According to the press, 4.2 million people have left Kazakhstan over the years of independence. Of these, 2.5 million have moved to Russia. Migration outflow intensity has been increasing slowly, but steadily in recent years. According to the statistics, 25.3 thousand people have left Kazakhstan over a nine-month period this year, which is 20.1 per cent more than in January-September 2020. The topic of xenophobia against Russian-speaking citizens in Kazakhstan, constantly being raised by the Russian officials and media, has fueled the trend.
Arkady Dubnov, an independent Russian expert on Central Asia and Afghanistan, in his article entitled ‘Lavrov’s defense: Why are the recent public statements of the Russian minister about Kazakhstan dangerous?’ and published in Novaya Gazeta newspaper, noted that they [representatives of Kazakh elite] “believe that the goal of Russian policy with regard to Kazakhstan, part of which is the escapades of Russian diplomats, and the tool is the artificial building up of an atmosphere of Russophobia, contains at its core the aim of pushing the Russian-speaking people living in the country (and today they number, according to various estimates, approximately 3 million) to resettle definitively in Russia”.
The above view on the reasons for [artificially] creating ‘an atmosphere of Russophobia’ in Kazakhstan appears to have flown logically from the Kremlin’s determination to mitigate the negative effects of depopulation and population ageing in the near future through, among other things, encouraging migration of Russians, living in some of the newly independent (other post-Soviet) States, to Russia. In his 2019 annual press conference Vladimir Putin admitted that the prospect of a depopulating Russia ‘haunted’ him. Finding a solution to the demographic crisis by the end of his term in 2024 was one of the key pledges announced during his 2018 re-election campaign. Russians are now in the fourth year of the current term of Mr.Putin’s presidency, and he got almost nothing to show for it. According to calculations made by independent demographer Alexey Raksha, Russia’s natural population declined by 997,000 between October 2020 and September 2021. One must hope that the Russian authorities growing attention to increasing migration flows from the near abroad countries, including Kazakhstan, provides grounds for expecting timely improvement of the situation.
But what is the situation of Kazakhstani Russians? Are they still encountering problems in using their own language and in participating in Kazakh politics and public life?
In considering these questions, two core aspects that contribute to shaping a conflicting picture of the ethno-linguistic situation in the Central Asian country, should be highlighted. First, Kazakhstan became one of the two most Russified (both ethnically and linguistically) Soviet national (non-Russian) republics, along with Belarus, in the former USSR. In this regard, Business-gazeta.ru, in an article by Azat Akhunov, an Uzbek author, entitled ‘Didn’t you think about learning?’: Uzbekistan uses the experience of Ukraine and the Baltic states with regard to the ‘language issue’, said: “The Uzbeks never forgot their native language and culture, yet the process for assimilating [national and ethnic minorities] went on and on one way or another, and the role of the Russian language had been progressively growing. Of course, the situation was completely different than, say, that of Kazakhstan, which became almost completely Russified – the Russian language is still in first place up there”. And he’s right. Many people here, including ethnic Kazakhs, still often speak Russian. And this is the case in a situation of rapidly changing balance in numbers of Kazakhs and Russians. 365info.kz, in an article entitled ‘Kazakhs are the largest Russian-speaking non-Slavic ethnicity in the world – researcher’, said: “In other post-Soviet countries, the position of the Russian language is also strong, but not as strong as it is in Kazakhstan. Yet although Kazakhs have become increasingly numerous in the country, that’s still not very helpful to the Kazakh language”.
The second factor is characterized by the ever increasing dynamics of migration flows from Kazakhstan to Russia. The statistics are as follows: in 2016, 23.5 thousand people officially left the country to take up permanent residence in Russia; in 2017, 26 thousand; in 2018, almost 30 thousand; in 2019, almost 40 thousand. The Covid 19 pandemic has slowed the momentum of the process. But the growth trend is now being renewed. So it turns out that Kazakhstan remains largely Russified in linguistic and cultural terms, while being increasingly de-Russified in ethnic terms.
According to the 1989 census, there were 6,227,549 Russians in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. At that time they comprised 37.82 per cent or almost two fifths of the republic’s population. As of the beginning of 2021, there were 3,478,287 Russians in the Republic of Kazakhstan. In over three decades, their share declined to 18.42 per cent, or to less than a fifth of the country’s population. Both the number and proportion of the Kazakhstani Russians have been halved during this period. At the same time, the number of the Kazakhstani Ukrainians has fallen from 896,240 to 256,700; that of the Kazakhstani Belarusians from 178,325 to 52,200. All this looks like a consequence of mass emigration.
