The Mongolian Kazakhs

Where do the Mongolian Kazakhs live? Our study site in Mongolia – a brief geographic overview
Mongolia is a landlocked country wedged between two regional giants – Russia and China.  It has a population of nearly 2.8 million people with a population density of less than 2 people per square km.  Mongolia is very sparsely settled.  Nearly 1 million Mongolians reside in Ulaanbaatar, with the remaining 1 million dispersed across the country. 

The Kazakh population is largely clustered in the far western province of Mongolia, Bayan-Ulgii Aimag, with the second and third largest clusters in Hovd Aimag and Ulaanbaatar.  Our research is predominantly associated with Bayan-Ulgii (2006, 2008, 2009), although during the summer of 2006 we also conducted interviews in Hovd Aimag.  Bayan-Ulgii is located in the Altai Mountain range and has the highest average elevation in Mongolia.  The soum center of this arid and mountainous province is Ulgii, a town of approximately 30,000 people.  During the summers of 2006, 2008, and 2009 we conducted interviews in Ulgii and in several rural locations across the province.

Who are the Mongolian Kazakhs?
The Kazakh people are the largest ethnic minority in Mongolia.  Numbering over 100,000, they comprise the largest ethnic minority in Mongolia, although only 4% of the total population.  The Kazakh population is concentrated in the western province of Bayan-Ulgii, a region physically separated from Kazakhstan by a 47-60 km mountainous stretch of Chinese and Russian territory.  Documented Kazakh migration to Mongolia begins in 1840 with many migrants arriving from areas now Western China.  Records suggest that in 1905, there were 1370 Kazakh households, increasing to 1,870 households by 1924 (the year Mongolia adopted socialism).  By 1989, the Kazakh population grew to approximately 120,000 individuals.

Before the fall of the USSR, few Mongolian Kazakhs had ever visited the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, but in the post-Soviet context the creation of new nation states and national borders, relaxation of restrictions on movement and opening of borders between east and west, new population movements have emerged.

The Kazakhs of Mongolia are culturally and ethnically different from Mongolians with language and religion as the two primary cultural markers.  The Kazakh language belongs to Turkic family of languages, and is the dominant language in Bayan-Ulgii.  Local schools teach in either Mongolian or Kazakh. Mongolian is the language of inter-ethnic communication and official language of government and business.  The Kazakh population is predominantly Muslim.  Although the majority consider themselves Muslim, a small but growing proportion practice basic Muslim tenets of Namaz and fasting during Ramadan.

Mongolian Kazakhs are traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists, herding sheep, goats, yaks, camels and horses.  The nomadic economy is strongly influenced by traditional gender roles – men herd, women cook, care for children and prepare textiles.  Under socialism in Mongolia (1924-1989), the pastoral economy was collectivized and modern education, health care and public infrastructure including social welfare policies were implemented.
During socialism and even more rapidly since 1989, there has been a gradual transformation of gender roles and gender relations.  While the pastoral economy is plays an important role in the economy of Bayan-Ulgii, trade and tourism have also emerged as the border crossings between Mongolia and China and Russia have increased and as air transport and tourism have increased in Mongolia more generally.  

What does it mean to be semi-nomadic?
Physiographically, Mongolia and Kazakhstan are largely comprised of grassland steppe, although both countries also contain other eco-regions including deserts, mountains and forests. A limited amount of precipitation creates arid, non-arable pasture lands that historically have been utilized for livestock herding.  Nomadic pastoralism has been the primary form of human subsistence for centuries. Politically, the Mongolian and Kazakh steppes were controlled by nomadic tribesmen until the late 17th century when they came under the influence of Chinese and Russian empires respectively.  In 1920, however, Kazakhstan was incorporated as an autonomous republic of the Soviet Union and in 1924 Mongolia became the second communist country in the world.  These political shifts significantly transformed cultural practices and economic structures within the two countries. The governments of each country sought to collective and sedentarize the nomadic populations under socialism.  Government efforts were more successful in Kazakhstan, however, in Mongolia the government did not successfully collective the nomads until the 1950s. 

Kazakh herding families in Mongolia today are considered semi-nomadic.  For most herding households, this means that the household will move their herds, largely comprised of sheep and goats, although also containing variously camels, horses and yaks, to different pastures for each of the four seasons.  Some households will move only two times, once in the spring to the summer pastures and again in the fall back to the winter pastures.  Others will move up to four times, depending on the quality of the pasture in a given year. Most families return to specific pastures year after year with use of that pasture being passed down through families. 

