Kazakhstan’s economic growth, propelled by oil and gas, has slowed in part due to fluctuations in global commodity prices. The government has attempted to diversify the economy to promote sustainable growth. But inadequate tertiary education has left a massive skills deficit, while many skilled workers have sought greener pastures abroad.
Kazakh officials have attempted to stem the brain drain with policies like the Bolashak program, which provided scholarships to Kazakhs to acquire skills at foreign universities. The program had some success, but failed to fill gaps in key sectors like information technology. Some scholars also chose to not return to Kazakhstan for personal or professional reasons.
Unexpectedly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in massive individual and corporate migration from Russia to Kazakhstan. This is creating a new opportunity for a sustained ‘brain gain’ and economic upgrade. But Kazakh policymakers risk missing this opportunity due to an over-cautious balancing of conflicting policy goals.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has experienced three large waves of emigration. The first wave included tech workers and vocal opponents of the war fleeing persecution. This began a trend of Russian small and medium enterprises moving to Kazakhstan, with its largest city Almaty a favourite destination. Between January and September 2022, the number of Russian companies in Kazakhstan increased by around 4000.
A second emigration wave occurred around July 2022. This comprised those who planned to leave at the outset of the war but required longer periods of preparation, such as people with less mobile businesses and families with school-aged children.
A third wave came after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilisation order on 21 September 2022. Around 98,000 Russians fled to Kazakhstan the week following the mobilisation.
Reactions from Russian officials during the first two waves were muted, even as state media pundits called the emigres (relokants) traitors. The third wave triggered more ire. Russia introduced long prison sentences for ‘draft dodgers and those who surrender willingly’. Around 700,000 Russians fled in the third wave, mostly men eligible for the partial mobilisation.
A substantial number of the relokants are fighting-age men with their families and partners. Many of them are skilled workers in fields like information technology, medical services and creative industries.
Before the war, many parts of northern Kazakhstan faced severe shortfalls of skilled labour, which eased thanks to the Russian migrants. One district hospital in Ayagoz, Abai Province, advertised 20 job vacancies for Russian doctors, offering them ‘comfortable housing’ as an incentive.
Many migrants also naturally flocked to Kazakhstan’s main cities, Almaty and Astana, contributing to a booming real estate market. Rents for one-room apartments in middle-income areas of Almaty spiked from US$415 to US$1040 per month between March and July 2022.
Kazakh policy on relokants must balance Kazakhstan’s domestic and foreign policy priorities. Given Russian military intervention in cities like Zhanaozen during nationwide unrest in Kazakhstan in 2022, Kazakh leaders must be careful to avoid upsetting their northern neighbour. Many Kazakh institutions retain legacies of Soviet rule, and Russian remains Kazakhstan’s main working language.
But Kazakhs’ sentiments towards Moscow have deteriorated since the invasion of Ukraine. Six months after the initial invasion, the number of Kazakhs who believed Russia would invade Kazakhstan had doubled. Anti-war sentiment was coupled with sympathy for ordinary Russians fleeing its consequences.
A backlash to Russian immigration began to surface on Telegram and internet chat boards around the middle of 2022. A poll in December 2022 revealed that 38 per cent of Kazakhs opposed the influx of migrants. The poll suggested that the growing opposition stemmed from concerns over rising costs and a fear of social destabilisation by immigrants. The poll also indicated that 30 per cent of respondents feared that ‘supporters of the Russian world’ were infiltrating Kazakhstan in an organised attempt to destabilise the country.
Traditionally, the Kazakhstan–Russia border was relatively open, as both countries belong to the Eurasian Economic Union. In December 2022, the Kazakh government revised its border regulations, prompting warnings that authorities were making living long-term in the country unviable for many relokants. Incoming visitors from the Eurasian Economic Union were no longer able to stay in Kazakhstan for more than 90 out of 180 days. This forced Russian migrants to get residence permits or other formal arrangements.
Of those unable to find stable employment in Kazakhstan, many Russians who entered Kazakhstan have instead registered to stay in Uzbekistan without great difficulty. Still, Kazakh policymakers continued tightening immigration policy in 2023 by requiring knowledge of Kazakh language, history and culture as criteria for naturalisation.
In 1991, when Kazakhstan became independent, Kazakhs made up only 40 per cent of the population, while Slavs made up 44 per cent. In 2023, Kazakhs make up a majority of the population, but Russian influence is still pervasive. Domestic political and interethnic sensitivities restrict the government’s ability to accommodate migrants.
Regardless of the justification for the government’s immigration tightening, the wartime wave of relokants offers an influx of fresh talent. This represents Kazakhstan’s best chance in decades to overcome slowing economic growth and the dominance of oil and gas.
Misha Monteiro-Benson is Research Assistant at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.