Millions of Russian-speaking Europeans left Kazakhstan. Tens of thousands of such people have been packing their bags and leaving abroad every year. The process is ongoing, and apparently no end is in sight. The underlying explanation for the migratory flow from the Republic of Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation and other European countries may not always lie in the human desire to return to the historical homeland.
Most of those people actually believe that they do not have any perspective in the Central Asian country. That’s what Denis Krivosheyev, a Kazakhstani economics writer, said in that respect: ‘An exodus of Russians and Russian-speakers will only grow quantitatively (in size or numbers). The northern regions and Almaty will be the last enclaves in the process. And the number of ethnic Russians is expected to decrease dramatically in all other regions of Kazakhstan. Already now, there are areas in which their share tends to zero. This process will reach its peak around 2022. There are no compelling reasons for a lot of them to keep staying here. Kazakhstan can’t be compared to the Baltic countries. Its passport doesn’t have anything special in it, unlike the Latvian (Lithuanian or Estonian) one offering access to European Union. Russia, which faces demographic challenges, could also accelerate the process. It is now a question of adopting the law “on soil”, which would simplify procedures in relation to obtaining citizenship, and a new repatriation program is being prepared to facilitate the relocation and adaptation. The major questions at stake are the property belonging to Kazakhstani Russians and the fear of losing a comfortable environment, but the faster this process goes, the easier the issues associated with the relocation would be perceived… I sometimes think the Russians are dragging their feet on the issue of returning to their historical homeland. This does not apply to those who are ready to embrace the Kazakh cultural code concept. There is nothing wrong with that, yet it is strange at least to be remaining quite pro-imperial Russian with the appropriate mindset in Kazakhstan. It would be better to seize the moment, fix the situation and leave abroad. Kazakhstan is in the process of national State building. And it cannot be otherwise, it is not worth hoping. So, one has either to pluck up courage and to leave, or to wholly adapt to a different environment’.
But why it is that Russians are barely leaving Belarus where the situation (in terms of language) is comparable to that of Kazakhstan, and at the same time they are quitting the Central Asian country in an unending stream? Why it is that Kazakhstan has become and remains an absolute leader not only among the CIS States, but also among all the former Soviet republics of the USSR in terms of the number of Russian-speaking people leaving the country, while Belarus has been and still is an absolute laggard in that regard? By the way, the rate of Russians’ emigration from Belarus is even lower than that of Russians’ emigration from Russia itself.
Now, when Russia and Belarus are once again becoming a single state, these kinds of problems are of course no longer relevant. So what is accounted for such a huge difference between these two cases pertaining Kazakhstan and Belarus? The answer is likely to be the simplest thing. The principal point here is that the former one and the latter one are viewed differently by Russians. There are some reasons for such differentiation. First, Russians and Belarusians are the two ethnic groups (nationalities) known as most kindred to each other. A Belarusian Russian has no problems with a native Belarusian. As to a Russian-speaking Belarusian, he is no different from any Russian. It’s always been like this, as long as one can remember. As for Kazakhs, Russians don’t relate to them as much.
Even at the height of the Soviet era, there was a clear dividing line between them. At that time, Russians mainly lived in large cities and grain-growing regions of Northern Kazakhstan. The Kazakh population was mainly located in cattle-rearing areas, which constitute the majority of the republic’s territory. People, who had come from there to cities, found employment in the Communist party and Soviet administrative organs, universities and cultural institutions, thus personifying the statehood of the Kazakh socialist nation. Yet the constitutionally sovereign Soviet socialist state (in the case of the Kazakh SSR) was a Russian (European) entity in its core areas. Among the 15 first secretaries, who had headed the Central Committee of Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1925 to 1989, there were only 2 ethnically Kazakh people. Kazakhstan’s titular population was an ethnic minority in their own republic from the 1930s to the 1980’s.
The situation has changed substantially since then. Now Kazakhs constitute the majority of the population almost everywhere in Kazakhstan. This nation isn’t what it was. In other words, there is no longer a country populated mainly by people of Russian (European) origin. In this case, the fact that the Russian language has retained and expanded its position is not enough for ethnic Russians to feel protected, cared for and satisfied.
Yet Kazakhstan still is a country with many different ethnic groups, so not all Kazakhstanis are ethnic Kazakhs. The nation has groups like the Russian, Ukrainian, German, Tatar, Turk, Chechen, Kurdish etc. It is quite easy to distinguish ethnic Kazakhs from Kazakhstan’s citizens who are from different ethnic minorities, except for those that have mixed heritage. A large portion of ethnic minorities in the country are people with European, Caucasian, or Middle Eastern features. Kazakhs are noticeably different in physical appearance when compared to the above-mentioned ethnicities. And they are in a clear majority.
*Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst