Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ethnic Russian Migration

President Putin is urging ethnic Russians in Kazakstan to return to their historic homeland.
By Slujan Ismailova

Ethnic Russian activists in Kazakstan are making preparations for the mass migration of this minority to its historic homeland.

The move follows Russian President Vladimir Putin's calls for the community, which forms about a third of the Kazak population, to return to their ancestral lands.

Representatives of the Slavic movement Lad, which had been at the forefront of campaigning for an improvement in the political rights of ethnic Russians, is now playing an instrumental role in organising the minority's exodus.

"We're talking about resettling in the regions of Central Russia - Voronezh, Kursk, Saratov, Volgograd, places like that, " said Lad member Yakov Belousov.

While ethnic Russians are employed in key sectors of the economy, many are dissatisfied with their political status in the country. Few are represented in high-ranking government jobs, while their language no longer enjoys the same status as Kazak.

But despite being squeezed out of political decision-making, many Russians believe they are better off here than their homeland, as in Kazakstan they at least have reasonably good jobs.

" Nobody wants us there," said Yevgenia Seredenko, a housewife." I know that the attitude to those moving back is very bad.

" In the central regions of Russia, where most of those leaving Kazakstan head for, we're seen as unwanted competition, because people from here are harder working, don't like drinking vodka, and put family interests above all else.

"The locals in those places don't really like that. Sometimes, it goes as far as direct threats. My friend, who moved to Nizhny Novogorod, says he would have come back to Almaty long ago if it weren't for the wonderful house he's built there.

"Who told Putin we're living badly? I personally don't look at it that way. Why should I return to a place I never left?"

Many ethnic Russians were greatly surprised when Putin urged them to leave during his visit to the country in October - they had been expecting him to stand up for their political rights.

The Slav minority had hoped the Moscow leader would pressure Astana into elevating the status of their language and removing language restrictions for those Russians who want to enter the civil service.

"I didn't like what Vladimir Putin had to say, " said taxi driver Andrei Tolstonogov. " I was expecting something else from him. Is it really not worth us standing up for our rights here?"

Yermek Narymbaev, a departmental head of the Russian and China Institute, said Putin is faced with a hard choice: either he tackles falling birth-rates and decreasing life expectancy in his country by encouraging ethnic Russians to return home or he campaigns for their rights in the former Soviet Union.

"Judging by his statement, he's chosen the first option," he said. " However, I don't think Putin did the right thing.

"Firstly, he's ruled out the possibility of using the influence of the very strong Russian diaspora in Kazakstan to promote his interests in the region.

"Secondly, the statement has effectively demoralised the Russian population in Kazakstan. People don't know what to do: to leave or stay."

Lad has already begun organising the departure of those Russians who wish to leave. "We will help people leave, local authorities at the other end will provide a reception," Belousov said.

"We'll settle the material and legal problems here. We're predicting up to two million citizens will eventually go."

But others believe the exodus will be nothing like as large. Fyodor Miroglov, representative of the 'Russkaya Obshina' association, said "we're not talking about millions, but maybe tens or hundreds of thousands."

The departure of so many ethnic Russians will have disadvantages for Kazakstan. Most of them live in the northern part of the republic, where, in some areas, they make up 80-90 per cent of the local population - working in key sectors of the economy.

Many Kazaks fear highly qualified personnel will be among those leaving and that they will take with them millions of dollars from the sale of their apartments, private enterprises and other property.

Some analysts point out that the exodus might help Kazakstan's policy-makers to achieve the aim of shifting demographic balance in favour of indigenous nation.

But at the same time, they warn that economic consequences of the migration could have long-term adverse effect on the country.

"Bearing in mind the enormous separatist potential of the Russian population, Kazakstan must seek to increase the Kazak proportion of the population," said commentator Yermek Narymbaev. "However, it's not in the national interest to see the entire Russian population leave."

Even some Kazak nationalists have begun to talk about a need to stop the departure of Russians. The leader of the small Alash party, Savetkazy Akatai, said, "It's very good that the Russians live and work here. I wouldn't want the Russians to leave Kazakstan so suddenly."

As a consequence, some experts talk about trying to persuade Russians who were born in Kazakstan to stay by improving their political rights.

"A different national policy is needed, " said Narymbaev. " We must do everything we can to support and improve the role of Russian specialists who know some Kazak."

So far government officials in Kazakstan have delivered no reaction to the projected migration. Nor have mainstream political parties and social organisations. You get the impression that everyone is awaiting the decision of President Nazarbaev.

Slujan Ismailova is an IWPR contributor

More IWPR's Global Voices