Sunday, October 1, 2023

Radical Increase in Share of Kazakhs in Higher Educational Institutions in 1960s and 1970s Helps Explain December 1986 Clashes

 Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 27 – It is a commonplace that the overproduction of university graduates relative to the demand for them in the economy can lead to political instability; and it is generally recognized that the overproduction of graduates from one ethnic group compared to others can do the same.

            Confirmation of both of these cases comes from what happened in Kazakhstan in the two decades before the clashes of December 1986, QMonitor journalist Bakhut Zhanabergen suggests in the course of an article that provides new insights into the causes of the ethnic and class bases of this conflict (

            At the start of the 1960s, he writes, Kazakhstan ranked 13th of the 15 union republics in terms of the number of students in higher educational institutions; but just two decades later, its ranking had risen to fourth. In the early 1960s, there were 75 students for every 10,000 residents of the republic; but in 1984, there were 171, more than twice as many.

            Ethnic Kazakhs accounted for most of this growth, and by 1984, they formed 54 percent of the student bodies, even though in the population of the republic as a whole, Kazakhs formed only about 38 percent. In the higher schools, ethnic Kazakhs thus ranked second only to Jews in the USSR in terms of number per 100,000 residents.

            “Such a disproportion,” Zhanabergen says, did not exist in another ‘subject’ of the USSR.” It reflected in part the actions of the rectors of the universities who worked hard to promote ethnic Kazakhs. In Almaty, for example, in 1986, 13 of the 15 rectors whose ethnicity can be established were Kazakhs.

            But these rectors, the journalist says scholars have found, promoted not ethnic Kazakhs in general but those from their particular clans and regions. As a result, ethnic Russians were not the only ones excluded from the most prestigious higher educational institutions: Kazakhs from other clans and regions were as well, a major source of tension.

            Both the explosive growth of ethnic Kazakhs in the republic’s higher educational institutions and the fact that some but not all Kazakhs were beneficiaries of that growth helps to explain the nature of the conflicts in December 1986 – and serves as a reminder that those studying ethnic conflicts must be alive to these kinds of shifts.


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