Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Kazakh, Russian, Uzbek
Main religions: Sunni Islam, Orthodox Christianity
Minority groups include Russians (3,793,764; 23.7 per cent), Uzbeks (456,997; 2.9 per cent), Ukrainians (333,031; 2.1 per cent), Uyghurs (224,713; 1.4 per cent), Tatars (204,229; 1.3 per cent), Germans (178,409; 1.1 per cent), Koreans (100,385; 0.6 per cent), and Belarusians (66,476; 0.4 per cent) (Source: Kazakhstan National Census, 2009).
Kazakhstan’s unusually diverse ethnic makeup (there are according to some official documents 106 ‘nationalities’) was partially due to it being a historical transit point for Central Asian groups moving west. More recently it was used by Tsarist Russia and then by the Soviet Union as an area of Russian colonization, but also as a kind of ‘dumping ground’ for dissidents and ethnic groups, especially though not exclusively on orders by Stalin, which saw huge population transfers in the Soviet Union from the 1930s until the 1950s.
The impact of these policies means that though they are now the largest ethnic group within Kazakhstan, the Kazakhs were a minority at the time of independence in 1991. They now constitute a majority after millions, mainly Russians and other minorities, left after independence: some estimates suggest as many as 2 million Russians may have left between 1989 and 2005. The numbers of other Slavs, as well as Germans, Jews and other minorities have also shrunk dramatically.
Kazakhstan has a relatively large and well-established Jewish community, comprising approximately 15-20,000 people. The majority are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews who migrated or were sent as conscripts during Russian Tsarist rule. There are also an estimated two thousand Bukharan and Tat Jews who have lived in the region for near two millennia. The community has numerous synagogues, schools and welfare associations.
Kazakhstan’s policy of attracting Oralmans, or ethnic Kazakhs, to immigrate from outside the country has in part been intended to replace the outflow of non-Kazakhs from the country’s cities since independence. By 2012, 860,000 Oralmans were registered in Kazakhstan, making up more than 5 per cent of the population. Many, having initially settled in remote rural areas with poorly paid jobs, have since migrated again to urban centres such as Almaty or Astana in search of better opportunities. Oralmans from countries such as China and Mongolia, who previously had no need to speak Russian, can find it difficult to integrate in the country’s Russian-speaking cities. Reportedly some Kazakh-speaking immigrants consider that Russified urban Kazakhs are not genuine Kazakhs, while some of the urban population resent the privileges enjoyed by Oralmans that they do not enjoy themselves. However, there has been limited political opposition to the Oralman project as it has been seen as a part of the nation-building process for independent Kazakhstan.
Updated July 2020
Amid an economic slump and a deteriorating security environment, Kazakhstan’s human rights situation has worsened on a number of fronts, with authorities placing onerous fiscal reporting regulations on non-governmental organizations, imposing questionable charges on civic activists and continuing to target members of non-violent religious groups in its fight against terrorism. These developments have especially impacted on its ethnic and religious minorities, who have frequently been regarded with suspicion by the increasingly nationalistic government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
In particular, Kazakhstan has been characterized by a growing confrontation between security structures and armed entities linked to radical Islam, including an attack in June 2016 by 26 men whom authorities described as ‘adherents of a radical non-traditional Islamic movement’ who opened fire on members of the National Guard in the western city of Aktobe, killing seven and wounding about 40. The next month, in July, a man killed 10 people in an attack on police and National Security headquarters in the commercial capital, Almaty: security personnel later termed him a Salafist. In November 2016, in a sign of the state’s mounting concerns about terrorism, he was handed Kazakhstan’s first death sentence in 10 years. Since then, authorities have intensified counter-terrorism operations against those suspected of religious extremism, though critics have pointed out that the government’s approach – characterized by heavy-handed security operations, increasing restrictions on ‘non-traditional’ Islam and a proposed curbing of practices such as the wearing of headscarves – is not only failing to address the root causes but may also prove counterproductive.
However, the state’s crackdown on religious groups long predates these attacks and has in particular targeted members of Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni missionary movement that describes itself as apolitical and non-violent. Authorities outlawed the movement in 2013 on the grounds that their end goal – the establishment of a caliphate – was the same as that of violent Islamist groups. Numerous alleged members of the group received sentences of either jail time or restricted freedom, totalling 46 people convicted on accusations of membership between December 2014 and January 2017. Most of these were convicted under Kazakhstan’s article 405, which prohibits organizing or participating in the activities of a ‘terrorist’ organization. Authorities are also attempting to bring all publicly accessible mosques under the control of the state-backed Muslim Board, thereby limiting the right of worshippers to exist as a religious community and exercise their freedom of religion or belief. All other Muslim communities and organizations – including Ahmadi congregations as well as mosques catering to specific ethnic communities such as Azerbaijanis, Chechens or Uyghurs – are banned.
