Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Following a massive wave of emigration to Germany from 1991, by 2009 the number of Germans in Kazakhstan had fallen to 178,409 (1.1 per cent) (Source: Kazakhstan National Census, 2009). While traditionally concentrated in the Akmola, Kostanai and North Kazakhstan oblasts, the remaining ethnic Germans now predominantly live in the central Karaganda Oblast, and in the north and the east of Kazakhstan. The villages where Germans were mainly concentrated and where they used the German language most frequently have in most cases migrated en masse and been taken over by ethnic Kazakhs.
Emigration rates have fallen in recent years, with Germany having introduced more stringent conditions for granting German citizenship and additionally providing financial and other assistance in an attempt to help the shrinking German community to remain within Kazakhstan.
Most Germans living in Kazakhstan were deported from the Volga German Autonomous Republic from 1942 after the Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union because of fears of a possible collaboration between Soviet Germans and the Nazis. Almost half a million Germans were thus forcibly settled during World War II, mainly in Akmola, Kostanai and North Kazakhstan oblasts. In 1959, they constituted approximately 7.1 percent of the total population of Kazakhstan, numbering perhaps one million. The Volga Germans were politically rehabilitated in 1964, but the Volga German ASSR was not re-established. By the 1970s the number of Germans in Kazakhstan had risen to at least 839,000. The majority remained in Karaganda and the northern regions, but their numbers had been growing proportionately much faster in the south-east.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the majority of Germans shared the negative attitudes of the local Slavs towards independence and the increasing assertiveness on the part of the Kazakh population as well as the identification of the state with this group. They too feared educational and language discrimination, deterioration of the economic situation and the possibility of some future major destabilization. In addition, the older generation experienced too much suffering in the Soviet Union to believe in a future in former Soviet Central Asia. Almost 200,000 ethnic Germans left the former Soviet Union for Germany in 1992 alone, most of them from Kazakhstan, and large-scale emigration continued, some Germans moving to Russia and Ukraine. The quota for German emigration from Kazakhstan was 200,000 a year in the 1990s; it was regularly being fulfilled, with a long waiting list.
The Kazakh authorities, encouraged by financial support from the German government, made some efforts to persuade Germans to stay. However welcome Germany’s subsidies were in Almaty, the government could not for political reasons permit these benefits to go exclusively to the German population. The German government was keen for Germans to stay in Kazakhstan and tried to promote German culture and the economic well-being of the German minority, providing funding for German-language radio broadcasts and for computers for German-medium schools.
Such measures were unlikely to stem the exodus of Germans. Local Germans made solidarity with other Russian-speakers in protests against perceived ethnically discriminatory policies. In 1994 they took part in meetings organised by Russian communities in Petropavlovsk after the German Wiedergeburt (Revival) Society was denied official registration following its refusal to accept the definition ‘Kazakh Germans’.
As most ethnic Germans are not fluent in Kazakh (nor German for that matter as those remaining in Kazakhstan are for the most part Russian-speakers), they along with most other minorities continue to express fear at what they consider the discriminatory impact of the government’s language policies in favour of Kazakh, and their subsequent near exclusion from a number of areas of public employment, since applicants to middle or high rank positions in the administration must demonstrate a good command of Kazakh.
This has led to efforts from both the government and the German minority community (by the Wiedergeburt association, for example) in some localities to offer Kazakh language courses, but these have not provided consistently or uniformly.
As a result of the mass wave of emigration in the 1990s, members of the German minority have lost their previously demographic clout in terms of political representation to such an extent that they have no or little political representation within the various levels of government in Kazakhstan beyond representation of an advisory nature with bodies such as the Assembly of Peoples. There has however been one ethnic German appointed to the Senate by President Nazarbayev. A proposal by the Wiedergeburt for draft legislation which would have guaranteed minority representation in Parliament and a form of self-governing bodies for minorities was rejected by the President.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in