Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are estimated to be almost 350,000 Tatars in Kazakhstan, or 2 percent of the population (IAEA Energy and Economic Database, 2001), though this is unverifiable and Tatars emigration has been high since 1991. They live mainly in the north of the country, in the Petropavlovsk and Kokchetau oblasts, and in Almaty. Russian, and not Kazakh, as a second language is widespread in Tatar families, and they have experienced the same language disadvantages as Russian-speakers. Most Tatars are Sunni, and are in the majority descendants of Volga Tatars.
Most Tatars living within the former Soviet Union are descended from three main groups: Volga Tatars (which constitute the largest group of Tatars and the clear majority in Kazakhstan), Crimean Tatars, and Siberian Tatars. Their roots in historical and ethnological terms go back to Turkic-speaking Bulgars who settled the Volga-Ural region in the 7th century and the Kipchak tribes who invaded the area as part of the Mongol Empire.
From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Tatars were grouped together in the Golden Horde, after which they broke up into the Kazan, Astrakhan, Crimean and Siberian hordes. The Volga Tatars emerged from the first too hordes and were conquered by Tsarist Russia in the 16th century, followed by Siberian Tatars in the next century and the Crimean Tatars at the end of the 18th.
Tatars are thought to have penetrated the area that is today Kazakhstan from the nineteenth century, entering the region as traders offering manufactured goods to nomadic Kazakhs. They were also Islamic missionaries, and Tatar settlers were the conduit of Islam into the region.
There were additionally fairly large numbers of Crimean Tatars which were exiled to Uzbekistan (and a much smaller number to Kazakhstan) by Stalin, though it is thought many of these have migrated outside of the country since 1991.
The Tatar lifestyle traditionally represented standards to which the local population aspired. Women play a dominant role in Tatar families. Tatars became well assimilated in Kazakh society, and mixed marriages were widespread. This assimilation was facilitated by language and cultural closeness and by a shared sense of belonging to the Turkic world. During the Soviet period many Tatars occupied positions in the medium-level administration and they comprised a significant part of the Kazakhstani intelligentsia. However, the Tatars’ situation deteriorated after independence, as loyalty to the new Kazakh state was increasingly determined by ethnicity.
Tatars are politically rather inactive, although each Kazakhstan oblast has its own Tatar-Bashkir cultural centre, dedicated to preserve ethnic identity. Of the large minorities of Kazakhstan, the Tatars occupy the third place (after Germans and Russians) in their pace of emigration.
It is thought that because of the low level of knowledge of Kazakh among Tatars (6.6 percent according to a 1989 study), most Tatars experience the same problems of exclusion and disadvantage as other, mainly non-Kazakh-speaking minorities in the country in terms of access to jobs and share of administrative and other state positions.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in