German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder today begins a two-day official visit to Kazakhstan at the invitation of President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Among the issues likely to be discussed is the situation of Kazakhstan's ethnic Germans -- both those who have already emigrated to Germany and those who still remain.
Prague, 4 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Diplomatic observers say Schroeder is likely to tell Nazarbaev that Germany is looking to increase oil exports from Kazakhstan and is interested in taking part in working Kazakh oil fields in the Caspian Sea.
Other economic issues are also expected to be addressed during the two-day visit by Schroeder, who is traveling with an entourage of 11 business executives looking to monitor ongoing plans like a telecommunications project run under the auspices of Siemens.
The German chancellor's visit also signals Europe's desire to be involved in security issues and to find a niche in the strategically important region of Central Asia, where the United States has already established a military presence to support the antiterror campaign in Afghanistan.
But talks will undoubtedly also focus on a more personal issue -- the situation of ethnic Germans who since 1989 have begun to leave Kazakhstan for Germany, as well as the circumstances facing those who remain. Schroeder is also traveling with the German commissioner for migration, Jochen Welt.
Today's German minorities in Russia, Kazakhstan, and other former Soviet republics are the descendants of settlers who accepted Empress Catherine the Great's offer of land along the lower Volga in the 18th century. Most of them came from Swabia in southern Germany. They were mostly Lutherans and Mennonites, and a smaller number were Roman Catholics.
Germans began settling in what is now Kazakhstan in 1871. During Josef Stalin's collectivization program in the early 1930s, many German owners of large farms on the Volga were forced to resettle in Kazakhstan; and after the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin ordered thousands more Volga Germans to be relocated in Siberia and Central Asia. They were forbidden to resettle. Their plight improved somewhat after the 1954 meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, when the ethnic Germans' formal rehabilitation was made official and they were cleared of collaboration with the Nazis.
By the 1980s, more than half of the over 2 million Soviet Germans were concentrated in Kazakhstan. But over 700,000 Germans have left Kazakhstan for Germany since 1989. An estimated 300,000 ethnic Germans remain in Kazakhstan, mainly elderly people and villagers. They live mostly in the northeast of the country, between Astana and Ust-Kamenogorsk.
Visiting Almaty in July, German Migration Commissioner Welt told journalists that last year the number of emigrants decreased to 39,000 and in 2003 it is projected at 30,000. He attributed the slowdown to rising living standards in Kazakhstan. He also said that the federal government has increased support to Germans living in Kazakhstan. Under this program, the government of Germany allocated 11 million euros for 2001-02.
A spokesperson from the German Interior Ministry told RFE/RL that an additional 5 million euros are being spent this year on assistance to Kazakhstan's ethnic Germans. This includes expenses needed to train and retrain ethnic Germans to meet new economic conditions, as well as for organizational expenses, humanitarian and social assistance, and health costs.
In addition, it was reported to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Deutsche Welle and Kazakh Radio are launching special broadcasts in both German and Russian for ethnic Germans living in Kazakhstan to coincide with the visit of the German chancellor to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
Herold Belger is a Kazakh writer of German origin and an active member of Wiedergeburt, the German community in Kazakhstan. Like Welt, he attributes the reluctance of ethnic Germans to leave Kazakhstan to the republic's rising living standards. But at the same time he indicates those ethnic Germans remaining in Kazakhstan need even more support from Germany: "There are about 300,000 ethnic Germans still residing in Kazakhstan. The majority of them will not move to Germany. Even if some of them move, at least 200,000 of them will remain in Kazakhstan. They live in this country as all others do. But they need more support from Germany as well. Kazakhs should remain Kazakhs, Germans should remain Germans. These issues should be discussed with the visiting German chancellor."
Upon their arrival in Germany, ethnic Germans immediately gain German citizenship. They can also claim an apartment, free German lessons, and a course of professional retraining.
Despite this, many problems still remain. While indicating they have enough financial support, ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union complain they are discriminated against in Germany.
While the federal government of Germany has pledged both moral and financial support, Alexander Eichmann, a German repatriate from Kazakhstan, complained to RFE/RL that little moral support is actually given: "Yes, really, financial support is given [from the German government], but as for moral support, I very much doubt it."
As Herold Belger also said, many problems still exist for ethnic Germans rehabilitated in Germany, and with increasing living standards in Kazakhstan, many are still hesitant to leave Kazakhstan for an uncertain life in the West, especially the elderly: "Half a million Kazakhstani Germans are currently living in Germany. That is a huge number and a big force. Their integration into the European society is a big challenge for themselves and for the German officials. Germany does not pay enough attention to that important issue. The integration [of Kazakhstani Germans] into German society is progressing very slowly with many difficulties."
Wolfgang Bemer, the head of a German parliament delegation that visited Kazakhstan in May, told journalists that all the ethnic Germans of Kazakhstan have a choice, to live in their historic motherland -- Germany, or in their second motherland -- the Republic of Kazakhstan. He added that all those ethnic Germans who return to Germany from Kazakhstan receive support under special state programs. He stressed that the German government is doing its best to support ethnic Germans who remain in Kazakhstan.
Bemer said his delegation held talks with senior Kazakh officials on the current economic and political situation in Kazakhstan, problems faced by the Kazakh society, German-Kazakh ties, and ways to simplify obtaining a visa for both German citizens intending to visit Kazakhstan and Kazakhs who wish to travel to Germany.