Like most of the other nations in the world, Kazakhstan is believed to be an urbanizing country. Relocation of people from rural areas to cities has long become a major global trend in most parts of the world and Kazakhstan is not an exception. According to United Nations estimates, nearly 58% of the population of Kazakhstan currently lives in urban areas, which is fairly consistent with the global average rate of urbanization of 56.2% [UNDESA, 2021]. However, when it comes to the dynamics of urbanization, Kazakhstan appears to be an outlier rather than an ordinary country with moderate rates of urbanization. It is quite surprising to find out that in spite of having a fairly average share of the urban population, Kazakhstan has been significantly more urbanized than other developing countries over the last several decades, but has eventually come to be an average country due to its slow rate of urbanization compared to most other countries.
Currently, there are 89 settlements in Kazakhstan classified as urban settlements. The size of these settlements varies greatly from small towns with merely several thousand inhabitants to large metropolitan areas with over one million residents. The size of urban settlements has changed greatly over the last 2-3 decades mainly due to the post-Soviet transition and demographic fluctuations. The drastic changes in demographics and spatial relocation of the population in Kazakhstan have led to the very significant reconfiguration of the spatial structure of urban settlement systems. Urbanization trends in Kazakhstan and other former Soviet states were quite different than in other parts of the world, where it has been a rather monotonous and continuous process. Although Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states have seen some growth in urbanization rates after the 1990s, it was nothing nearly as fast as in other middle-income countries or the rest of the world in general. Thus, 56.3% of the population of Kazakhstan lived in urban areas in 1990, which was a very high share of the urban population at that time. For instance, the world’s average urban population share in 1990 was 46% 1990 and for developing nations, this figure was 36.7%. Interestingly, the urban population percentage in Kazakhstan has stayed almost unchanged since then [See Table 1].
Table 1. Share of the urban population
|Former Soviet states||62.6||65.6||65.3||65.7||65.4|
Source: UNDESA, 2021.
This pattern is not unique for Kazakhstan, though. Thus, other Central Asian states and post-Soviet countries, in general, have had a rigid configuration change between urban and rural population shares throughout the last several decades. It is quite obvious that the communist past and subsequent post-communist transition processes are the primary reasons behind this unusual pattern of distribution of population between rural and urban areas. Over the last half a century, Kazakhstan, as well as other former Soviet countries has seen several waves of radical socio-demographic transformations that have largely determined the current state of the country’s population distribution and urban structure [UNDP, 2019]. The collapse of the USSR in this context is seen as a period of adjustment from a Soviet disequilibrium to a post-Soviet equilibrium state of social, economic, political, and demographic processes [Becker et al., 2012]. In particular, the period of the last three decades can be characterized as a deep transformation from the Soviet administrative system of strong centralized control over spatial demographics to the free readjustment of settlements mainly based on market economy principles. Hence, the transition not only implies a switch from a rigid centralized spatial planning of urban settlements but also the inclusion of the market forces as factors shaping the spatial distribution of the population [Becker et al., 2012]. It is believed that the period following the collapse of the USSR was characterized by fundamental changes in political and economic paradigms that triggered a mass relocation of the population including within the former Soviet republics [Heleniak, 2001]. But why was there so little change in the percentage shares of rural and urban populations?
In fact, we can state that there was a very significant change in the spatial distribution of the population in Kazakhstan as well as other post-Soviet countries. However, the relocation of the population in the post-Soviet transition period did not produce large changes in terms of rural vs. urban population shares mostly because the vast majority of the relocation of the population took place from smaller urban settlements to large cities. In particular, the post-Soviet spatial demographic transition in Kazakhstan was mainly characterized by a large-scale movement of the population from smaller urban settlements to large cities. As a result, two major effects played out. Firstly, there has been a considerable contraction in the total number of settlements classified as urban. Due to the loss of population, many small towns were downgraded to rural settlements. For example, since the late Soviet period, the total number of settlements classified in the official statistics as urban has dropped from 294 to 182.
