Not far from Kazakhstan’s main seaport on the Caspian Sea lies a district of former dachas, or summer cottages, that were once used by technical specialists who worked in the manufacturing city known as Shevchenko during the late Soviet era.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the specialists left and Shevchenko became Aktau. The dachas soon fell into neglect. Now, in a potent symbol of Kazakhstan’s demographic transformation, the dacha neighborhood is populated by “returnees” – or oralmans in Kazakh – ethnic Kazakhs from abroad that Astana encourages to return home in order to bolster the numbers of the titular nationality in the country. Now, with recent unrest in the region, they have become targets for scapegoating.
“We came here about eight years ago,” said Nazarbai Ismailov, 56, an oralman from Karakalpakstan, across the border in Uzbekistan. Resting in the home he built amid the dachas while his wife tended to their one-year-old grandson, Ismailov praised Kazakhstan. “Life is definitely better here,” he said. “There was no work at all in Uzbekistan.”
In the past 20 years, Kazakhstan’s oralman policy has brought 860,000 ethnic Kazakhs back to the country; over 100,000 of them have resettled in sparsely populated, but oil-rich Mangystau Province, according to government statistics. The western province’s population has grown by nearly 67 percent since 1999, with half of that growth attributable to oralmans. On arrival, the government gives oralmans cash commensurate with the size of the family – in Ismailov’s case, around $700 for a family of five – and either a land plot, or financial assistance to purchase a home. Approximately 85 percent of oralmans coming to Mangystau since 1991 have come from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.
Mangystau is a popular destination because of superior wages offered to employees in the booming oil industry. Yet most of those who arrive lack higher education, and many struggle to find work. Local critics of the program in Aktau blame it for what they describe as the city’s social decline.
“Without a doubt the city’s level of culture has diminished while the level of social tension has increased,” said Igor Nesterov, a member of the Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists of Kazakhstan and a reporter for the local paper Aktau Lada. “If you look at crimes committed, you’ll see the largest percentage is people from Uzbekistan [and] Turkmenistan.”
Others say this is simply scapegoating for bigger social problems like unemployment and government incompetence. “When for over a decade things went well in the Kazakh oil and gas sector, and in Mangystau in particular, the issue of oralmans never crossed anyone’s mind,” said Zhar Zardykan, an assistant professor of international relations at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics, and Strategic Research (KIMEP) in Almaty. When the global economic crisis hit in 2008, immigrants all over the world were targeted, said Zardykan, “just in the case of Kazakhstan, the immigrants are primarily ethnic Kazakhs from abroad.”
Most oralmans do not live in luxury. In Munaili, where Ismailov built his home on land he received from the government, the roads are dirt, and plastic sheeting often serves for glass in windows. An iron stove fed with scrap wood heats one room where his family eats and sleeps, while the other two rooms lie cold.
A former factory worker in Uzbekistan, Ismailov worked in construction for five years after he arrived, then lost his job when the company folded during the 2008-2009 global economic crisis. He has been unemployed for three years. His son, 30, speaks almost no Russian and drives an unlicensed cab. The family applied with the local and provincial governments for the son to receive his own plot in 2007, but has not received a response, they say.
In Aktau’s central market, oralmans from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan trade alongside internal migrants as well as non-Kazakh immigrants from Azerbaijan from across the Caspian Sea. “[President Nursultan] Nazarbayev called us, and we came,” said one young oralman from Uzbekistan, who refused to give his name. “If he hadn’t called, we wouldn’t have come.” Trading in the market “provides just enough to fill the pot,” the young man said. “It’s the same here as it was there.”
As Kazakhstan grapples with social unrest on a scale not previously seen, Astana is clearly concerned that oralmans may become a source of social tension. Top officials have linked oralmans to the violent clash between police and protesters in the Mangystau oil town of Zhanaozen on December 16. In his first statement on the Zhanaozen events, Nazarbayev said the state “invited our fellow countrymen that lived in other countries, and gave them all that was needed. For this they should be grateful to the government.” Some, including the influential head of the national social fund, Umirzak Shukeyev, have suggested terminating oralman programs altogether as a consequence of the Zhanaozen events. So far no definite actions to change the policy have been taken, however.
Blaming oralmans for the Zhanaozen events is misguided, said Zardykan of KIMEP in Almaty: “To a great extent, the well-being of most oralmans is not much different from the relevant segment of the local population” – internal migrants moving from declining rural areas within Kazakhstan to Mangystau and other western provinces. “The tragedy in Zhanaozen turned ugly mainly because it was much easier for some to point their fingers at ‘others,’” he added.
Ismailov, for one, is grateful for what he has received. When his grandson was born, Ismailov insisted he be named Nursultan. The family calls the child “the little president.”
Nate Schenkkan is a Bishkek-based journalist.