazakhs will undoubtedly place additional financial burdens on an already tight state budget. Even worse, if the deep-rooted corruption in government offices and migration structures is not stopped, the whole idea of filling the demographic gap with returnees is likely to end in fiasco.

Curiously, no one from the Migration and Demographic Agency or any other organization can provide reliable statistics concerning the number of ethnic Kazakhs abroad. According to the World Association of Kazakhs (WAK) 5 million Kazakhs reside outside Kazakhstan. But the Kazakh National Commission of UNESCO puts the number at 2.5 million (Central Asian Monitor, February 11). This confused information adds to the difficulties of planning for the settlement of returnees.

Many immigrant Kazakhs have already become disillusioned by government promises of decent and affordable housing and well-paid jobs and have returned to their adoptive countries. The media is full of stories of ethnic Kazakh immigrants being treated by government officials as second-rate people in their own motherland. Despite these impediments, according to political scientist Azimbai Galim, only Kazakhs, and not other ethnic groups, are contributing to population growth in Kazakhstan. If the trend holds, and assimilation of other ethnic groups into Kazakh society is effective, the country may overcome its demographic dilemma (Turkestan, February 4).