WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 565 Part Two, February 7, 2009

KAZAK TOWNS EMPTY FOLLOWING MASS JOB CUTS  Experts warn of widespread migration 
as company closures force residents to relocate.  By Olga Shevchenko in Almaty 
(RCA No. 566, 07-Feb-09)

ARMY TO SOAK UP KAZAKSTAN'S UNEMPLOYED  After years of honing Kazak armed 
forces, they are now being asked to conscript young men just to take them off 
the streets.  By Olga Shevchenko in Almaty (RCA No. 565, 07-Feb-09)


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Experts warn of widespread migration as company closures force residents to 

By Olga Shevchenko in Almaty 

The industrial crisis unfolding in Kazakstan could leave a trail of ghost towns 
in its wake as thousands of laid-off workers head to the big cities in search 
of work.

Analysts believe the authorities should offer more support to the thousands of 
former workers affected by the collapse of a string of large enterprises, and 
some warn that growing discontent among the unemployed could be harnessed by 
anti-government groups.

When the Goldy wine and vodka plant in the village of Turgen in southeastern 
Kazakstan ran into difficulties and had to lay off staff, married couple Aliya 
and Aydar Zhanybekov had to leave for the former capital Almaty to find new 

Aliya and her husband decided to leave their two children with her elderly 
mother during the week, returning only at weekends. 

She now works as a shop assistant, while her husband has found an opening as a 

“There are no jobs in Turgen, and our small homestead cannot produce enough 
food for all of us,” she explained. “We have to work hard for little money, but 
these are the only jobs we have.”

Aydar said that they were not the only ones affected by job cuts at the 
village’s only large enterprise.

“Many of our friends are also in Almaty looking for jobs – some have moved to 
other villages, or have gone abroad. What else can we do? We are trying to 
survive,” he said.

Of all the Central Asian countries, Kazakstan has perhaps proven most 
vulnerable to the global economic crisis. The country’s oil reserves and 
advanced banking system, once great strengths, have become weaknesses. 

Kazak banks borrowed heavily from international lenders, and have had to 
drastically curtail lending over the last year, with serious implications for 
businesses and the construction industry. Last week the government nationalised 
BTA Bank – the country’s largest – and Alliance Bank. 

Meanwhile, plummeting prices for oil and metals have placed a strain on the 
country’s main export industries.

Official estimates say that thousands have been affected by the closure of 
businesses across the country.

“There are 25 enterprises employing 7,229 people which have ceased operations,” 
said Labour and Social Welfare Minister Berdibek Saparbaev at a January 13 
government meeting, according to a KazTAG news agency report. “Two hundred and 
thirty-four companies have cut their working hours. These enterprises employ 
72,196 people, of whom 28,818 were asked to take unpaid leave, and other 
workers have gone onto shorter working hours.”

Analysts believe the real number of closures could be even higher.

Nowhere is this more keenly felt than those towns and villages with just one 
major employer.

In the village of Ayaguz in East Kazakstan province, 1,000 residents have been 
made redundant after the main local business, paint plant Alinex, closed.

Locals say that because neighbouring towns are experiencing similar problems, 
there is nowhere in the area to go and look for work.

“There are four people in my family, and I am the only bread winner. There are 
very few jobs in our town,” said local man Aydos Zakirov. “We are thinking 
about leaving this place, but even if we sell all our property, we won’t have 
enough money to buy a house in Almaty. We are saving all we can.” 

As businesses close one after the other in Kazakstan’s small towns and 
villages, people are drifting to the cities in search of work in order to feed 
their families, causing massive domestic migration.

Pervomaysky, another village in East Kazakstan region, had 5,000 residents 
until recently, but only 2,000 remain following the closure of the Irtysh 
Metals Plant.

When workers realised their jobs were under threat, they set up a committee and 
staged several unofficial strikes in defiance of rules outlawing industrial 
action of this kind.

They also sent an open letter to President Nursultan Nazarbaev asking him to 
prevent the closure of the plant, either by nationalising it or by handing it 
over to a private investor who would run it under state supervision.

Their efforts were to no avail, and the factory closed at the start of this 

“As of late 2008, there were 270 workers at the plant, and they hadn’t been 
paid since March 2008,” said strike committee head Nikolai Mikenin. “Many 
people left because of delayed payments, and the remaining 165 workers were 
laid off in early 2009.”

Alexei Toporov, who worked as an engineer at Irtysh, said he was now 
considering leaving for the nearest city, Oskemen (also known by its Russian 
name Ust-Kamenogorsk).

“In the city, you can earn at least some money by doing odd jobs, though people 
there aren’t happy to see newcomers – job numbers are declining, and 
unemployment is growing,” he said.

