Ethnic Kazakh immigrants are known as oralmans a term meaning "people who came back." They come from across Asia mainly from former Soviet republics, but also from countries such as Afghanistan and Mongolia. In Baibesik, 23 oralman families are struggling to adapt to their new environment.
Tobinbai Kurbanbayev, the head of one oralman family in Baibesik, arrived three years ago with his wife and two children from Karakalpakstan, an impoverished autonomous region in western Uzbekistan. He is still working to finish the family's home. In addition to not having running water, the house lacks electricity and a gas hook-up. But to him, the hardships are worth enduring. No matter how difficult life in Kazakhstan is for them these days, it is still better than in Uzbekistan, Kurbanbayev indicated. "I wanted to return to my people," Kurbanbayev said, running his left hand through a shock of black hair. "We don't live well there [Uzbekistan]. There is no money, whether you work or not."
The Kazakh government has encouraged the Kazakh Diaspora to return since 1993. Many of today's oralmans are descendants of refugees who fled Soviet collectivization drives in the 1920s and 30s. Others, such as most Kazakhs in Uzbekistan, simply found themselves outside the Kazakh SSR as a result of Moscow's occasional shifting of Central Asian borders during the Soviet era.
Each year Astana sets a quota for the number of Kazakhs eligible to return. Those who immigrate under the quota are provided with housing, a grant of roughly $60 per family member, and assistance in acquiring a residence permit and Kazakh passport. However, the number of arrivals far exceeds the quota. For example, in 2001, the quota allowed for 600 families to return; more than 10,000 families arrived, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Kurbanbayev was an unemployed veteran of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when he emigrated with his family. He did not give any consideration to the quota before departing. "We just left," he said. "I made the decision myself. So, of course, we didn't get any money or any of the other benefits."
Many Kazakhs in Uzbekistan, like Kurbanbayev and his family, are eager to move to Kazakhstan. The desire to migrate is mainly connected with economics. Kazakhstan is the economic powerhouse of Central Asia. The country has recorded double-digit growth over the past three years, and GDP is forecast to rise 8 percent in 2003. Meanwhile, some international experts believe Uzbekistan's economy may be contracting, in large part the result of President Islam Karimov's administration's reluctance to implement reforms. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Since the September 11 terrorist tragedy, Uzbekistan has emerged as a key US strategic partner in Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Karimov administration accepted roughly $160 million in aid in 2002 while pledging to reform its struggling economy and promote broader political and civil rights. However, after some halting steps towards economic liberalization, the Uzbek government over the past year has backed away from its reform commitments.
The lack of economic progress is prompting many still in Uzbekistan, especially ethnic Kazakhs, to ponder emigration. So far, close to 260,000 oralmans have moved to Kazakhstan, almost half of them from Uzbekistan, according to Kazakhstan's Agency for Migration and Demography. Official Kazakhstani estimates show that about 967,000 ethnic Kazakhs remain in Uzbekistan, but some experts contend that up to 500,000 additional, uncounted ethnic Kazakhs may be in the country.
The International Organization for Migration expects the Uzbek emigration trend to continue. "You will see more migrants, because the gap between the Uzbek and Kazakh economies is growing," said Toghzan Imangaliyeva, a population movement coordinator at the Kazakh Red Crescent Society. "Year by year you can see that the Kazakh economy is getting better."
For ethnic Kazakhs in Uzbekistan, returning to their titular homeland is relatively easy. In Kurbanbayev's case, he turned to a local organization, ASAR, for help. Its director, Kairat Bobauhan, an oralman from Mongolia, helped Kurbanbayev's family join the Baibesik settlement and continues to assist them in obtaining needed documentation, including residence permits.
Still jobless, Mr. Kurbanbayev has spent the last three years building his five-room whitewashed family homestead. Tools are still scattered on the rough-hewn wooden floor near a squat metal stove, the first piece of furniture in what will become the foyer. When he isn't busy at home he joins his wife and children selling vegetables at a nearby market. Despite his poverty, Mr. Kurbanbayev does not regret his decision.
"We will stay here, there is no going back," he said. "The Aral Sea is drying up, and that affects all of Karakalpakstan.
Alfred Kueppers is a freelance journalist based in Central Asia.