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Alexandra Kazakova: Modern urbanization analysis and prospects in Kazakhstan

“Today, Kazakhstan has more than half of the population living in urban areas, reflecting a new trend of expanding areas around major cities in the country. Over time, the boundaries of cities are expanding, accomodating newly arriving migrants”, said Alexandra Kazakova, country director of the IWPR in Kazakhstan (Almaty, Kazakhstan), in an article written exclusively for cabar.asia.
Central Asia is represented by countries that have been involved in global economic, political and social changes in the past half-century, and those changes have caused increasing rate of urbanization in these countries.

The specificity of the region is the fact that all countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) were part of the Soviet Union, which had made a very significant contribution to the urban and rural development in this region. The Soviet government created the basic urban and rural infrastructure (roads, buildings, life-support systems, communication systems, etc.), which is operating in the region to date. The USSR invested in human capital, and the population of the region is still with good education, with almost one hundred percent literacy. The Soviet Union created a multidisciplinary social security system, and a large part of this system operates according to the algorithm created by the Soviet government (health, education, social protection, etc.). Additionally, people in most countries in the region still use Russian as the language of international communication, which greatly facilitates the political, economic and social interaction between citizens of different countries and provides an opportunity for the further effective cooperation and social integration.

After more than twenty years of independence, all Central Asian countries are faced with deteriorating urban and rural infrastructure created in the Soviet period. There is a need for huge investments (money, intelligence, time, etc.) which could promote its further development. The efforts of the government in support of the village in recent years have not yielded the desired results. Today, the rural population tends to migrate to cities due to the fact that the existing gap in incomes and quality of life between rural and urban areas is too large.

 Migration ups and downs
Over the past twenty years, Central Asia has become one of the largest regions of migration in the world. In the 1990s, the disintegration processes in the CIS countries caused an increased outflow of non-ethnic population of Kazakhstan, caused by the desire of people to return to their homeland and to unite with their families, and also because of a number of regional and inter-ethnic conflicts of that time. Main countries for emigration were Germany, Greece, Israel, Russia and the United States. For example, in 1993, different types of migration touched 4.1% (683.5 thousand people.)[1] of the permanent population of Kazakhstan, and the outflow came mainly from the cities. The decreasing number of people taking place mainly due to residents leaving the country lasted quite a long time – during nine years, from 1994 (16.942 million people) to 2001 (14.8 million people)[2].

The mass exodus of skilled workers and specialists, particularly from industrial, energy and fuel regions of the country, caused significant economic damage to the leading sectors of the economy and weakened the development of economic, political and cultural functions of cities and villages of the country.

Internal and external labor migration has become the main type of migration from rural to urban areas, increasing the number of illegal urban residents. Kazakhstan used the migratory flows that take place throughout the Central Asian region, but it did not create any sustainable incentive system to attract arriving migrants. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are the leading countries of origin of migrants coming to Russia and Kazakhstan. In 2014, Kazakhstan took 16,784 immigrants, or 0.1% of the total population.

Table 1: International migration of population of the Republic of Kazakhstan in 2004-2014 (persons)












68 319

74 807

66 731

53 397

46 404

41 511

42 057

38 016

28 296

24 105

16 784


65 530

52 139

33 690

42 435

45 287

33 985

26 541

32 920

29 722

24 384

28 946

Balance of migration 2 789

22 668

33 041

10 962

1 117

7 526

15 516

5 096

-1 426



Source: Reports of the Statistics Agency of the RK for the period of 2004-2014, http://stat.gov.kz/

Internal migration in Kazakhstan was triggered by a number of factors: the inefficiency of government programs on support and development of villages has led to massive displacement of population from rural to urban areas. A new type of migrants in Central Asia are environmental refugees. In Kazakhstan, thousands of people leave the area of ​​the Aral ecological disaster every year; more than 300 thousand people left the areas located in the desert; more than 60,000 people migrated from the Kyzylorda region, where the spaceport “Baikonur” is located.

