Addressing parliament on May 19, the head of the health committee in the Ministry of Education, Culture and Health, Vasily Devyatko, asserted that “the Republic [of Kazakhstan] is facing a demographic crisis.” (Panorama [Almaty], MAY 22) Since 1991, Kazakhstan’s population has fallen from 16.8 million to below 15.6 million today. Devyatko’s remarks cast doubt on Kazakhstan’s ability to meet President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s target population of 25 million by the year 2030.
Devyatko laid the blame on rising death rates and falling birth rates. Since 1991, he said, male and female life expectancy has fallen by four and three years, respectively. Eighty percent of deaths are caused by heart and lung disorders. Kazakhstan also has a high rate of death from tuberculosis. Infant mortality rates are continuing to rise in several regions. Experts blame poor sanitary conditions, rising poverty and prohibitively high charges for medical care.
There were two gaps in Devyatko’s address. First, the single most important reason why the population is falling is not poor health but emigration. Some 1.3 million people are believed to have left Kazakhstan since 1991. After peaking in 1994 and stabilizing for the following two years, the exodus rose again in 1997 to estimated numbers of between 200,000 and 300,000. (Panorama [Almaty], March 13; Russian agencies, March 18) The majority of those leaving were ethnic Germans, Russians and Ukrainians. Kazakhstan’s German community, which numbered 957,500 at the time of the 1989 census, has shrunk to fewer than 350,000 today. Reasons are multiple, but those most often cited are economic hardship, the perception of state discrimination against non-Kazakhs and, in the Germans’ case, the guarantee of German citizenship to anyone who can prove German ancestry. The 1997 exodus is explained locally primarily in terms of recent sharp rises in unemployment.
Second, an analysis of Kazakhstan’s demographic situation should not ignore the country’s growing influx of refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2,000 Afghan, 6,000 Chechen and 600 Tajik refugees are currently registered in Kazakhstan. (UNHCR Report, March 11) Many others are believed to be unregistered. And since Kazakhstan has not yet signed or ratified the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, refugees remain unprotected.– SC
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