Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ethnic Balancing? Kazakhstan Settles Returnees In Regions With Significant Russian-Speaking Populations

Ethnic Kazakhs from Turkmenistan arrive in Mangystau, Kazakhstan, to resettle in their ancestral homeland in April 2021.
Ethnic Kazakhs from Turkmenistan arrive in Mangystau, Kazakhstan, to resettle in their ancestral homeland in April 2021.

Ethnic Kazakhs who have returned to their ancestral homeland from abroad in recent months say officials have ordered them to resettle in the country's northern regions near the Russian border.

The government insists the settlement program is aimed at tackling a dire shortage of workers in sparsely populated provinces. But many believe Astana is trying to balance the ethnic makeup of its regions with significant Russian-speaking populations.

The government has introduced quotas to resettle the returnees -- or "qandas" -- in seven provinces spanning from the northeast to the northwest of the sprawling country: East Kazakhstan, Pavlodar, Aqmola, North Kazakhstan, Qostanai, West Kazakhstan, and Atyrau.

The qandas who move to the north get additional financial incentives not available to those who choose to live in other regions. The benefits include a single payment of about $450 per family member and a subsidy for rent and utility bills.

The government's program to resettle more people to the north is not new. Apart from the resettlement of the qandas, the government also encourages internal migration to the north.

But it has become more prevalent in recent months, with some returnees claiming they are being ordered to move to the government-selected provinces against their wishes.

For example, only 44 people out of some 800 ethnic Kazakhs who relocated from Turkmenistan this summer were allowed to settle in Mangystau, the province of their choice.

Others were told by Kazakh authorities to move to areas designated by the government or face deportation, several of the returnees claimed.

Quralai Esenmuratova moved from Turkmenistan's Balkan Province to her titular homeland in July, hoping to live near her elderly mother and son who resettled in Mangystau several years ago.

But when she and fellow returnees crossed the border into Kazakhstan, authorities told the group their new home regions had already been determined for them.

Esenmuratova, 57, got a visa stamped on her passport stating she must move to the northern Pavlodar region, where she has no family or friends.

"When we arrived in Mangystau, the authorities demanded that we immediately go to the provinces indicated in our visas," Esenmuratova told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

"They threatened, 'You'll be deported if you don't go to Pavlodar,'" she said.

Ethnic Kazakh families from China's Xinjiang region arrive in Kazakhstan in April.
Ethnic Kazakh families from China's Xinjiang region arrive in Kazakhstan in April.

Another qandas from Turkmenistan, 29-year-old Saghyndyq Nazaraliev, confirmed that new returnees are under pressure to move to northern regions.

Nazaraliev, who arrived in Mangystau on August 15, said his family of three was ordered to move to the Pavlodar region without delay. He now lives in Pavlodar's Ekibastuz city.

Some 1.1 million ethnic Kazakhs have resettled in Kazakhstan since 1991 under a special government program that encourages Kazakhs abroad -- mainly from Uzbekistan (70 percent), China (10 percent), and Turkmenistan (7 percent) -- to return to the land of their ancestors.

Most of them settled in the mainly Kazakh-speaking provinces of Turkistan, Jambyl, and Almaty in the county's densely populated south and southeast.

Serik Beisembaev, the director of the Astana-based research center PaperLab,
says the government should "invest in the economic development of the north to make it attractive for migration" instead of ordering people to settle there against their wishes.

Interest In Identity Issues?

Astana's apparent renewed interest in the ethnic balance -- or what some describe as the Kazakhification -- of the north is seen by some as an effort to reduce Moscow's influence on the population along the country's 7,600-kilometer border with Russia in the aftermath of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Kazakh authorities have long been wary of pro-Moscow sentiments expressed by some ethnic Russians in recent years.

They had become particularly vocal since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and Moscow-backed separatists illegally declared independence in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine, where they have been fighting Ukrainian troops ever since.

In the same year, Russian President Vladimir Putin angered Kazakhs when he said they "never had statehood." Similar comments questioning Kazakhstan's statehood and territorial integrity have since been made multiple times by Putin and other ultranationalist Russian leaders.

The number of ethnic Kazakhs in their homeland began to sharply decline in the 1930s, when a Soviet collectivization campaign led to a famine that killed at least 1.3 million Kazakhs and forced millions of others to flee abroad.

Moscow, meanwhile, either encouraged or forced Russians and other ethnic groups to migrate to Kazakhstan.

When Kazakhstan gained its independence in 1991, ethnic Kazakhs made up less than 40 percent of the population. That number has now risen to about 70 percent.

Former authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev has been credited with transforming the demographic balance of the country and seeking to restore Kazakhstan's national identity through the development of the Kazakh language, culture, and traditions.

Ethnic Russians make up about 15 percent of Kazakhstan's 19.4 million population, compared to 37 percent before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian, however, is still widely spoken in most Kazakh cities.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.
  • 16x9 Image

    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.