Table 2: Migration of population in the Republic of Kazakhstan in 2004-2014 (persons)




































Balance of migration

2 789

22 668

33 041

10 962

1 117

7 526

15 516

5 096

-1 426



Source: Reports of the Statistics Agency of the RK for the period of 2004-2014, http://stat.gov.kz/

 Such threatening trends have activated the country’s leadership and led to the adoption of a number of measures to promote the growth of the population. In addition to measures to stimulate the natural growth, the government placed its bets on the return migration of citizens living abroad, but aspiring to come back to their historical homeland – oralmans. Oralmans are ethnic repatriated Kazakhs, resettled in Kazakhstan from neighboring countries (China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Iran, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and others). The majority of oralmans arrived in Kazakhstan during the period from 1993 to 1998, using the migration quota of ethnic Kazakhs from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The main areas of their resettlement were Almaty, Karaganda, Kostanai, Zhambyl, South Kazakhstan and Almaty region. It is already clear today that a return to their historic homeland has brought to Oralmans a large number of socio-economic, legal and socio-cultural problems associated with crudity of adaptation processes.
The growth of cities in Kazakhstan

As in most other regions, the major cities of Central Asia serve as a platform for economic growth. In Kazakhstan, the political course is focused on investing in the real economy, especially in industry. Over the past ten years, the investment activity of large cities of Kazakhstan has increased dramatically, which in turn became the impetus for the sustainable economic development of cities. The growth of small and medium-sized businesses, as a rule, is relatively stable. At the present time, more than 30% of the urban population is involved in this sector, giving 50-60% of the total income tax to local budgets.

The growth of the urban population in Kazakhstan is the result of three processes: the natural growth of the urban population, rural-urban migration and reclassification of rural districts into urban. The reclassification is the result of natural population growth and rural-urban migration, and rapidly expanding urban areas spread to surrounding rural areas. This is how medium and large cities emerge. However, most cities lack the budgetary resources for the implementation of major investment projects, needed to improve the efficiency of management in growing cities. Here we should also remember about the construction of affordable housing for city residents and its selling through the mortgage program, about the strengthening of street and road safety, improving transport infrastructure, development of environmental protection in urban areas, development of energy efficient technologies and technologies for the reduction and recycling of waste, etc.

Due to the demand for products and increasing competition in the agricultural sector, there are created jobs in the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy, which are largely based in urban areas. Rural-urban migration is not only inevitable but also desirable because it allows the workforce to be localized in the most productive sectors of the economy. However, the rural-urban migration to the cities may be undesirable, as it may contribute to the adverse economic effects associated with the increase in the scale of cities. Many small and medium-sized cities are centers of trade for agricultural and other commodities. They also serve as centers for economic and social services to the rural population, especially to the poor. Cities have the ability to “bind” small and medium rural and urban businesses into a single market. Thus, there is a legitimate need for redirection of rural-urban migration from cities to villages.

Modern statistics of urban and rural population of Kazakhstan is calculated in the context of the administrative-territorial reform carried out in 2007. Since January 1, 2007 (as amended in accordance with the changes made on the 4th of November, 2006, in the old Law of RK of December 8, 1993, “On administrative-territorial system of the Republic of Kazakhstan”), 163 settlements, called to this date “urban villages”, with the total population of over 900 thousand people, were classified as rural settlements, and the residents of the remaining 34 villages in the territory of the administrative subordination of some cities of regional and district levels preserved the status of “urban population”.

In recent years, as a result of external migration processes and increased pace of population movements from rural to urban areas, the number of urban population has been growing, thereby greatly increasing the role of cities. According to the Statistics Agency of the RK, only in the first half of 2014, more than 25 thousand people left the countryside. This outflow is worst in the South Kazakhstan region – 6.4 thousand people. In Zhambyl, East Kazakhstan, Mangistau, Kostanay and North Kazakhstan regions, the exodus of rural population ranged from 2.8 to 2.2 thousand people. During the same six months, the migration inflow into the cities reached 22.9 thousand people, and the lion’s share was in two cities – Astana – 10.9 thousand and Almaty – 6.9 thousand people. Changes in the total number of urban and rural population in Kazakhstan over these seven years since the beginning of the territorial reform are shown in the following table:

Table 3: Dynamics of the urban and rural population of Kazakhstan in 2007-2015

Proportion of the population (%)

















Rural 47.2 46.8







Source: Reports of the Statistics Agency of the RK for 2007-2014, http://stat.gov.kz/

Thus, today, Kazakhstan has more than half of the population living in urban areas, reflecting a new trend of expanding areas around major cities in the country. Over time, the boundaries of cities are expanding, accomodating newly arriving migrants. An example of the country’s largest city – Almaty – shows that moving rural population densely builds houses and settles on suburban areas. Such a natural expansion of the boundaries of big cities creates difficulties with the definition of “borders” of cities and of “urban population”.

