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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 09:57 GMT
Russians left behind in Central Asia
By Robert Greenall
BBC News website

Russia's relationship with the Central Asian states on its southern borders has always had more than a hint of the colonial about it.

Worker operates machine producing uranium tablets in Kazakh city of Oskemen
Many ethnic Russians in Central Asia went to work in heavy industry

For centuries the region was seen as something of a land of opportunity, a kind of "Wild East" to be tamed and civilised.

Many Russians know it from the hugely popular 1969 film White Sun of the Desert, where Red Army troops in the Civil War do battle, cowboy-and-Indian-style, with local bandits over the sand-dunes of the Kara-Kum.

Russians have been settling in the region for centuries, and millions flooded in during the Soviet era to man the region's new factories and develop its agriculture.

Most simply saw themselves as citizens of a greater, Soviet homeland, rather than the artificially created states created from the region's complex ethnic patchwork.

Seeking a better life

In fact, for some Soviet Russians, migration south amounted to little more than moving house.

1989 Soviet census
Kazakhstan - 6 million
Uzbekistan - 1.65 million
Kyrgyzstan - 916,600
Tajikistan - 388,500
Turkmenistan - 333,900

2005 (estimate)
Kazakhstan - 4 million
Uzbekistan - 620,000
Kyrgyzstan - 500,000
Tajikistan - 137,000
Turkmenistan - 142,000
But since independence in 1991, all that has changed.

Ethnic Russians suddenly found themselves living as a minority in countries which were culturally, religiously and socially alien.

Many are still struggling to come to terms with it.

"They do not see how they can be accepted as equal citizens, especially their children, the future generation," according to Dr Bhavna Dave, a Central Asia specialist at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

A decline in numbers of ethnic Russians, which began two decades earlier with falling birth rates, started to gather pace.

That exodus peaked in the 1990s, as the impoverished region was hit especially hard by the collapse of the old command economy.

Ethnic tensions also played a role, persuading many Russians to seek a better life elsewhere.

'Not a flood'

Recent years have seen something of an easing of tension for ethnic Russians.

The presence of a European and Christian population is a factor that encourages secular government - it's a valuable yeast now in these countries
Frederick Starr
Central Asia Caucasus Institute
But there are still major differences country by country.

Kazakhstan retains a Russian minority of around 30%, by far the highest in the region. And while Kazakh is the state language Russian is still most widely spoken.

Northern regions of the country are so Russian-dominated that they merge imperceptibly across the border with Siberia, while the former capital of Almaty, once a Tsarist outpost, retains much of its Russianness.

"There is an exodus but not a flood, but now many are coming back, a smaller percentage, but they are coming back," said Gennady Belyakov, chairman of a Cossack organisation and a leading figure in the Russian community.

"There is unemployment, but there are no cases of people being impoverished, certainly in Kazakhstan."

The biggest apparent exodus in recent years has been in Kyrgyzstan, where the April 2005 overthrow of former President Askar Akayev may have proved the last straw after a catalogue of economic woes.

19th Century - Cossacks arrive in north Kazakhstan and east Kyrgyzstan, followed by Tsarist colonisers
1930s - political exiles
1950s - Kazakhstan Virgin Lands project
1967 - Rebuilding and settling of the Uzbek capital Tashkent after a devastating earthquake

Russian Federation immigration officials say applications there jumped from 60-70 per day to 300, though it is not clear how many actually left.

"My feeling is that this is happening, and I know many people for whom these events were a major reason for their leaving," says Viktoria Lavrova, a political science lecturer at the American University in Bishkek and herself an ethnic Russian.

"There is a noticeable new wave of emigration."

But this may be down to economic migration and seems not to be confined to Russians alone.

Regime opponents

Turkmenistan's dwindling Russian population, meanwhile, seems most hard pressed.

Turkmen President Saparmyrat Niyazov
Russians seem to have fared particularly badly under Turkmenbashi
Community organisations have been banned, putting their members, in effect, in opposition to the totalitarian regime of President Saparmyrat Niyazov.

All minority groups are forced to learn the Turkmen language and expected to lead a Turkmen lifestyle.

Here, and in Tajikistan - perhaps culturally the most alien of these countries for Russians - there seems little future for the small communities that remain.

Frederick Starr, director of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute, believes most of those Russians who were going to leave the region have already gone.

But this has had the effect of neutralising any possible threat to the stability of those countries that a larger minority might have posed.

"The presence of a European and Christian population is a factor that encourages secular government. It's a valuable yeast now in these countries," Mr Starr said.

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