Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has set a new goal for the country -- raise the population by 33 percent, or 5 million people, before the year 2020. Otherwise, he says, Kazakhstan will face economic stagnation. The country's population has been steadily decreasing since independence -- meaning too few workers for its flourishing oil industry.
Prague, 27 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- How does a country increase its population by 33 percent in just over 15 years? Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, addressing the issue last week, didn't offer an answer -- he simply said it had to be done. "I didn't just accidentally say that we need to increase the population to 20 million [people]," he said. "This figure has been calculated. We don't have enough cadres to develop with stability and maintain our economic growth."
Kazakhstan's population is dwindling. When the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, Kazakhstan had an estimated population of 17 million. Now that number is down to just under 15 million -- a striking contrast to the dramatic population increases in the other Central Asian states -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Populations in those four countries have increased by 10 percent and even more in the post-Soviet decade.
A potential solution to Kazakhstan's problems would seem to be bringing in laborers from its Central Asian neighbors. But Professor Steve Sabol, an expert in Kazakh affairs teaching at the University of North Carolina, told RFE/RL such a move is unlikely -- as the Kazakh government does not desire a drastic shift in the ethnic balance in the country.
"I think there has always been, certainly since independence, a desire on the part of the Kazakh government to ensure that Kazakhs make up the majority of the population," Sabol said. "So I think that would discourage too much immigration -- even transient workers coming from Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan or elsewhere [would be discouraged] from settling in Kazakhstan. That could alter the demographic picture and perhaps complicate relations with those other states."
Ethnic Kazakhs became a minority in Kazakhstan when it was a Soviet republic, outnumbered by ethnic Russians. That changed after independence, although ethnic Kazakhs still represent only somewhere around 50 percent of the total population. The country's sharp population decrease was partially due the emigration of some 500,000 ethnic Russians. Ethnic Germans forcibly settled in Kazakhstan during World War II have also flowed out of the country by the hundreds of thousands.
Many of these emigrants were precisely the semi-skilled workers that Kazakhstan now needs. For a country with such vast and virtually untapped oil resources in its western regions, the timing could not be worse. Nazarbaev himself described the influx of workers required: "We will need, starting in 2006, 100,000 additional workers per year. Already today, western Kazakhstan needs 150,000 for the next five years."
But Steve Sabol said that while Kazakhstan has shown amazing economic growth in recent years, it may be premature to predict that the market will grow sufficiently fast to accommodate 100,000 additional workers a year. "I think [Nazarbaev] is being somewhat optimistic in terms of potential growth, for the oil industry in particular," he said. "In the first half of 2003, the GDP grew at about 10.4 percent, which is a fairly healthy rise for the economy in Kazakhstan. However, it does seem limited to the heavy industries, in particular oil and gas in the western part of the state. Domestic industry is lagging behind and most observers don't believe that the economy can continue to grow at that rate."
Most workers that could be brought in from other Central Asian republics would be manual laborers. But Nazarbaev appears intent on drawing in skilled professionals as well. "[It is our task] to prize people who are professionally trained, to value all people who are working for us and create [better] conditions for them. This is extremely important," Nazarbaev said.
But this may prove problematic as well. Kazakhstan, by far the wealthiest country in the region, still offers an average monthly wage of about $100 -- an amount that few foreign skilled workers would find tempting. And for all its oil wealth, Kazakhstan still lacks a solid infrastructure and the standard of living that many such workers would expect.
Sabol said an even bigger drawback to attracting skilled and semi-skilled labor from abroad could be the government's still-repressive policies. "I think there are conditions in Kazakhstan that make it feasible for skilled workers, perhaps those in the computer industry, to come to Kazakhstan," he said. "But the government, I believe, also has to make the conditions favorable to allow people to surf the web freely, [to allow] the free exchange of ideas which has been limited in Kazakhstan, greater access to news and information, greater access to the media, more liberalization of the media. And [Nazarbaev] has suggested in the past that he's open to that, but he's always thrown in the caveat that the conditions aren't yet right for that."
So the Kazakh government seems faced with two unpalatable choices -- either it can change its internal policies or allow an inflow of its southern neighbors.
The population issue has also rekindled the debate over whether a man can be allowed as many as four wives, as is permitted by the Koran. That idea has never won wide support among the women of Kazakhstan. Nor would it be likely to find acceptance among the country's Western partners.
For the time being, however, Kazakhstan's population decrease seems to have stemmed. The country has remained at 14.9 million for the past several years, so the process could slowly start reversing itself, though birthrates among Kazakhs, even in Soviet times, were always far behind the families in the southern states.
(Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)