Staunton, November 13 – More than 70 percent of the residents of Kazakhstan are Muslims, according to the results of the 2009 census released yesterday, a pattern that reflects both the growth of Kazakh and other Central Asian nationalities and the decline in the number of Russians, Ukrainians and Germans as a result of outmigration.
That represents a radical change in the ethnic and religious composition of the population of that republic which as recently as 25 years ago had an ethnic Russian plurality and a much larger number of Christians than is the case now, and it is one that that promises to lead to major changes both inside Kazakhstan and in the geopolitics of Central Asia.
On the one hand, this shift means that Astana will be forced to adopt a more Islamic position on many issues both domestically and in its international policies and may be faced with some of the Islamist challenges that have plagued countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in recent years.
And on the other, it means that Kazakhstan is well on its way to becoming a truly Central Asian country, one that can and likely will play a more active role in the shifting balance of power in that region, possibly helping to form the kind of coalitions there that have been impossible up to now.
In Soviet times, Moscow always spoke of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, a locution which emphasized that Kazakhstan was not like the rest of the region in that its population was divided between Kazakh Muslims and Slavic Christians. But behind that terminology was something even more important.
Kazakhstan’s Slavic population meant that the republic could not act as a Muslim republic lest it face secession or worse, and that in turn meant that Central Asian unity was precluded since the smaller republics were not willing to defer to Uzbekistan unless Kazakhstan provided a balance to Tashkent’s power.
Since 1991, those calculations have continued, but now as a result of demographic change, Kazakhstan may be on the road to becoming the Central Asian country it never was before and Central Asia may thus be at the start of a new period in which broader cooperation might be possible.
According to the Kazakhstan Statistics Committee, 11,237,900 residents of Kazakhstan (70.2 percent) said they were Muslims in the 2009 census, while only 4,190,100 (26.2 percent) said they were Christians. Jews, Buddhists and others numbered under one percent, unbelievers formed 2.8 percent, and 0.5 percent didn’t answer (www.stat.kz/news/Pages/n2_12_11_10.aspx).
In the decade since the previous census, Kazakhstan’s population increased by just over a million people to 16 million. But the shifts in the size of the various ethnic communities were more dramatic. While the population overall increased only 6.9 percent, the number of ethnic Kazakhs rose by 26.0 percent, the number of Uzbeks by 23.3. percent, and the number of Uyghurs by 6.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of ethnic Russians declined by 15.3 percent, the number of Germans by 49.5 percent, the number of Ukrainians by 39.1 percent, the number of Tatars by 18 percenet, and the number of other ethnic communities by 4.8 percent, leading to a major swing in both the ethnic and religious balance in that country.
Ethnic Kazakhs now form 63.1 percent of the population, while ethnic Russians make up only 23.7 percent, with Uzbeks now forming 2.9 percent, Ukrainians 2.1 percent, Uyghurs 1.4 percent, Tatars 1.3 percent, Germans 1.1 percent and other ethnic groups 4.5 percent. That means that the Kazakhs and other Central Asians now outnumber the Russians by three to one.
Linguistically, the situation is somewhat different, however. According to the census findings, 74 percent of the population understands Kazakh, but 94.4 percent of the population understand Russian, a higher figure and one much higher still than the 15.4 percent who understand English.