Along with the crackdown on suspected Tablighi Jamaat members, authorities have introduced new limitations on religious activity that impact other religious communities and individuals. These changes represent amendments to a controversial 2011 law that required religious congregations to go through an onerous state registration process or face closure. Signed into law in December 2016, the new amendments state that any religious literature shared or produced within Kazakhstan must be pre-approved by the state. It also expands the legal definition of ‘missionary activity’, which required official registration previously, to include the spreading of religious doctrine by an individual not acting on behalf of a large organization – that is, to include the sharing of personal beliefs. The amendments do not explain how ‘missionary activity’ is to be regulated apart from restrictions on distribution of literature, meaning it is unclear whether authorities are considering imposing punishments on people who share their personal faith in conversation.
Members of Christian non-Orthodox congregations also continue to face harassment and charges of extremism, with Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and other evangelical Christian groups regularly targeted with fines and imprisonment. In 2017, two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Teimur Akhmedov and Asaf Guliyev, were found guilty of inciting hatred for having organized several meetings. Akhmedov was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and Guliyev to five years’ restricted movement. The two men had been invited by students to discuss their faith. As an example of further harassment, the lawyers representing Akhmedov were themselves placed under criminal investigation.
By the end of 2017, the Kazakhstan government was proposing new amendments to the 2011 law on religion. These would increase restrictions on proselytizing, religious education and publications.
Ethnic pluralism is an explicit piece of Kazakhstan’s state identity, with President Nazarbayev frequently speaking of the country’s role as a crossroads of Asia and Europe and describing tolerance as his country’s ‘unique distinction.’ Yet Kazakhstan’s particular model of pluralism, marked first and foremost by the dual official status of the Kazakh and Russian languages, is not uncontroversial, with some suggesting that all citizens do not benefit from it equally. This is evident in areas such as political participation and language rights. There are still very few ethnic minority representatives in senior government and though knowledge of Kazakh is not required for government and civil service positions – except for presidential candidates – non-Kazakh speakers complain that Kazakh speakers are favoured for government positions. Nazarbayev’s regime has overseen a growing Kazakh nationalism in the country. Under his leadership, the creation of Kazakh-language schools and the conversion of some Russian–language schools to Kazakh reduced the overall number of Russian-only language schools.
The reality of this intensifying Kazakh nationalism is also evident in a targeted effort to encourage ethnic Kazakhs from other countries to resettle in Kazakhstan, contributing to the growth of the ethnic majority population. Over the past 25 years, nearly 1 million Oralmans, or ‘returnees’ – members of the Kazakh diaspora living in countries such as China, Iran, Mongolia, Turkey and Uzbekistan – have elected to take advantage of state programmes that offer ethnic Kazakhs subsidies to repatriate. While many Oralmans have integrated successfully and do not report feeling marginalized, others speak of steep barriers to integration and disillusionment at the state of the ethnic Kazakh language and culture in Kazakhstan. Returnees from countries that were not part of the Soviet Union report that their lack of knowledge of the Russian language impedes their access to work and social services, as many local ethnic Kazakhs do not have full command of the Kazakh language. Meanwhile, authorities – including Nazarbayev – have accused the Oralman community of failing to contribute to the country’s economy, and the government even briefly phased out subsidies in 2012. However, subsidies have since been reinstated, and in October 2015 the state passed legislation that expedited the citizenship process for Oralmans – a move that some view as an effort by the state to put a more ethnically Kazakh mark on those areas of the country where ethnic Russians are present in large numbers, in light of fears of a Ukraine–type scenario in Kazakhstan.
The Republic of Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world. It borders Russia to the north, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the south and the People’s Republic of China to the east, and it shares the Aral Sea with Uzbekistan. One third of the country is dry steppe, and as such was a major transit route for nomadic peoples throughout history.
Occupied from an early period by nomadic populations using its vast steppes for pastoralism, the Kazakhs and many of the Turkic minorities still present in Kazakhstan (Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Uyghurs, Turkmen) emerged as distinct ethnic groups after the Mongolian invasion of the 13th Century.
The country’s ethnic mosaic – especially the significant presence of those of non-Turkic background such as the Slavs, Germans, Volga Tatars – is for the most part intrinsically linked to the incorporation of most of this region into the Russian Empire in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Slavic and Cossack settlers came to Kazakhstan from this period onwards, especially after the abolition of serfdom which saw a large number of Ukrainian and Russian settlers arrive, attracted by the possibility of receiving land from Tsarist authorities. During Soviet times, they came to participate in various development undertakings, beside those resettled from labour camps. So-called ‘punished peoples’ were deported to Kazakhstan before and during the Second World War. These groups include Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Koreans, Poles, Greeks, Chechens, Ingush and others believed at the time to be unreliable or accused of collaboration with the enemy. Some, such as Chechens and Ingush, returned in large numbers to their homelands at the earliest opportunity, in the late 1950s. Among these were also some 500,000 Poles deported to Kazakhstan in 1939-1941, mainly because of Stalin’s fear of their opposition to the Soviet take-over of eastern Poland. The second wave of deportation started in 1944 and finished with Stalin’s death. Poles deported at that time were suspected of participating in the anti-communist Polish resistance. Their ethnic identity was nationalistic and Roman Catholic, which made them unreliable in the eyes of the Soviet authorities.