Why are the Mongolian Kazakhs migrating to Kazakhstan?
When the former USSR dissolved, and Kazakhstan declared independence, Nezerbayev welcomed back the diasporic Kazakh community, including Kazakhs from Mongolia.  When the USSR dismantled, 73million people found themselves living outside the political unit that they viewed as their ethno-national homeland.  Notable here were the Mongolian Kazakhs.  Estimates suggest that between 50-60,000 Mongolian Kazakhs emigrated from Mongolia to Kazakhstan in the early 1990’s with possibly 10,000-20,000 returning by the early 2000s.  Since 1991, Kazakhstan one of three countries to repatriate kinsmen living abroad (the others are Germany and Israel).  While migration flows have fluctuated since 1991, over 71,000 Mongolian Kazakhs have migrated to Kazakhstan in the post-Soviet period. 

Why do some Mongolian Kazakhs stay in Mongolia?
Our interviews and surveys indicate that there are many reasons why some Mongolian Kazakhs choose to stay in Mongolia, rather than to migrate to Kazakhstan. Results from our interviews suggest that individuals and families who are adapting well to Mongolia’s new economy are less likely to consider moving to Kazakhstan.  This is age dependent, however. While successful middle-aged business owners and herders are relatively satisfied with life in Mongolia, their children consider attending university in Mongolia, especially Ulaanbaatar, or Kazakhstan.  With incentives provided by the Kazakhstani government to families for education, many young people move to Kazakhstan for the education benefits.  While many move with their families, others join extended family relations in Kazakhstan for the duration of their education.  Many Mongolian Kazakhs also send children to work or to school in Ulaanbaatar, where there is a growing population of Kazakhs.   

What benefits does the government of Kazakhstan provide?

Early Transition Years (1991-1996)
Since 2006, we have been assessing the migration situation of Mongolian Kazakhs.  Essentially, three distinct periods of migration are identifiable and correspond with both macro-scale changes such as changes in economic conditions and immigration policies.  During the first period (1991-1996), which was characterized by economic crisis in both Mongolia and Kazakhstan, the government of Kazakhstan passed a series of immigration reforms to assist ethnic Kazakhs in returning to Kazakhstan.  In 1991 Kazakhstan passed the Resolution “On the Procedures and Conditions of the Relocation to Kazakh SSR for Persons of Kazakh Ethnicity from Other Republics and Abroad Willing to Work in Rural Areas.”  In 1992, the quota system for Kazakhs repatriating to Kazakhstan was created through the 1992 Law on Immigration.  The quota was intended to limit the number of migrants receiving benefits to a number that would not exceed government capacity. The annual quota is set for a specific number of “families,” not individuals. From the beginning, ethnic Kazakhs had the option of entering Kazakhstan either within or outside of the quota system.

The Kazakhstan government does not currently place limits on the number of non-quota migrants who enter Kazakhstan, however, the quota levels themselves fluctuate annually.  Oralman status, entitles migrants to basic types of assistance, such as medical, employment, language and education assistance at both the primary and secondary levels.  Those within the quota qualify for additional assistance, including housing, transportation of family and goods from origin to destination and a lump sum allowance for each family member.

Mid-Transition Years (1997-2002)
Immigration to Kazakhstan for oralmandar continued to evolve during the middle transition years (1997-2002) with a new legal framework and changing annual quotas.  In 1997, the Agency of Migration and Demography was developed as part of the 1997 Law on Migration and Population to assist migrants and to streamline citizenship procedures across different groups of oralman.  Quotas overall were quite low during this period, reflecting changes in Kazakhstan’s economy and demographics.  During this period, the quota declined from 3,000 families during the early transition period, to approximately 500 in 1999-2000, jumping again to 2655 by 2002. 

These changes in immigration policy and fluctuating quota numbers created a much more complex situation for Kazakhs living abroad who were considering migrating to Kazakhstan.  Selectivity of migration increased during this period as well, reflecting both the increasing complexity as well as increased information flowing between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, leading to fewer new migrants during this period.  Alex Diener, a Geographer at Pepperdine University, suggests that there were two primary reasons for these shifts: first, the invitations for diasporic communities to return led to greater return than anticipated by the Kazakhstani government leading them to impose more restrictive quotas to limit in-migration, and second, the in-migration of oralmandar declined as migrants realized the economic situation of Kazakhstan.

From the perspective of potential migrants, increased competition for inclusion in the quota represents an important shift in the perceived benefits and availability of quota benefits.  Thus, changing economic circumstances in Kazakhstan and in Mongolia, combined with policy changes in Kazakhstan and changing perceptions of Mongolian Kazakhs about the benefits of moving to Kazakhstan begin to influence migration decisions during this period. 

Late Transition Years (2002-2009)
During the late transition period, the most important change to immigration programs offered by the Kazakhstani government was the introduction of the “Blessed Migration” program on January 1, 2009.  Like the other programs, this program continues to offer incentives to oralmander for immigration, however, this program targets particular settlement areas, specifically in the northern regions of Kazakhstan.  In addition to providing subsidies and paid travel costs, the new program will provide low-interest loans to buy land or housing. This was perceived to be one of the most substantive challenges facing new migrants, especially in the current economic climate.