Ethnic Minorities

last updated August 18, 2010

Once a multiethnic Soviet republic in which Kazakhs were a minority, the Republic of Kazakhstan has undergone tremendous demographic shifts that have seen Kazakhs attain majority status since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Massive emigration of non-Kazakhs, along with government policies supporting “Kazakhization,” have diminished both the size and the influence of Slavic and European ethnic groups in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, burgeoning security ties with neighboring states such as China and Uzbekistan have endangered refugee and asylum seekers from those countries.


History and current situation of minority groups
Originally home to nomadic Kazakh tribes and sedentary Uzbek communities, Soviet Kazakhstan became a mosaic of ethnicities after Joseph Stalin enacted a policy of internal deportation and resettlement during which Chechens, Koreans, Germans, Meskhetian Turks, Kurds, Russian political prisoners and many other groups were  forcibly exiled to Kazakhstan. Today, the country’s principal ethnic minorities include Russians (23.7% of the population), Uzbeks (2.8%), Ukrainians (2.1%), Uighurs (1.4%),Tatars (1.3%), Germans (1.1%), and Koreans.

Ethnic Russians enjoyed political and cultural dominance during the Soviet years, but an estimated two million have left Kazakhstan since 1991. Ethnic Ukrainians, who tend to be linguistically Russified, have declined in their share of the population by over 3% since 1989. Ethnic Germans - descendants of Germans deported from the Volga German Autonomous Republic following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union - at one time formed 7.1 percent of the total population of present-day Kazakhstan. Since independence, however, the majority have resettled in Germany under liberal immigration laws.


By contrast, Kazakhstan’s Turkic communities have largely remained in the country. Uzbeks, who comprise communities that have been in Kazakhstan for centuries, as well as more recent groups of religious refugees, have seen their share of the population increase since 1991. Uighurs, a Turkic people whose dominant religion is Islam, have historically inhabited Xinjiang province in present-day China but immigrated to Central Asia over the course of several centuries. Today, Kazakhstan’s Uighur community includes an estimated few thousand undocumented Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang province. The Tatar community in Kazakhstan, which flourished under Soviet rule, has seen its status and political influence in post-Soviet Kazakhstan decline with the promotion of the Kazakh language.


Finally, Kazakhstan’s Korean community represents a numerically negligible but influential stratum of Kazakh society. As with other minority communities, the Koreans have seen their status decline somewhat in the face of post-Soviet identity politics in Central Asia.


Issues faced by ethnic minorities
The post-independence policy of “Kazakhization,” which has included the official adoption of Kazakh as the sole state language, has affected all ethnic groups in the country, reducing the political and economic status of Russians and other non-titular groups. Non-Kazakhs, who tend not to be proficient in Kazakh, have experienced employment and educational discrimination while ethnic Kazakhs have benefited from preferential treatment in these areas. However, in 2007, the Constitutional Court of Kazakhstan ruled that the Kazakh and Russian languages were fundamentally equal. Additionally, in 2009, the US State Department noted a slight decrease in complaints concerning discrimination against ethnic minorities.  


Concurrently, ethnic minorities in Kazakhstan are facing political marginalization. Territorial gerrymandering has produced Kazakh majorities in the newly constituted regions. Minority groups experience difficulty forming organizations to advocate their issues in the political arena: while the Constitution authorizes ethnic groups to form cultural centers, it prohibits the formation of public associations or political parties that have ethnic, religious, or nationalist identities. Further, a law requiring organizations to be registered with the Ministry of Justice serves as an important screening function against the formation of organizations. The Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, established in 1995 to comply with the recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, includes members appointed by the president rather than by their constituents; the assembly lacks any juridical power and its members are encouraged to engage in cultural, rather than political, activities.


Uighurs in Kazakhstan face additional challenges stemming from their perceived connections to the ongoing separatist struggle in western China. The Chinese government has placed mounting pressure on Kazakh authorities to arrest and deport suspected Uighur “ethnic separatists.” In 1996, Kazakhstan signed a treaty pledging cooperation with China aimed at combating the problem of “Uighur separatism.” Human rights groups have claimed that this treaty’s signatories secretly agreed to extradite Uighur activists seeking political asylum in Central Asia back to China. Indeed, in February 1999, the Kazakh government faced widespread international criticism when its Ministry of National Security deported three Uighurs wanted in China as “separatists” without considering their asylum claims; the three were later executed in China.


Likewise, Uzbek refugees living in Kazakhstan face the threat of extradition to Uzbekistan, where they may be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by state security services. Before Kazakhstan enacted a new refugee law in January of 2010, the country was perceived as a de facto safe haven for Uzbek refugees facing religious persecution in their home country. Although Kazakhstan did not officially recognize Uzbeks as refugees, government authorities turned a blind eye when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHR) issued Uzbeks attestations or found a safe, third country for them to live in. Now, all Uzbek refugees must appear before the state commission charged with processing refugee cases, where they face the risk of refoulement if Kazakh officials suspect ties to banned Islamist movements. In the past, Uzbek authorities have been accused of forging documents alleging Islamist links among refugees and sending them to their Kazakh counterparts for extradition purposes.


Although Kazakhstan has received praise for stemming the illegal extradition of Uzbek and Uighur refugees over the course of the past few years, the refugee situation has sharply deteriorated since the beginning of 2010. On June 9, for instance, 45 Uzbek asylum seekers and refugees were detained by Kazakh special services, 30 of whom were awaiting extradition to Uzbekistan as of July 2010. These individuals are primarily wanted in Uzbekistan for attending unregistered mosques and allegedly participating in “extremist” activities.


Compiled from:


The Agency of Statistics of the Republic of Kazakhstan, The results of the National Census of the Republic of Kazakhstan in 2009. (RUS)


Amnesty International,  Amnesty International Report 2010: The State of the World’s Human Rights.


Amnesty International, Amnesty Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review  Seventh session of the UPR Working Group of the Human Rights Council, 8 September 2009.


Dave, Bhavna. Freedom House, Nations in Transit 2009: Kazakhstan.


East Turkistan Information Center, Three Uyghur Political Asylum Seekers Deported from Kazakstan to China, 12 February 1999., Uzbek Detainees in Kazakhstan Fear Forced Return, 11 June 2010.


Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2007: Kazakhstan.


Freedom House, Countries at the Crossroads 2006: Kazakhstan.


Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010: Kazakhstan.


Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Impressions Concerning the New Law, 6 February 2010. (RUS)


Memorial, Kazakhstan: Dozens of Uzbek Refugees Arrested in Almaty, 9 June 2010.


Radio Azatyk, Uzbek Refugees in Kazakhstan Have Become the Object of Extortion and Red Tape, 30 September 2008. (RUS)


Radio Azatyk, Kazakhstan is no longer a safe haven for thousands of refugees from neighboring countries, 4 May 2010. (RUS)


Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, Inc., Central Asia: Uighurs Say States Yield To Chinese, 29 March 2001.


US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2008 Human Rights Report: Kazakhstan, 25 February 2009.


US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor 2009, Human Rights Report: Kazakhstan, 11 March 2010.