Meanwhile, the authorities say they are doing their best to breathe life into 
the ailing industrial sector. 

In late November, the government adopted an anti-crisis programme to tackle the 
financial problems facing the country. Around 10 billion US dollars are to be 
redirected from a special fund that holds oil export revenues to support the 
government budget over the next three years, while about one billion dollars 
has been set aside to support small- and medium-sized businesses, in particular.

Speaking in the capital Astana in November, President Nazarbaev urged Kazak 
investors to help the government overcome the economic crisis.

“The challenges facing the economy and society should be dealt with in an 
appropriate way – every effort should be made to preserve jobs and people’s 
earnings,” said Nazarbaev. 

However, observers say the president’s appeal merely led to some employers 
keeping plants open, yet cutting posts or failing to pay wages. Many 
enterprises in the Aktobe region in western Kazakstan, for instance, have cut 
staff and working hours. 

A worker at the Aktobe Chemicals Plant, AZHS, said around 500 staff there had 
been made redundant and some full-time workers were now working fewer hours for 
less money.

This man, who had worked at the plant for 20 years, said that even in a large 
city like Aktobe (also known as Aktubinsk) this could result in serious 

“Although it’s a big town, it’s unlikely that all these 500 laid-off workers 
will be able to find work,” he said. “Young workers get paid peanuts and can’t 
always find jobs. What about those of us who will turn 50 soon? I think I’m 
going to work as a self-employed taxi driver.”

The head of the AZHS plant, Alexei Khimich, denied that any jobs had been cut 
at the plant.

“We haven’t laid anyone off – all our workers are at work at the plant,” he 
said, adding, “We are not going to comment further on the situation.”

Staff at the Goldy wine plant in Turgen also reported having to take 
substantial pay cuts.

“Starting in 2009, staff pay was cut by 40 per cent and 200 people were forced 
to go on unpaid leave. But what can we do about it? There are no other jobs 
here,” said a packing worker who had been with the company for ten years.

Marat Nazarov, a journalist from Shymkent, the main town of South Kazakstan 
province, told IWPR that employers were closing positions and cutting business 
activities without reporting this to the authorities.

“Many major enterprises have cut their production levels – for instance, the 
cotton seed, sunflower oil and flour producer Kaynar May, car component 
manufacturer Kardanval, and cement producer Shymkenttsement to mention but a 
few,” said Nazarov. 

As the ranks of the unemployed swell each day, many people are looking for 
unskilled jobs in large cities. Yet there, too, businesses are also reporting 

According to the Almanews.kz news portal, the future of Almaty Heavy 
Engineering Plant, AZTM, is uncertain after shareholders met on January 19 to 
discuss possible closure, which would leave more than 1,000 unemployed. 

Meanwhile, those who have tried to register as unemployed in order to access 
support say they face major hurdles.

When the Zhanybekovs were laid off, they said they tried to register as 
unemployed in Almaty so they could claim benefits. However, they eventually 
gave up as they decided that the paltry sum on offer did not warrant the 
bureaucratic procedures they had to pursue to access it.

“To apply for benefits, we had to collect several different documents and spend 
a week or two standing in long queues to submit them. The benefit [was just] 
6,000 tenge [50 US dollars], so we decided not to waste our time and to work 
instead,” said Aydar. 

Almas Nesipkaliyev, deputy head of Almaty’s municipal employment and social 
programmes department, declined to comment on the arrangements for claiming 

Munavara Paltasheva, executive director of the Kazak Business Forum, said that 
as many of those who become unemployed failed to register, the true scale of 
the problem was masked.

“If we had [accurate data], then the authorities would have to face up the 
situation and take steps to help the population overcome it,” she said.

Experts interviewed by IWPR said the government should to take further action 
to protect companies and support people who lose their jobs.

Ivan Voitsekhovsky, an economic analyst with Karavan newspaper thinks the 
authorities should launch social protection and anti-crisis measures similar to 
those seen in the United States during the Depression of the Thirties. 

“What the country needs at the moment is redistribution of its resources, 
stricter taxation of the rich, an improved social welfare system, and 
large-scale investment in infrastructure,” said Voitsekhovsky. “However, our 
government is not taking any of these steps.” 

Political analyst Oleg Sidorov called on employers to provide retraining 
courses for staff who can no longer be employed in their current area of 

He expressed concern that if nothing was done to support the hordes of 
unemployed, there could be devastating consequences. 

“Groups of unemployed people may soon congregate and be targeted by various 
political parties and for religious, extremist and even criminal groups,” said 
Sidorov. “The question is which of these groups will be the first to approach 
them, which of them will attract the most new members, and how they will use 
these recruits.”

Olga Shevchenko is an IWPR-trained reporter in Almaty. Journalists from various 
regions of Kazakstan provided additional reporting.