 Table 4: The growth dynamics of large cities of Kazakhstan in 2004 – 20014.
Major cities of Kazakhstan Large cities in2004.

Large cities in 2014.

%of the population increase for a decade
Population (pers.) % of total population of the country Population (pers.) %of total population of the country

1 175 208


1 507 509




510 533


814 435




513 110


865 575




428 867


494 408




332 661


325 803




286 538


352 693




Source: United Nations Organizations, http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?d=POP&f=tableCode%3A240

The specificity of Kazakhstan is the low density of the population living in a truly vast territory. Despite the long borders and large areas, much of the land in the country is not appropriate or is not well suited for economic activity, and sometimes for human life (deserts, lack of arable land, mountain landscapes, the lack of potable water, high levels of seismic activity, high temperature in summer and very cold winter temperatures, etc.). The distances between cities are enormous, which greatly complicates and increases the cost of infrastructure development and, in general, of penetration of any modern comfort. All of these extreme factors create the need to develop new approaches to managing growing cities, in particular, to (1) improving the efficiency of the settlement structure, (2) reconstruction of the country’s major cities, (3) the definition of reasonable standards regulating the density and number of storeys of buildings in newly built-up areas, and (4) the widespread use of underground space for objects that do not require sunlight (parking areas, roads, utilities, residential buildings, etc.).

 Urban Growth
The area of ​​greatest density of functions determines the location of the center of each city. The most developed areas of cities (commonly located in the central part of the city) have the greatest density and a variety of functions, and, along with the support of life activities of the population, they serve as the center for social and cultural objects. In the peripheral areas of cities, on the contrary, there is a great shortage of social and cultural facilities. In order to maintain essential services in large cities, service buildings and facilities located in areas adjacent to major urban thoroughfares are most commonly used. In the current context of urbanization, urban growth, population growth and the increase in the number of vehicles used, socio-economic stratification of society, characteristic for the countries at the stage of post-Soviet development, improvement of living conditions in cities is becoming an increasingly valuable form of urban development. It is aimed primarily at conservation of natural resources in urban areas and at overcoming the negative consequences of urbanization and technogenic impacts on the environment.

The main problems of the major cities of Kazakhstan are concentrated in the fields of economy, social security, housing and communal services, environment and modernizing the city infrastructure (which, in fact, remains Soviet).

 Problems of adaptation: Traditionally, suburban areas are the most popular destination of settling migrants who, upon arrival, begin to build various constructions like “shacks”, using all they have at hand. A significant part of today’s territories around the major cities of Kazakhstan or at their outskirts is represented by one- or two-storey houses with minimal living conditions (toilets outside, furnace heating, no central sewage system and water). Despite this, unpretentious residents are often satisfied with their housing conditions.
Property and land prices that are too high for people coming to major cities, such as Almaty, Astana or Shymkent, lead to the seizure of land and prototyping of urban slums. Urban population growth is accompanied by problems associated with the formal status of a resident of the city (residence permit, registration). As a general rule, in order to find a job, one needs a paper proving one’s local residence, and therefore the newly arriving people are trying to register in various places, for example, in hostels, in the homes of their relatives or friends. As a result, in some apartments, there may be registered more people than actually live. In Kazakhstan, the registration of the newly arrived migrants is a profitable business that is directly linked to the corruption of local authorities, as the country specializes in the production of natural resources, which requires a lot of cheap labor by attracting a large number of migrants. The absence of official registration leads to the fact that a significant portion of migrants cannot find a suitable job with guarantees and social benefits. Such a quick jump of immigrants from rural to urban life is characterized by a high level of informal employment. A large number of newly arrived people is employed illegally in the services sector, particularly in city markets. As a result, they cannot get social services (healthcare, education, social protection), which, in turn, is the cause of social tension, increased poverty and crime.

