Saturday, September 28, 2019

What’s in a Name? Kazakhstan’s ‘Oralman’ Become ‘Kandas’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 24 – Since 1991, just over a million ethnic Kazakhs who had been living in other countries have moved to Kazakhstan where they now form six percent of the population.  Long known as oralman (“returnees”), they are now to be called kandas (“of common blood” or “compatriot”), Kazakhstan President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev says.

            Like many world leaders of today, he used his Twitter account to make the announcement, immediately giving his followers to comment on the change.  According to the Fergana News Agency, most who reacted at all suggested that Tokayev should be addressing more important issues like ending illegality in state structures (

            But words matter, and it is entirely possible that this one will as well in at least two respects. On the one hand, it may help to overcome the tensions between the indigenous Kazakhs and arrivals who often are more Kazakh but far less Russified or perhaps better “Sovietized” than those who have been living in the republic and are sometimes viewed negatively as a result.

            The oralmans, who have been given an expedited path to citizenship and offered but not always supplied with housing and job training, have remained outsiders, often living in their own micro-districts that are frequently sites of poor facilities, high unemployment, and by reputation sources of criminal activity. Since 2014, they have been blocked from living at least initially in major cities (

            By changing the name and suggesting that they are “of common blood” with Kazakhs, it is possible that more Kazakhs will develop a more positive view to this group, many of whose members are if anything more Kazakh than the Kazakhs themselves and be more prepared to welcome and support them.

            And on the other hand, the name change is likely to have the effect of directing more Kazakh attention to the ethnic Kazakhs still living abroad.  By stressing the commonality of “blood” or perhaps better “identity,” the new name will focus attention more on the ethnic community in the broadest sense rather than on those who have returned already.

            Such a shift could lead Kazakhstan to be more attentive to the fate of Kazakhs elsewhere, in particular in China where as Muslims they have suffered from official abuse. If so, this change in name could presage a further deterioration in relations between the two countries or boost expectations among Kazakhs in China that Kazakhstan would welcome their return.

            Of course, it is entirely possible that the name change won’t matter that much.  Tokayev may decree the change in name, but people in Kazakhstan may continue to use the term “oralman” and its connotations whatever officials say. And whatever Kazakhs call them, those Kazakhs who have returned from abroad may still feel excluded.

            Since 1991, the Kazakhstan government announced earlier this month, 1,046,000 Kazakhs have returned from abroad, helping to boost the Kazakh share of that Central Asian country’s population and certainly making it more Kazakh than it was before. (Ethnic Russians were more numerous than the Kazakhs until the mid-1980s.) (

            The majority of this flow came from Uzbekistan, with smaller shares coming from China, Mongolia, Turkmenistan and Russia.   Most returnees  but not all were given the status of oralman and have moved to become citizens but some have faced problems integrating because of linguistic and cultural differences (, and

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