Table 2. Dynamics of urban settlements in Kazakhstan since 1979
|Number of cities with more than 1 million inhabitants||0||1||1||1||3|
|Percentage of population living in cities above 1 million||0||6.8||7.6||8.5||21.4|
Source: Bureau of National Statistics of Kazakhstan, 2020.
The effects of the transition processes on urban settlements in Kazakhstan and other former communist countries were manifold. The active involvement in international trade and sudden contraction of the state demand for manufacturing goods had serious negative effects on industries in mid-size and small urban settlements (monotowns). Since the state often was the only purchaser of the output produced by these industries, the sharp contraction of state demand led to a rapid decline of these small urban settlements. On the other hand, large cities have hugely gained in terms of demographic growth as they became the main points of attraction of population flows primarily from small towns in search of better jobs and urban amenities.
Meanwhile, the normal urbanization process based on the simple relocation of people from rural areas to cities is also present in Kazakhstan, but at a smaller scale. In other words, the patterns of depopulation in small towns and their reclassification into rural communities in the 1990s became sufficiently strong to offset the overall relocation of the population from rural areas to cities. The net effect of the entire process was that large cities, capable of sustaining urban amenities and large service sectors, became the absolute net gainers in terms of population growth and received most of the benefits [Becker et al., 2012]. Thus, for instance, Kazakhstan had only one city with a population above one million in the late Soviet period (Almaty), which was home to 6.8% of its population. By 2019, Kazakhstan already had three cities with one million plus population where more than one-fifth of the country’s total population lived. As it is typical for large urban centers, these cities quickly became major centers of the urban economy mainly based on the service sector. Since the late Soviet period, the population of Almaty, the largest city in the country, has increased fivefold. During the same period, the population of the city of Shymkent almost tripled and that of Astana, the capital city, quadrupled. Since the late Soviet years, the share of the total population of Kazakhstan living in cities one million-plus (Almaty, Nur-Sultan, and Shymkent) more than tripled, which is a tremendous increase even compared to other former Soviet states where prosperous cities with high administrative status typically became centers of western-style consumption, while peripheral regions and many smaller towns were succumbed by structural problems and population decline.
Not only did major cities accumulate populations from different parts of the country, but also affected the growth of smaller urban settlements located around them. Analysis of urban demographic statistics over the last three decades shows a link between the demographic change in small and mid-sized urban settlements with populations ranging from 20 thousand to 200 thousand people and their proximity to the nearest major city with a population of over 200 thousand people. In particular, the distance and population in towns appear to be negatively correlated. In other words, towns located in close proximity to major cities often tend to grow faster than remote towns. Interestingly, the pattern holds even for the period of the 1990s when Kazakhstan had by far the largest population decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union compared to other former Soviet countries. For instance, during 1990-2000 its population dropped by 8.9% primarily due to the exodus of ethnic minorities [Rowland, 2001]. However, towns located less than 50 km from major cities on average had a 5.5% population decline and those located between 50 and 150 km from major cities have seen the smallest change of merely a 2.5% decline in their population. During subsequent decades, the general demographic profile of the country started to improve and small and mid-sized towns generally presented positive demographic dynamics. In both, 1999-2009 and 2009-2019, we can see that towns located very close to major cities experienced the fastest rates of growth. On average, these towns around major cities have grown twice as fast compared to very remote towns located further than 250 km from major cities.
Figure 1. Population change in towns and mid-sized cities in Kazakhstan since 1989
Source: citypopulation.de, 2022.
The thirty-year statistics is perhaps the most representative one showing a gradual decrease of population growth rates in towns as the distance to the closest large city increases. Thus, towns located at a distance less than 50 km from the nearest large city over the period of independence on average have seen a 44.2% of the population. For towns in distance between 50 and 150 km from large cities, this indicator is 17.8% and for towns in 150-250 km the average population growth is 7.5%. Remote towns located further than 250 km from large cities on average have not still recovered the population size they had during the Soviet period.