A campaign against Greeks in the Soviet Union began in 1937-1939, and Pontic (or Black Sea) Greeks were deported to Kazakhstan from border zones in Georgia and Ukraine. A second wave of deportations came in 1944, after the liberation of Crimea from Nazi occupation, when the entire Crimean Greek population was transferred to Kazakhstan. In 1949 Greeks from Ukraine, southern Russia and the Caucasus were sent to Central Asia and Siberia as a part of Stalin’s anti-Tito drive. Later that year about 10,000 members of the Democratic Army of Greece, the Greek Communist Party and their supporters became political refugees in the Soviet Union. They were initially settled in Odessa but soon were sent to Central Asia. After 1956 Greeks who wished to return to the Black Sea coast, with the exception of Crimean Greeks, were allowed to do so. The right to return was later granted to Crimean Greeks. After 1956 Greeks were allowed to emigrate to Greece in limited numbers, especially political refugees and their families. The desire to return to Greece was widespread among the civil war refugees and their descendants. Greece recognized the right of all people of Greek descent to return. Not all of the influx of European settlers in more recent years to Kazakhstan occurred as a form of exile: under Nikita Khruschev’s ‘Virgin Lands Campaign’ of 1954-56, more than 600,000 Slavic and Baltic settlers migrated into Kazakhstan to increase agricultural production.
For their part Meskhetian Turks underwent a deportation from Uzbekistan in June 1989, when they became the victims of pogroms in the Ferghana valley. Up to 6,000 were resettled in Kazakhstan, where they were unwelcome. Many Meskhetians sought to emigrate to Georgia and Turkey.
Many of these European minorities were to increasingly leave Kazakhstan as the Soviet Union started to disintegrate. Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991 and has remained firmly under the control of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had initially come to power in 1989 as the head of the Kazakh Communist Party. While large numbers of minorities such as the Germans, Greeks and others have left the country since independence, the relatively high economic growth rates since 2000 due to its large oil, gas and mineral reserves and the long-standing presence of some of the Slavic and Turkic minorities – especially the Russian minority who are a majority in the northern part of the country – suggests that there are factors which might lead many to remain.
At the same time, minorities have not always felt welcome. The government of Kazakhstan has since 1991-1992 embarked on a programme of ‘Kazakhization’ of the country which highlights the prominence of the Kazakh language and increasing the presence and even domination of ethnic Kazakhs in the government bureaucracy. In addition to language laws which have been seen as disadvantaging and even discriminating against minorities (and in particular the Russian-speakers), another government policy to reverse the previous domination of ethnic Slavs has been a transmigration programme of Kazakhs into Slav-dominated territories.
While the influence and pre-eminence of the Russian language in the business and political fields have not been supplanted by the initial language laws (naming Kazakh as the state language and Russian as an ‘official’ language), more recent legislative moves may exacerbate the fears and grievances which have in the last decade continued to be raised, mainly though not exclusively by members of the Russian and other Slavic minorities, especially those who consider themselves ‘indigenous’, as their families have lived in Kazakhstan for generations. It is for this reason that some amongst the Russian minority demanded autonomy for the parts of the country where they constitute a relatively large majority, with some elements even proposing outright reunification with Russia – and the government claiming to have uncovered a plot by Russian groups to seize power in 2001.
Though nominally a democracy, Kazakhstan is generally perceived as having increasingly moved towards a more authoritarian regime in recent years under the full control of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In elections in August 2007, Mr Nazarbayev’s party won 88 per cent of the vote and all the seats in parliament. Serious concerns continue to be expressed with regards to weak human rights compliance and the rule of law in the country.
While it appeared that President Nazarbayev was seen by many minority group members as a guarantor of inter-ethnic harmony in the early stages of his rule after 1991 at a time where non-Kazakhs were an overall majority in the country, this support may have become more lukewarm as Kazakh emigration (from other parts of the former Soviet Union, Mongolia, Turkey and China) in combination with the emigration of non-Kazakhs not only led to a Kazakh majority in the 1996 elections to Parliament, but also laws and policies which have increasingly disadvantaged minorities in terms of language and employment opportunities. This in a sense was confirmed by President Nazarbayev himself in 2000 when, despite still referring to Kazakhstan as home to Slavic and European ethnic groups, he stated that it was a ‘Turkophone state’.
