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Central Asia: Ethnic Russian Population Decreases

  • Ben Partridge

London, 7 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A new study says the demographic composition of several Central Asian nations is undergoing a fundamental change because of the departure of a large number of ethnic Russians since the late 1980s.

The study also says the average age of Russians remaining in Central Asia is much higher than that of the local population, and they constitute a disproportionately large number of pensioners.

It says: "Within the next decade or so, death from natural causes will be the main factor behind the decreasing number of Russians."

An analysis of demographic changes in the Central Asian states is contained in "Russia and Central Asia -- A New Web of Relations" written by Lena Jonson, a senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

An influx of Russian settlers arrived in Central Asia in the wake of Russian troops in the 19th century. They played a major role in agriculture, irrigation, the building of railroads and towns, and the founding of heavy and mining industries. After World War II, an influx of Russians continued -- particularly to Kazakhstan. They were lured by industrial schemes and housing programs.

After the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, the ethnic Russian population in Central Asia was some 9.5 million -- or 19.5 percent of the total population. Russians held a privileged position in society, and were well-represented in politics, administration and the sciences.

But Jonson's book notes that the pattern had begun to change by the late 1980s. First, the Russian population had begun to leave for Russia; second, the indigenous elite had initiated a process of "cultural nationalization;" and third the Russian language began to lose its privileged position.

In the late 1980s, the large number of Russian immigrants from Central Asia took the Gorbachev administration by surprise.

Some 250,000 people left Kazakhstan in 1994. The Russian exodus from the Central Asian region peaked in 1995, but fell off in the following years, although remaining fairly high. Ethnic Russians comprised more than half the migratory flow, ethnic Germans almost a quarter, and Ukrainians some 8 percent. The exodus was sparked by economic reasons, including a crisis in heavy industry, and by a cultural awakening in the Central Asian societies.

Jonson says new laws on citizenship did not discriminate against the non-indigenous population, offering the possibility of becoming nationalized citizens to all those already resident in the country. Still, the Russian population felt marginalized. Outbreaks of ethnic violence, as in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley in 1989, contributed to a fear among Russians that they had no future in Central Asia, despite the fact that the ethnic violence was never directed at them.

In 1996, Russian authorities reported that a total of about one million immigrants a year had recently been arriving in Russia, the majority of them from Central Asia. They said 2.9 million people were likely to arrive from Central Asia in the next few years.

In 1989, Russians made up 21.5 percent of the Kyrgyz population, but only 18 percent by 1994. In the same period, the Russian proportion of the population in Kazakhstan dropped by 2 percent to 36 percent. Across the region, the Russian population is declining.

The study says one important consequence of this trend is that the cultural orientation of the Central Asian states will change. The report predicts: "In future, the Central Asian countries are likely to turn their attention southwards to countries with which they share cultural affinities, such as Turkey, Iran and Pakistan." A similar process is taking place in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in their relationships with China.

The report says: "The consequences of these processes will be that what was once a common cultural legacy will dissipate, and Russia and Central Asia will draw further apart."

Moscow has pursued a dual policy over the Russian minorities in Central Asia. On the one hand, the administration of President Boris Yeltsin has stressed that the rights of Russians in diaspora are inseparable from those at home. On the other hand, Moscow, fearing an influx of Russians from Central Asia, has encouraged them to stay put.

A five-point Russian government program finalized in August 1996 called for legal safeguards for the rights of the Russian populations abroad; for economic support for compatriots abroad; and for guarantees on the use of the Russian language. However, Moscow has faced problems in implementing the program.

No money has been forthcoming to support the commercial activities of compatriots abroad; and the number of Russian schools and the exchange of students have been cut. Russian TV broadcasts have been reduced, partly owing to Russia's inability to pay transmission costs, and partly owing to disputes with Central Asian governments on the broadcasting and transmission of programs.

Cultural links with Russia are hampered by two additional factors which are beyond Russian control. First, other foreign TV channels are beginning to reach Central Asian audiences. Second, Russian journalists have been expelled from Central Asian countries when they have criticized the domestic situation, especially in Uzbekistan.

The report says: "Russian cultural influence in Central Asia is waning...For the time being Russian remains the lingua franca of the region...But how long this situation will continue if the Russian language is not supported by Central Asian governments remains to be seen."