The differences in growth rates of towns depending on their distance from large cities among other things can be viewed as a good indication of the formation of nodal urban systems in which large cities with populations over 200 thousand people play the role of the center and of the node and nearby towns act as peripheral elements. It is quite intuitive in this context that the fastest growing towns in close proximity to large cities are those that are known to be predominantly residential towns, such as for instance Zachagansk near Uralsk, Tasboget near Kyzylorda, and Kaskelen located close to Almaty. At the same time, small urban centers typically known as industrial towns do not tend to show high demographic growth in spite of their closeness to large cities. Typical examples of such declining towns are Saran, Temirtau and Shakhtinsk in the Karagandy region.
There could be several processes driving the trends of demographic change in towns located near large cities. Firstly, many towns around large cities start to act as suburbs and attract urban populations from nodal cities as residential areas. Since heavy industry traditionally is seen as a serious negative effect, towns with heavy industries might not be as good at attracting the population from the nearest large city. The entire process of towns converting into suburbs could be viewed as a part of a bigger picture of suburbanization in which large cities not only start to grow swallowing nearby towns, but also “outsourcing” residential functionality to them.
The transition from a planned economy to a market economy had a huge impact on the entire system of urban settlements and the organization in Kazakhstan. The change in the city-size distribution in favor of large cities was one of the key trends which implied a significant concentration of the population in large cities mostly at the expense of smaller urban settlements. At the same time, the process of redistribution of the population from smaller towns to large cities also slowed down the process of urbanization.
Becker, Charles, S. Joshua Mendelsohn and Ksenyia Benderskaya (2012). Russian Urbanization in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras. International Institute for Environment and Development United Nations Population Fund Urbanization and Emerging Population Issues Working Paper 9.
Bureau of National Statistics of Kazakhstan (1999). Brief Results of the Census in Kazakhstan of 1999. Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Statistics Committee. Retrieved from https://old.stat.gov.kz/faces/wcnav_externalId/publicationsCompilations1999?_afrLoop=20068739687086166#%40%3F_afrLoop%3D20068739687086166%26_adf.ctrl-state%3Db63b589tn_81. Accessed on 30.06.2020.
Bureau of National Statistics of Kazakhstan (2009). Demographic Yearbook of Kazakhstan 2009 Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Statistics Committee. Retrieved from https://old.stat.gov.kz/faces/wcnav_externalId/publicationsCompilations2010?_afrLoop=20068153231179285#%40%3F_afrLoop%3D20068153231179285%26_adf.ctrl-state%3Db63b589tn_68. Accessed on 03.05.2020.
Bureau of National Statistics of Kazakhstan (2019). Population by Districts and Cities in 2019. Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Statistics Committee. Retrieved from https://old.stat.gov.kz/faces/wcnav_externalId/homeNumbersPopulation?_afrLoop=20119251109076154#%40%3F_afrLoop%3D20119251109076154%26_adf.ctrl-state%3D48blfseyu_64 Accessed on 20.06.2020.
Bureau of National Statistics of Kazakhstan (2020). Demographic Yearbook 2020. Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Statistics Committee. Retrieved from https://stat.gov.kz/edition/publication/collection. Accessed on 03.05.2020.
Citypopulation.de (2022). The population of all Kazakh cities, urban and rural settlements with more than 20,000 inhabitants according to census results and latest official estimates. Retrieved from https://citypopulation.de/en/kazakhstan/cities/. Accessed on 30.10.2022.
Heleniak, Timothy (2001). “Migration and Restructuring in Post-Soviet Russia”. Demokratizatsiya, 9(4): pp. 531-549.
Rowland, Richard H. (2001). “Regional population change in Kazakhstan during the 1990s and the impact of nationality population patterns: Results from the recent census of Kazakhstan”. Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, 42(8): pp. 571-614.
UNDESA (2021). Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division. Retrieved from https://population.un.org/wpp/. Accessed on 22.09.2020.
UNDP (2019). Urbanization as an accelerator of inclusive and sustainable development. National Human Development Report 2019. Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/national-human-development-report-2019-kazakhstan. Accessed on 25.09.2020.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy
Kanat Makhanov is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in Business Economics from the KIMEP University from 2012. In 2014 he earned his Masters degree in Economics from the University of Vigo (Spain), completing his thesis on “Industrial Specialization in autonomous regions of Spain and Kazakhstan”. His main research interests are Spatial Economics, Economic Geography, Regional Economics, Human and Economic Geography.