However, President Nazarbayev’s tight control over the manifestation of opposition and the growing identification of the Kazakh cultural identity with the apparatus of the state has in practice meant an increase in the restrictions of non-Kazakh identity in a number of areas of public life, with even in some cases the wearing of traditional Cossack dress (which is a form of military uniform) as an offence of ‘disturbing the peace’ in 1996. The protection of rights under the Constitution and legislation is deeply flawed in Kazakhstan in the absence of an independent judiciary (judges are appointed and dismissed by the President).
Language and other requirements created public and political institutions where there remain relatively few members of ethnic minorities in elected office and civil service. While by no means actively encouraging emigration of the non-Kazakh population, the legal and political systems of governance clearly favour ethnic Kazakhs over other ethnic groups, including in granting special privileges and in some cases land to ethnic Kazakhs living outside the country. Even the establishment of a new capital, Astana, in a region with a majority of Russian-speakers, has been perceived as a step towards the authorities asserting greater control over this part of the country by eventually bringing in more and more ethnic Kazakhs and therefore weakening the presence of the Slav minorities in this part of the country.
Legislation requiring that at least 50 per cent of all media broadcasts, including by independent private media, be in Kazakh has resulted in fines that have been heavy and, in some cases, even to some media being shut down for not complying with this language requirement. In addition, it is reported that state authorities consistently provide state subsidies, but to Kazakh-language media only. Despite this, Russian remains the dominant lingua franca in most day to day aspects, particularly in the country’s cities.
Incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Nur Otan party won parliamentary elections in January 2012 with 80 per cent of the vote, followed again in 2015 with a landslide victory supposedly securing 97.7 per cent of votes. Kazakhstan elections have repeatedly been criticized for failing to meet democratic standards.
When Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians represented a roughly equal share of the population, though the former were underrepresented in major cities. Over the past 25 years, state policy has sought to balance two parallel goals when it comes to cultivating civic and ethnic identity. On the one hand, the state has taken steps to avoid alienating its ethnic Russians, who, according to one standard narrative, are seen as a potential source of separatism. On the other hand, authorities have worked actively to increase the numbers of Kazakhs and rehabilitate their traditions.
The state has retained Russian as an official language, while President Nursultan Nazarbayev has spoken consistently throughout the years of Kazakhstan’s status as a land of pluralism and tolerance. Yet authorities have also offered subsidies to ethnic Kazakhs living outside of the country’s borders who choose to repatriate, in what the United Nations (UN) has described as an effort to ‘preserve and develop Kazakh culture’. The state has designated both Sunni Islam, the religion of most ethnic Kazakhs, and Orthodox Christianity, the primary religion of the country’s Slavs, as ‘traditional’ religions, alongside Judaism and Roman Catholicism. Many towns have ostentatious new mosques and Orthodox churches built side by side to symbolize religious pluralism, and Nazarbayev has likened the two religions to ‘Kazakhstan’s wings’, without either of which the country could not ‘fly’. On the other hand, the President has said that the titular group has ‘a particular responsibility’ for the country’s development.
Although Kazakh majority chauvinism has been a perennial concern for minorities since Kazakhstan’s independence, the country had in the past enjoyed greater freedom of religion than some of its neighbours. While its Constitution pays tribute to the importance of its ‘traditional’ religions, Sunni Hanafi Islam and Orthodox Christianity, until recently Kazakhstan had not systematically suppressed ‘non-traditional’ movements. However, after a spate of alleged terrorist attacks in 2011, an October 2011 law introduced onerous registration requirements for religious organizations similar to those present in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Subsequently, a large number of religious congregations and faith-based civic organizations were denied registration and thus prohibited from operating. These included groups dominated by ethnic Kazakhs as well as groups consisting almost entirely of ethnic minorities, including Azeri Shi’a congregations and a prominent Tatar Bashkir mosque. While certain minorities have been specifically targeted, including Baptists and other evangelical Christian groups, Muslim organizations have also been singled out. Even non–violent Islamic organizations that fall outside state-sanctioned boundaries are frequently said to threaten Kazakh ethnic identity. The past few years have seen a crackdown on Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni organization founded in India in 1926 that identifies as non-violent and apolitical. Kazakhstan banned Tablighi Jamaat as extremist in February 2013.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Almaty Helsinki Committee
Kazakh International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law
Wiedergeburt, Association of Kazakhstani Germans ‘Revival’
National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (US)
Almaty City Korean Cultural Center
Russian Community of Republic of Kazakhstan
Russian Union of Republic of Kazakhstan
Tatar-Bashkir Social and Cultural Center
Eastern Turkestan Information Center (Germany)
International Uyghur Human Rights & Democracy Foundation (IUHRDF), (US)
Society Union of Uyghur National Association
Uyghur Human Rights Project (US)
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Minorities and indigenous peoples in