[lg policy] Kazakhstan: Concern Rising Over Ethnic Kazakh Returnees

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Mar 1 16:33:18 UTC 2012

Kazakhstan: Concern Rising Over Ethnic Kazakh Returnees
February 29, 2012 - 11:52am, by Nate Schenkkan

    EurasiaNet's Weekly Digest

During the past 20 years, Kazakhstan’s western city of Aktau was the
destination for many returning ethnic Kazakhs. (Photo: David Trilling)
Men fish from a dilapidated pier stretching into the Caspian Sea at
the Kazakh city of Aktau. During the past 20 years, Kazakhstan’s
western city was the destination for many returning ethnic Kazakhs,
called oralmans in Kazakh. (Photo: David Trilling)

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

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

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

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.”

Reposted from Eurasianet.org


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