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Kazakhstan Demographics

Kazakhstan: Astana Entices Kazakhs From Abroad Amid Ukraine Crisis

Kazakhstan’s western Caspian Sea coast is one of seven regions in the country chosen for settlement of Kazakhs migrating from abroad. The migration initiative includes a fast-track one-year citizenship process. (Photo: David Trilling)

Astana is rebooting a program to lure ethnic Kazakhs living abroad to move to Kazakhstan. Observers believe Astana’s revived interest in the program is motivated by a desire to limit Russia’s potential to meddle in Kazakhstani affairs.

The oralman program, in its original form, provided generous social and economic benefits to entice Kazakhs abroad to migrate to their titular homeland. Now, under new terms announced in April, perks to attract ethnic Kazakhs abroad are back on the table in the form of paid travel and subsidized housing: but to be eligible for the benefits, migrants are required to settle in government-selected areas.

Of the seven target regions, six are in northern Kazakhstan, situated along its long border with Russia, and which have sizeable ethnic Russian populations: Akmola; East Kazakhstan; Kostanay; North Kazakhstan: Pavlodar; and West Kazakhstan. The seventh target area is the oil-and-gas hub of Atyrau on the Caspian Sea.

Astana says the migration measures (which also include a fast-track one-year citizenship process) have nothing to do with the country’s demographics and everything to do with economics: Kazakhstan’s northern agricultural and industrial heartlands face looming labor shortages owing to their shrinking, ageing populations.

The government contends that unless it acts to stimulate migration, the northern population will shrink by nearly a million by 2050. Astana is also offering incentives for internal migration northward to citizens, irrespective of ethnicity.

Economic imperatives notwithstanding, Astana clearly has a worried eye on Kazakhstan’s demographic balance in view of recent developments in Ukraine, where the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and the emergence of armed separatist movements in the Donbass have alarmed the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies and a fellow member in the fledgling Eurasian Economic Union, the cornerstone of Vladimir Putin’s dream of drawing former Soviet states back into Moscow’s orbit. Even so, many Kazakhstani officials are aware of worrying parallels with Ukraine that could create a headache for Astana were relations ever to sour.

Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan has a long border with Russia (7, 000 kilometers) – and a large ethnic Russian minority (21 percent of the overall Kazakhstani population of 17.2 million, most of whom live in the very same northern regions targeted under the new oralman migration program).

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