Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -
With a wary eye on the separatist movements in Ukraine, Kazakhstan announced on May 15 a programme to boost the ethnic Kazakh population in its northern border regions in a bid to ward off any potential risk of seccession movements by the large Russian contingent.
Astana announced it has revived a programme to encourage ethnic Kazakh migration to the country from abroad after a brief suspension of the strategy, which was launched after the country obtained independence in 1991. However, it added that the state will now provide financial support only to those ethnic Kazakhs settling along the border with Russia.
According to a resolution published in the official press on May 15, the government has identified seven border regions, including the oil-rich Atyrau region on the Caspian coast, for settlement.
Kazakhstan has attracted almost 1m ethnic Kazakhs from abroad since 1991. According to government estimates, over 5m still live outside the country, mainly in China, Uzbekistan, Russia, Mongolia and Turkmenistan. However, funding for the programme was suspended in 2012 following deadly clashes between protesters and security forces in the western oil town of Zhanaozen the previous year. The violence was partly blamed on unresolved social tensions involving ethnic Kazakh migrants.
Analysts link the revival of the programme to developments in Ukraine. Moscow invoked the need to protect the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers as it annexed Crimea in March, and is now using the same stated concerns in its support for separatist militia's in the east of the country.
The events in Ukraine have rattled several former Soviet states. The Baltic states, which have spent the two decades since independence nurturing suspicions of Russian expansionism and nationalism amongst their relatively large ethnic Russian populations, have been front and centre in expressing worries. However, at the other end of the spectrum, those with the closest ties to Russia are also eyeing the situation nervously.
Russia's actions over Ukraine have notably seen enthusiasm for the Moscow-led project to build the Eurasian Economic Union wane in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ethnic Russians accounted for 22.4% of Kazakhstan's 17.2m population at the beginning of 2012, according to the Kazakh Statistics Agency. Over 90% speak Russian.
The northern and eastern Kazakh regions on the border in particular have sizable ethnic Russians populations. In the Kostanay and North Kazakhstan regions, ethnic Russians outnumber ethnic Kazakhs, who account for just over a third of the population. Ethnic Russians constitute 42.6% and 50% respectively.
In the northern Pavlodar and Akmola Regions ethnic Kazakhs account for about 50% of the population, with ethnic Russians making up 35% and 38% respectively. In East Kazakhstan Region, ethnic Kazakhs are an absolute majority at 57.5%, but the share of ethnic Russians is 39%.
According to the revived programme, ethnic Kazakhs settling in these regions will receive financial support from the state and subsidised rent. Five years of habitation will offer them the chance to buy property at reduced prices, or move to other regions of the country. Ethnic Kazakh migrants will also be able to qualify for fast-track Kazakh citizenship one year after settlement.
Analysts, however, question the inclusion of the oil-rich Atyrau region in the settlement programme; with the ethnic Kazakh population already at over 90% of the total. The reason for the region's inclusion is mooted to be the need to attract a workforce to the major oil producing area.
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