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

Kazak Exodus

Uzbekistan's indigenous Kazaks complain they are being treated as second-class citizens
By IWPR Central Asia

Unemployment, worsening standards of living and social injustice are driving thousands of ethnic Kazaks to abandon their homes in Uzbekistan and seek a new life in neighbouring Kazakstan.


Over the past decade, more than 62,000 Kazaks have left Uzbekistan where they make up six per cent of the population of 25 million. It is the largest Kazak diaspora in the CIS and the second largest in the world after China.


The Kazaks are the descendants of nomadic tribes who settled here long before Uzbekistan became a nation in its own right. Their distinctive tents and burial grounds can still be seen in parts of the Bukhara oblast and Karakalpakistan, although the latter-day Kazaks have adopted the agricultural traditions of their Uzbek neighbours.


The Soviet demarcation of Central Asia in 1924 - based on economic and administrative considerations rather than historical concerns - was largely responsible for bringing these settlements under the jurisdiction of Tashkent.


The proportion of Kazaks living on Uzbek territory swelled significantly when Karakalpakistan was assimilated into the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and again, in 1956, when the Bostanlyk region of Kazakstan was handed over to Uzbekistan. Even now, Kazaks make up around 50 per cent of the population in Bostanlyk, which has become part of the Tashkent oblast.


Today, the Kazak diaspora is feeling the pinch of the harsh economic climate in Uzbekistan where unemployment has hit a record high and the average wage is between $8 and $15 a month.


Saken Orazaliev, a Kazak living in Tashkent, said, "Unfortunately, the economic reforms introduced by the Uzbek government have yet to produce any positive results and the standard of living here falls every year. And naturally, employment opportunities are generally weighted in favour of Uzbek nationals."


Most Kazaks agree that, while there is no overt racial discrimination in Uzbekistan, the government bureaucracy offers Uzbek employees far better promotion prospects than other ethnic groups. A perfect knowledge of the Uzbek language is also mandatory in state-run institutions.


At the beginning of the 1990s, there was even a tendency to demote senior Kazak officials - mainly the chairmen of collective farms where the Kazak population is concentrated.


Against this backdrop, the grass seems very much greener in Kazakstan. Here, the average wage is around $90 a month whilst the national currency can be freely converted, offering greater opportunities for private enterprise.


Conversely, Uzbekistan attracts little in the way of foreign investment, which dropped off sharply after the currency was rendered "soft" in 1996. According to the International Monetary Fund, Kazakstan boasts $60 of foreign investment per head of the population, compared to just $8 per capita in Uzbekistan.


The Kazak population of Uzbekistan has also been particularly hard hit by the education crisis in the former Soviet republic.


Schools are crippled by a chronic shortage of text-books - a 60 per cent shortfall according to the Uzbek education ministry. The problem dates from a decision by the Tashkent authorities to discard any text-books printed during Soviet times and from subsequent paper and ink deficits.


Unsurprisingly, there are hardly any school-books printed in the Kazak language and six years of lobbying by Kazak teachers have failed to sway the education authorities. A Kazak cultural centre is currently raising funds to buy a consignment of books from Kazakstan.


Sabira Anarbaeva, a teacher from the Bukhara oblast, said, "I'm afraid that it will be impossible for my children to get a decent education in Uzbekistan and find themselves a good job as a result -- especially in government institutions."


However, the Kazak minority still devotes considerable efforts to preserving its language and culture. According to the Uzbek education ministry, there are 595 Kazak schools in the republic whilst four institutes have departments and faculties where all classes are held in Kazak.


A Kazak-language newspaper, Nurly Jol (The Shining Path), is published in Tashkent whilst the Djizak oblast boasts its own Kazak theatre group, Koktem.


But, despite these efforts, few Kazaks in Uzbekistan have much confidence that anyone in the Tashkent government is representing their interests - or indeed the interests of any other ethnic minority.


When commenting on the exodus of Kazaks from Uzbekistan, local politicians dismiss the phenomenon as the natural desire of the Kazaks to live in their ethnic homeland. But, in fact, it points towards the fact that Uzbekistan has lost its reputation as a "land of peace and friendship" which it enjoyed in Soviet times.


Shavkat Alimov is a regular IWPR contributor