In spite of the current gloom-and-doom economic atmosphere in Kazakhstan, Astana is pushing ahead with costly plans to lure migrants with cultural links to the country, mainly ethnic Kazakhs.
Kazakhstan's budget has come under increasing pressure in recent months, prompting the government to put together a series of crisis-prevention measures. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But officials so far are giving no thought to scaling back its resettlement programs. The state has long pursued policies aimed at enticing ethnic Kazakhs living abroad to return to what is described as their "historical homeland." And even as it cuts back elsewhere, the government went ahead with an ambitious $1.3 billion program to accelerate and expand inward migration to address demographic problems and skills shortages.
The Nurly Kosh (Blessed Migration) program -- launched January 1 -- targets three groups of migrants: the estimated 3.5-4.5 million ethnic Kazakhs living abroad; skilled former citizens of Kazakhstan; and citizens living in depressed zones. To get these groups to move to under-populated areas, the government is offering an array of incentives designed to provide "rational resettlement and assistance with settling down and integrating." Perks include one-off subsidies, paid travel costs and low-interest loans to buy land or housing.
Many observers have given the plans a cautious welcome, but -- with the program set to run until 2011 -- it is early days, cautions Anna Genina, a University of Michigan anthropology doctoral candidate, who is conducting research in Kazakhstan on ethnic Kazakh migrants, who are known as oralmandar (returnees). "I don't know if it will actually materialize into something other than a concept on paper," Genina told EurasiaNet.
While many migrants welcome the perks offered, there are challenges. Genina questioned the wisdom of locking new arrivals into a long-term debt of up to 10 years to buy or build housing. "There may be some who will buy into it, but for most people it's probably not a good idea," she said.
One key problem Nurly Kosh seeks to address is population distribution, by offering incentives to migrants to settle in target areas. Ethnic Kazakh migrants often choose to live in southern and western regions, where Kazakh is more widely spoken and the culture more familiar. However, these regions suffer from a bloated labor supply, while the population of northern regions is shrinking: statistics show the population was up at the end of 2008 in all but three regions in the north of the country: Akmola, Kostanay and North Kazakhstan.
Demographic imbalances have long been viewed as a national security threat, albeit largely unspoken due to fears of offending Kazakhstan's Slav minority and its powerful neighbor, Russia. At independence in 1991, ethnic Kazakhs were in a minority in Kazakhstan.
Policies to redress the balance have reaped some successes: the ethnic Kazakh population had risen to nearly two-thirds of the total population of 15.5 million at the beginning of 2008, compared to just over half at the last census in 1999. (A new national census is currently being conducted). Nurly Kosh increases the annual quota of ethnic Kazakh families receiving state assistance by one-third to 20,000, and -- with each migrating family numbering on average five people, according to statistics -- Kazakhstan is set to open its doors to another 300,000 Kazakhs over the three year program.
Many of the 700,000 Kazakhs who have so far migrated to Kazakhstan have not had an easy time of it, sometimes facing serious adaptation problems, including resentment against newcomers. "There's a very clear prejudice that these people [migrants] are not educated, they're stupid and backward," Genina says.
Her view is backed by independent Almaty-based analyst Naubet Bisenov, who has researched migrants' problems. "The main problem is with the acceptance of oralmandar as equals to local Kazakhs, because they think oralmandar are uneducated freeloaders," Bisenov said. "When they go for a job interview, people show genuine surprise that oralmandar can have a higher education and speak languages and be specialists in jobs that demand quite high qualifications."
Arrival in Kazakhstan can be a disorientating experience, particularly for those coming from states outside the former Soviet Union, such as Iran, China and Turkey. Returnees from those countries often do not speak Russian or read the Cyrillic alphabet and arrive in an unfamiliar culture. With the Kazakh language written in several alphabets across the world (Cyrillic in Kazakhstan, Arabic in China, Latin in Turkey), oralmandar sometimes find themselves in their "historical homeland" unable to read or to communicate with the non-Kazakh-speaking population.
Language is rarely a problem for returnees wishing to pursue a rural lifestyle, but lack of Russian language skills can be a barrier in job hunting for "people that have ambition, aspiration, education," said Genina. She added that government adaptation centers offering vocational training and language instruction often do not function efficiently, nor do they exist everywhere.
The government will be hoping the settlements it has pledged to build for new migrants in target areas will be up to the standards of Baybesik, a village outside Almaty inhabited mainly by oralmandar. Baybesik is a community-led project built on land granted by the government with financial assistance from NGOs. What was a few years ago bleak steppe now boasts a well-appointed village with roads and electricity and water supplies. The facilities are basic, but Yergalym, who arrived from western Mongolia three years ago and is now a student in Almaty, is happy. "It's is good," he told EurasiaNet. "My family hasn't moved yet but I like it here."
Yergalym hopes to build a better life than the one he left behind, but -- with the financial crisis biting -- hard times lie ahead. Another Baybesik inhabitant, Zharkyn from China, laments the collapse of his successful shuttle-trading business with his former homeland. "There's a crisis now," he told EurasiaNet. "There's no work and there's no money." Migrants, like many others in Kazakhstan in the current climate, are looking to the future with trepidation.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.