Astana Shifting Ethnic Kazakhs to Northern Kazakhstan to Block Any Russian Threat

April 4, 2014
USDA-FAS, Office of Global Analysis

Staunton, April 4 – In the wake of Putin’s Crimean Anschluss, according to some Kazakhstan news sources, the government of that country plans to shift 300,000 ethnic Kazakhs to the still predominantly ethnic Russian northern portions of Kazakhstan to block any Moscow effort to undermine that country’s territorial integrity.

Kazakh officials have denied the specifics of these reports, including the motivation and the numbers; but in fact, according to Aleksandr Shustov, Astana has been resettling ethnic Kazakhs in the northern part of Kazakhstan since the 1990s and clearly wants to change the ethnic balance in the north.

Shustov, who writes regularly for the Russian nationalist portal, says that the recent reports – he provides citations to several between March 20 and March 28 of this year – follow a discussion in the Kazakhstan parliament last October about the need to resettle more ethnic Kazakhs in the north.

The initiator of that debate was Svetlana Dzhalmagambetov, who, Shustov says, was worried “not by the threat of separatism” but by the budgetary problems of the northern regions and the capital’s allocation of funds to them. Unless more Kazakhs were sent north, she said, whole villages will cease to exist.

Moreover, Shustov continues, “one should remember that the policy of resettling Kazakhs into the northern regions of Kazakhstan began immediately after the disintegration of the USSR.” In 1989, ethnic Russian formed majorities in most of the northern oblasts of that republic, while ethnic Kazakhs predominated in the south and west.

In response to this pattern, the Kazakhstan government has pursued three major policies: It has moved the capital from Almaaty in the south to Astana in the center, it has redrawn the borders of the oblasts in order to combine ethnic Russian ones with ethnic Kazakh ones, and it has promoted the resettlement of Kazakhs returning from abroad in the north.

According to official estimates, some four to five million ethnic Kazakhs lived outside of Kazakhstan in the 1990s, 1.3 million in China, 870,000 in Uzbekistan, 660,000 in the Russian Federation, and 157,000 in Mongolia. Beginning with legislation passed in 1992, the Kazakhstan authorities encouraged them to return.

Between 1991 and 2011, approximately 860,000 of them did so, most from Uzbekistan (60.5 percent), with lesser numbers from other places. Then, in April 2012, Astana stopped the repatriation program, apparently concerned about the skills, values, and adaptability of those who had returned.

The Kazakhstan government’s program of changing the ethnic composition of the northern regions of that country has worked. By the beginning of 2010, Russians exceeded ethnic Kazakhs only in the North-Kazakhstan oblast where the former formed 48.2 percent of the population.

At the same time, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has expressed concern about the outflow of ethnic Russian specialists and according to some reports even asked his Russian counterpart to slow down the program of repatriating ethnic Russians from Kazakhstan, Shustov says.

Consequently, the commentator says, it is probable that the stories about the resettlement of 300,000 ethnic Kazakhs to the northern parts of Kazakkhstan are a trial balloon designed to “test the reaction” of society and presumably of Moscow as well.

“But,” Shustov concludes, “even if these plans are never realized, with the passage of time, the Russian question in the north of the republic will be solved by itself. The birthrate among Kazakhs is higher than that among ethnic Russians who also continue to emigrate to Russia.”

And “under these conditions, the ethno-demographic balance in the northern regions will gradually be changed in favor of the Kazakhs, while the ethnic Russians there, as has already happened in Kazakhstan as a whole, will become an ethnic minority.”