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

Migrants Compound Almaty's Problems

Almaty's social and economic problems are exacerbated by the influx of rural folk
By Sharip Kurakbaev

Ask a policeman in Almaty why crime is soaring and he'll sigh and blame it on unemployed youth flooding in from the countryside. He may have a case.


Nobody can doubt that the city's population is swelling dramatically. According to official figures the rural population has decreased by 440,000 people, about 6.3 per cent in the last ten years. Most of these are presumed to have moved to the cities and in particular to Almaty - the biggest city in the country.


But the official picture is probably grossly underestimating the problem of rural migration to the cities. While census figures present similar estimates of Almaty's population for 1985 and 1999 at around 1,310,000 it is generally accepted that the city is now home to two million inhabitants.


Evidence of the burgeoning population can be seen on the streets where the unemployed set up pitches on the side of the road and in subways or gather in Seifulin Avenue, where employers pick up day labourers.


Much of this is a legacy of the days when Central Asia was part of the USSR. Thousands of Kazaks were employed in the arms factories and heavy industrial plants, but these now lie silent: their former employees cast adrift in an impoverished landscape.


Another reason for the move to the cities is simply because Kazaks are able to. During the Soviet era, cities built by the authorities used workers brought in from Russia. These were sent to the head of the housing queue while Kazaks were essentially denied access to urban areas, especially to Almaty.


Until the mid-1980s, Kazaks represented only 12 per cent of Almaty's population. A figure which had increased nearly twofold by the end of the decade. According to unofficial statistics, Kazaks now account for over half of two million Almaty's two million residents.


A former leading economist from the north-eastern Semey region now reduced to selling canned meat and fish at a market explained how dire poverty forced the move.


"When Soviet rule ended and collective farms collapsed," he said, "all equipment and machinery was stolen, village chiefs divided all fertile land among themselves. What could we do? We just ate the remaining cattle , sold what we could and moved to the city to escape starvation."


Another vendor, selling sweets and homemade vodka, told her story: "I left my home in a village in the Jambyl region, leaving behind my husband and four children and my husband's elderly parents. I was hoping to save enough money to buy a small apartment and to move them in here. But an apartment is out of the question, I hardly earn enough to feed myself and send some money home every month."


And people are not just being drawn to Almaty and the capital Astana from the countryside. They are also drifting in from regional towns like Taldykorgan, Jezkazgan, Arkalyk, and from former industrial cities, like Kapshagai, Tekeli, Janatas and Kentau. Others come from environmentally unstable regions such as Semey and Aral.


But once arrived even the lowest paid jobs are hard to come by. Although official figures pitch unemployment at anywhere between 3.6 and 12.8 per cent, NGO's and even some parliamentary deputies estimate that about a third of the work force are out of work.


"Because of low living standards and competition, prices are falling for everything," said out-of-work Nurlan. Apartments, labour, even prostitutes are cheaper these days.


Those still unable to afford city-living rent or buy property in villages nearby. And, life on the outskirts is even harder. Residents of Shanyrak for example have no gas and share one water tap between two or three dirt streets. Neither are there schools, kindergartens, hospitals, cinemas or libraries.


City councils have no money to tackle these problems and people approaching city officials for help, are told: "we didn't invite you here!"


Shanyrak residents still try to scrape together a living. "If I earn 200-300 tenge (two dollars) per day at the market - that's good, " says Marjan, " If I bring home 500-1000 tenge then it's a happy day. But often I end the day with nothing."


Sharip Kurakbaev is an IWPR contributor