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

Kazakstan Curbs Urban Population Boom

New rules intended to stem flow of rural poor to urban areas.
By Daulet Kanagatuly

Tighter residency rules planned by the authorities in Kazakstan to tackle overcrowding in cities are unlikely to work, say analysts interviewed by IWPR. Instead of trying to legislate against migration from countryside to towns, the government should be tackling underlying issues like rural poverty and unemployment, they say.

Kazakstan’s parliament is considering changing the law to make its own citizens subject to the same rules as foreign nationals, requiring them to register their place of residence with the authorities.

At the same time, the city government in Kazakstan’s largest city Almaty is making it harder for outsiders to get a residence permit.

Like Russia, Kazakstan’s relative economic prosperity in recent years has made it a destination for hundreds of thousands of people from poorer neighbours Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Some of the changes parliament is looking at are aimed at controlling their numbers, but others are clearly an attempt to curb another major trend in migration – the exodus of people from poor rural areas of Kazakstan to the wealthier cities.

Almaty, as the country’s commercial capital, is the number one destination. Officials say the city’s population is 1.5 million, with another million or so people believed to be living there without permission.

The new regulations applying to Almaty were announced at an April 20 press conference by Bagban Taimbetov, head of the city’s legal department. From now on, residence registration will only approved if applicants can prove they have at least 15 square metres of living space per person, excluding dependents – an increase of six sq m on the previous requirement.

The idea is to prevent large numbers of outsiders occupying small apartments, or renting floorspace from registered residents.

Breaking the rules will mean a fine of about ten US dollars or a warning for individuals, and nearly 200 dollars for officials in registration agencies – a penalty aimed at discouraging them from issuing permits in exchange for bribes. 

The residence rules are a legacy of the Soviet “propiska” system, which controlled population movement by tying individuals to their place of residence.

Obtaining registration is theoretically a prerequisite of employment – though this effectively applies only to the public sector – and securing a place at school or university.

For those from outside the city, residence permits are a ticket to getting a job and settling down, with the result that they have created an illicit trade in which city residents add migrants to their registration documents in return for money.

The move by the Almaty authorities coincided with a parliamentary debate on amendments to the migration law. The bill focuses primarily on migrants from abroad, but also contains a chapter on internal migration which did not exist in the old law.

Under the proposed changes, Kazakstan nationals would have to register a new place of residence with the local authorities within 15 working days. The penalty for non-compliance would be a fine of nearly 100 dollars.

Analysts say imposing new rules will not stem the flow of people into Kazakstan’s larger towns, and will simply generate more corruption as the rules are circumvented.

Instead, they argue, government should be trying to make it possible for people in rural communities to make a decent living so that they are not impelled to go off in search of work.

“People will start tackling their problems with police and officials through the tried and tested solution of bribery,” said sociologist Gaziz Nasyrov. “The only way of reducing the influx of internal migrants is to create employment in villages and smaller towns. The government has made attempts to revive such settlements, but all its programmes have failed.”

Marat Nazarov, an expert on migration within Kazakstan, said changing the rules at national level and in Almaty moves would hit some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

“It’s largely people in desperate straits who come to the cities in search of jobs,” said Nazarov, adding that public consultations on the migration bill had not been wide-ranging as they might have been.

“I understand that stricter monitoring of foreign citizens is needed, but as for the amendments to the migration law, it wouldn’t have done any harm to discuss it with the people who’ve been placed in this situation,” he said.

The city mayor, Ahmedjan Yesimov, has made the controversial claim that unregistered migrants are responsible for social problems.

“Fifty per cent of crimes are committed by incomers,” he said in a speech on his administration’s achievements. Yesimov said the tendency to commit crime was due to migrants’ economic circumstances, their lack of educational qualifications and “sometimes a basic reluctance to work”.

When IWPR interviewed people in Almaty likely to be affected by the rule changes, they said they had moved there out of necessity and were – in contrast to Yesimov’s accusations – holding down jobs as law-abiding citizens.

“I was really annoyed by Mr Yesimov’s comments,” said Anarbek, 44. “If I had a decent job in the village, I wouldn’t have abandoned my house and moved to the city,” he said.

Anarbek came to Almaty from a small village north of the city and now works as a taxi driver using his old Mazda, which earns enough to rent a one-bedroom flat on the outskirts of the city for his wife and two children.

Back home, he had been unable to provide for his family and fund his daughter’s university studies even by raising livestock as well as driving a taxi.

Rahim Oralbaev, 35, has lived in a rented flat in Almaty for the last three years, after moving there from Kyzylorda, a large town in southern Kazakstan.

“In our town, computer specialists weren’t valued,” he said, explaining how he makes more money now than he used to earn from doing three or four jobs simultaneously.

Many migrants say they have managed to survive in Almaty because the current registration rules are not strictly enforced.

“I have lived in Almaty for four years without any registration,” said Kayrat Tuleshev, 30, who works in advertising after moving from northern Kazakstan, where he was unemployed.

Tuleshev said he was visited by officials only once, during a census.

“I told them I was a guest and the owners had gone out,” he said, adding that he had not been bothered since.

A police officer who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR it was impossible to check on every home, even though that was what he was supposed to do.

“I can’t check on a single flat several times a day. I am responsible for lots of apartment blocks, a school and a college,” said the policeman.

Daulet Kanagatuly is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.