There was a festive mood in a village in Mongolia's Khovd District recently as family and friends gathered to celebrate the birth of a baby into an ethnic Kazakh family. A new arrival is always cause for celebration in a Kazakh household, marked with a succession of events from the "cradle party" soon after the birth to the "string cutting" ceremony to snip a symbolic string when the child starts walking.
In this case, the celebrations were rolled into one: many relatives and friends of the Bakhyt family were seeing the child for the first time, because she was born over the border in Kazakhstan. This is just one of many families whose members straddle the frontier, and a visit from the other side is a chance to exchange news – and a good excuse for a party.
Amid the celebrations, Tilek Bakhyt, the baby's uncle, was looking westward to where his niece was born, wondering if there might be better prospects for him over the border, too. He has a job teaching English in a village school, but life is not easy in this underdeveloped rural area. "It's hard," he said. "It's better in Kazakhstan, for sure."
Kazakhstan has a state program known informally as the oralman (returnee) scheme to lure ethnic Kazakhs living in other countries to move to Kazakhstan. Since 1991 over 700,000 have moved to the country under the scheme, which offers financial incentives and fast-track citizenship to attract migrants. The program has both political and economic goals: boosting Kazakhstan's population of 16 million to meet economic needs is a priority, but so is redressing a demographic imbalance Kazakhstan inherited at independence, when ethnic Kazakhs were in a minority. Partly thanks to this program, Kazakhs now comprise about 67 percent of the country's population.
The Kazakhs of Mongolia mainly inhabit the western Altay area, where some families have lived for generations. Some moved over the mountains in the 1930s, fleeing Stalin's collectivization edict. They are a target group for the oralman program, and tens of thousands have migrated to Kazakhstan since 1991. Reliable figures are hard to come by, but Seriktes Shadet, deputy governor of Bayan-Olgiy District on the border with Kazakhstan (where around 90 percent of the population is ethnic Kazakh), told EurasiaNet an estimated 87,000 ethnic Kazakhs have left Mongolia since 1991.
More are contemplating the move. Adilbek, a driver from Bayan-Olgiy with two young children to support, counts himself lucky to have a steady income. Nevertheless, he believes a better life might be waiting for him over the border. "Mongolia is developing less than Kazakhstan," he told EurasiaNet. "There are more prospects there."
Adilbek has a point. Kazakhstan's GDP per capita is forecast at around $7,000 this year, over quadruple Mongolia's estimated $1,600. Job opportunities are few in Bayan-Olgiy, where livestock outnumber people five-to-one, and herding is the mainstay of the economy. Ulaanbaatar lies 1,200 kilometers to the East, two days by bus on unpaved roads. The closest city is the capital of East Kazakhstan Region, Oskemen (also known as Ust-Kamenogorsk), over the Altay Mountains. Its bustling atmosphere contrasts with the rural ambience of the town of Olgiy, Bayan-Olgiy's district center, where yurts jostle for space with houses and paved roads soon peter out.
Some ethnic Kazakhs migrating to Kazakhstan from other countries, such as China, cite as a factor political pressures stemming from their minority status. The Kazakhs of Mongolia, however, are mainly seeking a better standard of living. "We do not have discrimination," says Adilbek. "The problem is we have limited jobs, and lots of students and young people are joining the workforce every year." Neither is there religious tension between the Muslim Kazakhs in mainly Buddhist Mongolia, the country's chief mufti, who is based in Olgiy, told EurasiaNet. "There is no pressure from the state," Oserkhan Kazhi Mukayuly said, as worshippers streamed out of Friday prayers.
But a lack of economic prospects makes many look west for opportunities, and the Kazakh government is keen to attract them. This year Astana has expanded its migration program with the launch of the Nurly Kosh (Blessed Migration) scheme at a cost of some $1.3 billion.
The program targets the estimated 3.5-4.5 million ethnic Kazakhs living outside Kazakhstan – some 100,000 of them in Mongolia – with incentives to move to specific areas identified by the government. East Kazakhstan, seen by many Kazakhs in western Mongolia as their ancestral homeland, is one of them. Publicly, officials say the selection was determined by economic considerations – and indeed Nurly Kosh targets not only ethnic Kazakhs but also skilled former citizens of Kazakhstan and citizens living in depressed zones. However, there is an unspoken factor: East Kazakhstan has a large Slavic population, and migration is viewed as a means of addressing the demographic imbalance, which the government tacitly – for fear of offending Moscow and its own minorities – views as something of a national security threat.
Kazakhstani officials have visited western Mongolia to promote the benefits of Nurly Kosh, which include one-off subsidies, paid travel costs and low-interest mortgages. Observers have questioned the wisdom of tying migrants into long-term debts, but the scheme might resolve a key problem: Bakhyt, the English teacher from Khovd, has already given life in Kazakhstan a go, but housing costs forced him back to Mongolia. "I lived there for a while but it was really difficult for me to buy a house. It's really expensive," he told EurasiaNet. "If I could make some money for a house, I'd like to move to Kazakhstan."
"Bakhyt is just the type of well-qualified migrant that Astana would like to attract – and that Mongolia can ill afford to lose. The outflow of ethnic Kazakhs has had an economic and cultural impact that is difficult to assess, but observers say it is tangible. "Outward migration of the intelligentsia has a negative impact on the [Kazakh] diaspora [in Mongolia]," Ospan Nabi, a journalist at Bayan-Olgiy's broadcasting center, told EurasiaNet. "We've already experienced an outflow of members of the intelligentsia, and our political and intellectual potential decreased."
Many still want to take the plunge, though, and for some it's more than just an economic issue. Bakhyt wants his children to grow up in what the Kazakh government calls their "historical homeland." There, he says, they will have the chance to "become real Kazakhs."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.