 The newly arrived migrants feel dissatisfaction among urban residents and officials who do not accept them as equal citizens and are trying to get rid of them. Given the substantial number of migrant workers that have already arrived today, we can already speak about the developed social discord in society and unjustified confrontation between them and the urban population.
Environmental problems: Various objects of the heavy and light industry are located in many major cities, which often have a very negative impact on the health of residents. The annual growth rates of urban transport in major cities across the country, having a negative impact on the ecology of cities, are also high (for example, in 2012, the growth of Kazakhstan’s car market was 60%). Total in 2014, there were registered 4.3 million vehicles in Kazakhstan, of them three cities and regions have the highest number of cars: Almaty – 503,911, South Kazakhstan oblast – 382,421 and East-Kazakhstan oblast – 328,869. More than 200,000 vehicles enter Almaty daily, whose owners come to the city to work. Local authorities are virtually ineffective in solving environmental problems, as this objective is very expensive. It requires modernization of large industrial facilities, construction of new roads and underground structures, high level of competence and professionalism, and is a great financial burden on the local budget.

 Problems of development of urban infrastructure: The key issue in terms of the provision of services is the lack of funding for new infrastructure or the repair and maintenance of existing systems. Most cities still use the Soviet infrastructure legacy (roads, buildings, life-support systems, communication systems, etc.); however, because of poor management and neglect in maintenance over the last two decades, many of these systems, especially in medium and small cities, are in poor condition. The “Program of modernization of housing and communal services of the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2011-2020” has the following information: 63% of heating, 73% of electric and 54% of gas networks need replacement or repair; by 2009, 594 settlements of the republic are gasified with natural gas, representing 8.3% of the total number (7152), and 16 settlements, or 0.2%, are gasified with liquefied gas.
The growing population requires constant growth of urban services and providing a more or less acceptable quality. Almost all small, medium and large cities do not have infrastructure for people with disabilities. City leaders have strong influence on organizations serving the urban infrastructure. Bypassing anti-corruption measures, local political leaders often choose service companies or appoint directors of such companies at their own discretion. Financial resources are largely dependent on the own revenues of local budgets that, in many cases, are modest or non-existent. Financial management, service provision, as well as the opacity of the local authorities are the main directions for improving urban governance practices.

Features of the mono-cities: One feature of Kazakhstan is the presence of so-called mono-cities (cities, where most people live on income earned from work at a city-forming enterprise – a plant or a factory) in the industrial regions of the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the majority of these enterprises have been privatized, and the standard of living in such cities is totally dependent on the success or failure of management of such enterprises. Mono-cities cannot provide economic diversity for their residents, and that only exacerbates urban poverty.

Traditions, customs and culture: The subculture of all Central Asian countries has a high level of conservatism and traditions, very resistant to the outside world (for example, treatment of women, special dialects). Conservatism has helped communities not to lose their identity in the period of mass urbanization under the Soviet Union and still exists in the post-Soviet republics. One of the recognized paradoxes associated with big cities is that at a certain point of development, a big city creates new myths of “national unity”, and in some cases – the myth of “collective security”. In such cities, it would seem that people interact daily with each other, and there should not be any ethnic stereotypes. However, it is not true. On the contrary, we can see rising ethnic tensions linked to the creation of so-called “national idea”. Almost everywhere, migration processes lead to the problem of inter-ethnic relations, and Kazakhstan is no exception.

In addition, an important consequence of urbanization is the transformation of rural thinking into urban, leading to strengthening all kinds of tribalism, regionalism and similar methods of forming the vertical of power. The relationship between civil servants and the population are getting similar to traditional clan relations, with rampant corruption and lack of transparency of the local authorities. When the priority is given to the ruling clans (in Kazakhstan, for example, it is the senior zhuz), this in many respects enhances the confrontation between people from different geographical areas. Obviously, cities not only have a significant impact on the migrants from rural areas, but, on the contrary, are exposed to the powerful influence of the rural population. At the beginning of the 1990s, cows grazed on the central avenue of the cities and even in Almaty. Currently, the central areas of major cities in Kazakhstan are alsmot free of such examples, but in residential areas, this practice is still popular. This trend is widespread in medium and small towns.