After years of honing Kazak armed forces, they are now being asked to conscript 
young men just to take them off the streets.

By Olga Shevchenko in Almaty 

A plan to conscript more soldiers into Kazakstan’s military looks like a 
desperate measure to cope with the rising numbers of unemployed young men, 
analysts say 

On January 20, Prime Minister Karim Masimov instructed the defence, interior 
and emergency ministries to look into the possibility of increasing 
conscription into their respective military and paramilitary forces. 

In the current economic downturn, he said, “it would be better for them to 
serve [in the military] to the benefit of their country, rather than join some 
criminal gang”. 

Once the respective ministries have considered the plan, it will be submitted 
to Kazakstan’s Security Council in about two months’ time and then passed to 
President Nursultan Nazarbaev to sign.

If approved, the plan would mark a complete reversal of defence thinking in 
Kazakstan. A defence strategy agreed in 2007 set the parameters for shifting 
from the old Soviet-style conscript army to a tighter, more flexible force 
largely consisting of volunteer professionals. 

Kazakstan’s armed forces, which come under the defence ministry, are believed 
to number about 70,000, of which 65 per cent are “contract” or professional 
soldiers. The annual intake of conscripts, who serve one year, is down to 

Defence ministry spokesman Serik Shalov was unable to give IWPR figures for the 
additional conscript intake proposed by Masimov, pointing out that the 
ministries are still working on the issue. 

“When we get the figures, we’ll address issues of training, equipment, rations 
and housing. It will become clearer over the next couple of months,” he said.

Another defence source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “Whatever the 
government says, that’s the way it will be. We’re soldiers. When we get an 
order, we say, “Yes sir”.

Other officials interviewed by IWPR were unable to estimate how long the 
initiative would last.

In addition to the armed forces proper, both the interior ministry and the 
emergencies ministry, which deals with the aftermath of natural disasters, have 
their own paramilitary forces, which are also being asked to consider drafting 
more men.

Military experts and political analysts have criticised the prime minister’s 
plan, arguing that it will place extra strain on the armed forces’ resources. 

Dosym Satpaev, director of the Risk Assessment Group, told IWPR that Masimov’s 
proposal was short-sighted. 

“The government is now trying to channel surplus unemployed young people into 
the army, but it has not considered what impact this would have on the army’s 
fighting capacity,” he said. “It may be right as a tactical move, but it hasn’t 
been fully thought through from a strategic point of view.”

Satpaev explained that as a result of the international financial crisis, the 
government was going to have to reduce expenditure, including on defence, yet 
the forces were going to be asked to absorb more men. 

Sergei Pashevich, who heads the Military Brotherhood of Kazakstan, an 
organisation uniting veterans of the Soviet Afghan war of the Eighties, said 
the army did not have the capacity to accommodate an additional influx of 

“At the moment there aren’t enough barracks to house more people. If this basic 
problem isn’t resolved, we will get disease on a massive scale and other 

According to Pashevich, the government spends around three US dollars a day on 
maintaining each conscript serviceman – barely enough to cover the cost of 
feeding him.

Marina Nazarova, whose son is liable for military service, shares these 
concerns. “What will conditions be like in the units where our kids serve?” she 

She thinks the government has got it wrong and asks, “Is this an instruction to 
turn my child into a free source of labour? Why haven’t they introduced social 

Among conscription-age men, the response was mixed – some felt it would be no 
bad thing to join up during these tough economic times. 

“I’d happily join the army,” said Ermek Sepiev who lives in Talgar, a small 
town not far from Almaty. “There are no jobs in the town at the moment, but 
there [in the army] you don’t need to think about where to get money for food.”

The majority, however, were against the plan, like Oleg Hvylko from Almaty. 

“I don’t have a father so I’m the only man in the family. I’d rather earn money 
for my sister and mother than join up,” he said. “We’re not about to have a 
war, and I’m not about to become a criminal. I’d do better to work than serve 
my country.”

Rising unemployment is a direct consequence of the sudden economic downturn in 
Kazakstan, until recently Central Asia’s economic tiger with huge oil reserves 
and progressive market reforms. However, its reliance on oil exports and 
exposure to international financial markets have left it staggering over the 
last year, and workers are being laid off. 

Satpaev believes tackling unemployment among young people needs a more 
sophisticated approach than simply taking them off the streets and putting them 
in uniform for a while. The authorities, he says, should “not just rely on the 
army to sweep up excess labour resources like a vacuum cleaner, but look at 
those young people who are in need of retraining and proper state support as 
they look for work”.

>From a military perspective, Pashevich said, “A serviceman needs to actually 
>do something. I see no need to feed and water a useless soldier just for the 
>sake of it.” 

Olga Shevchenko is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

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