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When Valentina Nikitina came to the gates of the Russian Embassy in Almaty seeking citizenship, she was hoping to quickly fill out the forms necessary to immigrate to the Russian Federation, where she has relatives in Altai Krai. But others waiting told her that there are more than 2,000 people on the list, and it will take up to four years before she can pack her bags for Russia.
Nikitina's family is among the 5 million ethic Russians who make up a third of Kazakhstan's population. They are typical of the 20 million Russians living throughout the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Cut off from their ancestral homeland by the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade ago, many now want to emigrate. But although the Kremlin says these potential immigrants would help offset Russia's shrinking population, officials have entangled would-be migrants in a thicket of red tape and worn down their resolve with endless delays.
Yet those tactics run contrary to the wishes of applicants and the stated goals of the federal government. And those wishing to immigrate to Russia suffer from unemployment, poverty, and sometimes overt discrimination.
For generations, Russia has been gripped by a growing demographic crisis. The Soviet Union lost an estimated 20 million lives in World War II. Tens of millions perished in Stalin's gulag camps. More recently, the falling standard of living, a high abortion rate and an increasing number of one-child families has left the Russian Federation with a population that is falling by some 2,500 people per day.
Russian officials say they are trying to reverse that trend. Aleksander Blokhin, the minister for federation affairs, nationalities, and migration, said in July that President Vladimir Putin has approved a plan to attract ethnic Russians from neighboring countries. Blokhin said some 4 million ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republics are now seeking to immigrate, and perhaps as many as 20 million could be encouraged to do so in the future.
But Blokhin appeared to be unaware that many would-be immigrants are discouraged by Russian officialdom itself. In Almaty, applicants must line up outside for months in the hot sun or subzero cold before they are even allowed to enter the embassy with their papers. Many feel the Russian Embassy in Kazakhstan has ignored Blokhin's ministry's plan. In August, no citizenships were granted, applicants complained.
Individual predicaments sometimes read like parodies of Russian bureaucracy. Flyora Azhnakina, 56, became a Russian citizen in 1995, but officials forgot to put a stamp in her son's birth certificate. The boy has turned 14, and now she can't take him to Russia.
"Now they say he should become a Kazakh citizen first, when he turns 16, and then change it to Russian citizenship," she complained. "So we'll have to sit here for four years."
Even Russian citizens have trouble helping relatives stranded abroad. Galina Saratovtseva, a Moscow resident, came to Almaty to help her only remaining relative obtain Russian citizenship. Her uncle, 82-year-old Ivan Shevchenko, is a World War II veteran and an invalid who has lived in Kazakhstan since 1948. She has spent four months gathering his papers.
"I want to take him with me because here in Kazakhstan nobody cares about war veterans," Saratovtseva said. "All the benefits they had before have been cancelled. My uncle fell down in the market and broke his legs, and for three weeks he couldn't get medical help. Only his neighbors came and helped him."
The Russian Embassy wasn't much help, either. The law states that citizenship might be granted for special merits, "but they told me that being a war veteran is not a special merit," Saratovtseva said.
Vyacheslav, a 28-year-old driver who asked that his last name not be used, decided to leave Kazakhstan because all his relatives have already left for Moscow and he doesn't think life will improve for Russians in Kazakhstan. "I've got the impression that this year, more Russians have left than in the last five years," he said. "All because there are no jobs."
Tsarist troops first conquered Kazakhstan in the early 1700s, and by 1959 Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians made up over half the population. The emigration of Russians started in earnest in 1993, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, and reached its peak the next year, when 300,000 Russians left. In 1998-99, about 250,000 left each year, officials say. The Russian Migration Service estimates that 2 million Russian have left Kazakhstan, though the real numbers may be higher.
One of the most pressing reasons for the mass emigration of Russians from Kazakhstan is the status of the Russian language, applicants say. While Kazakh is preserved as the state language, there is no law granting Russian any official status. While most Kazakhs also speak Russian, the list of government professions and positions for which Kazakh is required grows every year. Since the start of 2000, the government has required that all office work be conducted in Kazakh.
Another obstacle for Russian workers in Kazakhstan is the rebirth of conservative Islam there, particularly for Russian women, according to ethnographer V.A. Tishkov. In his report, "Russians in Central Asia and Kazakhstan," published in the Moscow journal "Studies on Applied and Urgent Ethnology," Tishkov suggests that "Strengthening the Muslim traditions in some Central Asian countries...will hamper the activity of Russian teachers and artistic intelligentsia.... The spread of Islam might reflect on the population's attitude toward women's labor. Russian women who live in other ethnic environments are the most vulnerable." Tishkov added that in Kazakhstan, the situation is better for Russians where Muslim traditions are weakest, as in cities such as Almaty.
Nevertheless, thousands of Russians are desperate and want to leave Kazakhstan, where they lived comfortably for decades.
"I worked as an engineer in a refrigerator plant," said Nikitina. "Now I can't find a cleaning lady's job. I am still young; I can work. But here we live like beggars."
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