Local urban management

Kazakhstan is the successor of the Soviet centralized decision-making tendencies and authoritarianism, if not absolutism on the ground. The state apparatus continues to play a key role in regional development and is a reflection of the strong vertical hierarchies, where the leaders of local territories are accountable only to their superiors from civil servants, rather than directly to the people. Despite the fact that certain forms of elected local councils are functioning in all cities of the country, in most cases, they have no real power over the local state administration and perform a ceremonial role. As a result, we have a huge unmet demand for local services from the public and a great reluctance of citizens to participate in the development of local areas. We should not also the overwhelming lack of human resource capacity in local government bodies, most of which are very small and are experiencing a real shortage of personnel.

In contrast to the national authorities, one of the main problems of local governance is a formal approach to the planning process: the work is often done without reference to real-life situations and without prior analysis, as well as without any pre-designed and well-calculated strategies. There is no systematic approach to the development and management of the territory. Sometimes it seems that each of the city departments works independently without coordination with other agencies.

Unplanned urbanization necessarily means that there are considerable internal migration flows, uncontrolled by the government. This problem is difficult to solve, but it should be solved. For example, the already mentioned above seizure of land in the suburbs leads to the fact that, as a rule, these lands are not registered, and houses are built illegally, without observing the basic rules of construction. Usually there is no water supply, sewerage and central heating. Accordingly, this leads to a loss of government revenue from duties and taxes (on property, land), the likelihood of fires, accidents, disease, social tension and conflicts with the authorities if the latter are going to eliminate such illegal settlements. Legalization of property, creating a favorable (perhaps temporary) situation for legal registration of the existing relationships de facto might be an alternative solution to this problem.

 Historically, civil society plays a very minor role in the social and political development of Kazakhstan. The existing “model” of local management should be modified in the context of providing citizens an opportunity to influence the executive branch, to strengthen representative government and provide resource support. Returning to the beginning of this section, it should be noted that public opinion must be respected already at the planning stage, especially when planning budgets, prioritizing the needs of the population, working with people in the course of determining these needs. Today, people need to be taught how to manage buildings (condominiums), neighborhoods and cities – areas in the broad sense.
What is important to do now.

 When the infrastructure reduces the distance within the same city, this allows to maintain a high level of density of any settlement. Meanwhile, if the infrastructure reduces the distance between settlements, it stimulates the moving activity into the less populated and remote areas, and thus helps to free up space in big cities for more functional and innovative activities. Today there is a need for careful consideration and study of the problems of disunity within the towns that serve a vivid example of residential, economic and social exclusion of low-income residents of suburbs. Geographically, the targeted interventions, such as the reconstruction of housing or housing subsidies, could help overcome the problems of such fragmentation of society.
One of the main priorities for sustainable and inclusive urban development in Kazakhstan is to improve the efficiency of data collection at the level of the city and to study the problems of cities in terms of providing reliable and qualitative analysis of the situation. On the basis of these analyzes, using international experience and knowledge, local government bodies will be able to implement new strategies and mechanisms for the effective modernization of urban infrastructure. This will improve the quality of public services and develop mechanisms for specialized financial institutions in order to mobilize financial resources and finance (co-finance) projects of the municipal sector. In addition, the analyses will provide an opportunity to develop recommendations to improve the system of professional training and disseminate knowledge among managers and civil servants.

In order to improve service delivery at the local level and implement a new pricing structure for the services of life support, it is necessary to create a direct link between the effectiveness of public service delivery and small infrastructure projects in the framework of local government, as part of local budgets.

Capacity building of local government is another important component of sustainable urban development in the future. The increase in the capacity of urban managers must come from strategic and operational planning, monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of projects and programs. Budgeting, regional planning and land management are critical areas for development of modern managers.

And last but not least, it is obvious that any local administrative reform will be successful only if there is a demand for such reform among the population. The apathy of citizens in local governance must be displaced by a constructive process of engaging citizens in local reform, and it is not only the participation of citizens in setting priorities and policies of some territories, but also their participation in decision-making, implementation of projects for the provision of services and accountability of local governments to their citizens.

Alexandra Kazakova, country director of the IWPR in Kazakhstan

[1] The migration of the population of Kazakhstan in the early 1990s, K.K. Nurumbetova, http://e-history.kz/ru/contents/view/530
[2] Demoscope Weekly, № 647 – 648, http://demoscope.ru/weekly/ssp/sng_pop.php

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