What to call the Kazakhs who have moved to Kazakhstan since independence?
A wrangle in Kazakhstan over what word should be used to describe ethnic Kazakh repatriates has exposed an unusual rift between the president and the traditionally ultra-loyal parliament.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appeared to fire the first salvo on September 19, when he tweeted that the term oralman, derived from the Kazakh for “returnee,” should be substituted with kandas, which translates loosely as “person of the same blood.”
The proposal drew sharp reactions from journalists and linguistic experts. Repatriates, meanwhile, were more receptive.
This story has its roots in a decree adopted at a time when Kazakhstan still formed part of the Soviet Union. In November 1991, one month before the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic ceased to exist, the republic’s Cabinet of Ministers approved a procedure enabling ethnic Kazakhs to apply for relocation to their historical homeland. The intent of the decree was to raise manpower for the purpose of developing the Kazakh republic’s underexploited rural potential.
At the time, an estimated five million or so ethnic Kazakhs lived outside the borders of their nominal home nation. This happened in part because of shifting borders – the boundaries of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were formed in ways that inevitably disregarded complicated demographic facts on the ground. And then the bloody collectivization of the 1930s triggered a mass movement of people, prompting Kazakhs to seek refuge in neighboring lands.
The 1991 decree has to date led more than 1 million people to seek their new home in Kazakhstan, according to government-provided data.
Things have gone far from smoothly, however. Events and circumstances have contrived to lend the term oralman an often-negative connotation. Hanbigul Aukenkyzy, a 38-year-old Kazakh born in China, describes the sense of oralman as feeling like a lifelong stigma.
“They would harass my kid, pointing at him and calling him an oralman’s son,” Aukenkyzy told Eurasianet, recalling her child’s experience of a kindergarten in Almaty. “He would come home from the kindergarten crestfallen. I did not want my child being an underdog for his entire life.”
Aukenkyzy and her family left Kazakhstan for the United States in 2015.
Oralman did not always have this problem, said Nurtay Lakhan, a journalist who has tracked the issue for decades. Lakhan has some personal insight, having moved from Mongolia in 1992.