Kazakhstan’s Brain Drain: Potential for Wartime Brain Gain?

Kazakhstan has been experiencing a ‘brain drain’ of skilled and educated workers in key industries for over a decade. The country’s economic growth, driven by oil and gas, has slowed due to global commodity price fluctuations. The government has tried to diversify the economy, but inadequate tertiary education has left a massive skills deficit.

The Bolashak program, which provided scholarships to Kazakhs to acquire skills at foreign universities, had some success but failed to fill gaps in key sectors like information technology. Some scholars have chosen not to return to Kazakhstan for personal or professional reasons.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has led to massive individual and corporate migration from Russia to Kazakhstan, creating a new opportunity for sustained brain gain and economic upgrade. However, Kazakh policymakers risk missing this opportunity due to an over-cautious balancing of conflicting policy goals.

A second emigration wave occurred in July 2022, involving those who planned to leave during the war but required longer preparation periods. A third wave occurred after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilisation order on 21 September 2022, with around 98,000 Russians fleeing to Kazakhstan. Russian officials initially acted mutedly, but the third wave triggered more anger with long prison sentences for “draft dodgers” and those willingly surrendering.

Around 700,000 Russians fled in the third wave, mostly men eligible for partial mobilisation. Many of these relaxants are fighting-age men with their families and partners, skilled workers in fields like information technology, medical services, and creative industries. The influx of Russian migrants eased shortages of skilled labour in northern Kazakhstan, with a district hospital offering job vacancies for Russian doctors. Additionally, many migrants flocked to Almaty and Astana, contributing to a booming real estate market.

Kazakh policy on relaxants must balance Kazakhstan’s domestic and foreign policy priorities, especially given the Russian military intervention in cities like Zhanaozen during the unrest in 2022. Kazakh institutions retain Soviet rule legacies, and Russian remains Kazakhstan’s main language. However, Kazakhs’ sentiments towards Moscow have deteriorated since the invasion of Ukraine, with anti-war sentiment and sympathy for ordinary Russians fleeing its consequences.

A backlash to Russian immigration began to surface in mid-2022, with a December 2022 poll showing 38% of Kazakhs opposing the influx of migrants, citing rising costs and fear of social destabilization by immigrants. 30% of respondents feared Russian supporters were infiltrating Kazakhstan in an organized attempt to destabilize the country.

The Kazakhstan-Russia border has been a relatively open border since the Eurasian Economic Union was formed. However, in December 2022, the Kazakh government revised its border regulations, making long-term living in Kazakhstan unviable for many Russian migrants. Incoming visitors from the Eurasian Economic Union were no longer allowed to stay in Kazakhstan for more than 90 out of 180 days, forcing Russian migrants to obtain residence permits or other formal arrangements.

Many Russians who entered Kazakhstan have registered to stay in Uzbekistan without difficulty. In 2023, Kazakh policymakers tightened immigration by requiring knowledge of Kazakh language, history, and culture as criteria for naturalisation. Despite the tightening, the wartime wave of relaxants offers an influx of fresh talent, offering Kazakhstan’s best chance to overcome slowing economic growth and the dominance of oil and gas.

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