In September, 138 Kazakh politicians and cultural workers signed a letter demanding an amendment to the constitution making Kazakh the nation's official language. At first glance, the request might seem reasonable in a country where the population is mainly Kazakh.
But less than a generation ago most citizens were neither ethnic Kazakh nor fluent in the language. The remarkable turnaround has come about partly because millions of ethnic Russians have left Kazakhstan, mostly migrating to Russia.
The pattern has been repeated in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Yulia Savchenko, a Washington-based Russian broadcast journalist who has traveled extensively in Central Asia, explains, “There is no future for young Russians, as they cannot get normal employment without the necessary language skills. In Soviet times, Russian was the main working language, but not anymore.” And in poorer Central Asian countries, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the worsening economic situation provides “no incentive to learn a language they cannot use in any other country.”
The Kazakh government, which hopes to increase the share of Kazakh speakers from 64 percent to 95 percent by 2020, is requiring all public-sector workers to be fluent in Kazakh, putting Russians at a huge disadvantage. However, some fear that the precipitous decline of Russian speakers could fracture the society along ethnic lines, because in a country with 130 ethnic groups, Russian served as a unifying bond. In late 2011, a spate of terrorist attacks hit Kazakhstan, surprising many, given the country's relative stability. Rather than being ethnically motivated, however, the attacks were thought to have been perpetrated by militant Islamists.
Despite the exodus, Russians still make up 25 percent of the Kazakh population, by far their highest share among the five Central Asian republics.
Tajikistan, meanwhile, is “a sad story,” says Shokhin Asadov, a Tajik who worked at the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe, the capital, before moving to the United States recently to teach Tajik. “The Russians began arriving in the 1930s. Their influence grew right up to the Gorbachev era,” he says. “In Dushanbe University, where I taught English for 20 years, I saw the change begin in 1989, when a pro-Tajik language law passed, and Russians started to leave.”
Although Russians had “a disproportionate influence in the city and would look down on the locals,” he says, “it was sad to see them leave so abruptly.”
The downgrading of the status of the Russian language also makes it harder for the 1 million or so ethnic Tajiks who have emigrated to Russia to get a good job, he points out, because they do not speak Russian fluently so they are more vulnerable to exploitation. In Turkmenistan, the climate is even less welcoming, with the government insisting that its residents with dual Russian-Turkmen citizenship choose one or the other.
Russians first populated Central Asia in the 1700s, when a mix of soldiers and peasants arrived — escaping serfdom or fleeing religious persecution. Russian migration increased during World War II, when hundreds of Soviet factories were moved to Central Asia to keep them from falling into the hands of the invading German army.
Despite steady influxes until the 1970s, Russians’ share of the population gradually decreased due to the higher birthrate of non-Russians. The Russians began returning home in the 1970s, when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev encouraged the promotion of Central Asians to high political positions as part of his “indigenization” policy.
But the mass exodus did not start until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Other minorities, including Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Greeks also left in large numbers at the time as they felt marginalized in the new, more nationalist-oriented political climate. As a result, the region is now much more ethnically homogenous.
Today, many of Central Asia's Russians feel bitter about their treatment. There is “strong resentment of Russia,” writes Sebastien Peyrouse, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “They often portray it as a country unconcerned with its ‘compatriots,’ which prefers to get along with the Central Asian political regimes rather than defend the rights of Russian minorities or help them return.”
For instance, Moscow has not stood up against the Turkmen government's refusal to allow Russians to keep dual nationality. And there are other changes too, notably the rise of Islam, gangs and the growing influence of China on the region, all of which “contribute to the sentiment among Russians that they do not have a future in Central Asia.”
— Brian Beary