Southern areas are about 90% Kazakh, while in some northern towns the majority population is Russian. Over half the people now live in urban areas. Of the 16 million population, 63% are Kazakhs – a big upward swing from Soviet times, aided by emigration of two million Russians, Germans and Ukrainians after independence and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of oralman (ethnic Kazakhs repatriating from other countries). The total population is still down by over a million since the early 1990s.
Other main ethnic groups are Russians (24%), Uzbeks (3%), Ukrainians (2%), and Germans, Tatars and Uyghurs (1% to 1.5% each). There are more than 100 other nationalities.
Since the recent turn of the century that outflow has dwindled: there are clear signs of the younger generation of ethnic Europeans preferring to take their chance in the independent Kazakhstan. They were born and bred in Kazakhstan, went to school in the country, had all their friends and acquaintances in the country, and many thousands had married Kazakhs and were raising families in an independent Kazakhstan. Word also got back that the streets of Yaroslavl or Berlin or Donetsk had not turned out to be paved with gold after all. The expectations of many 'returnees' of a new life of plenty in the West were dashed and many were to experience great difficulty in establishing themselves in a Europe which had changed beyond recognition in two or three generations. The manifest lack in Kazakhstan of any discrimination along racial lines in the general run of life, together with the unifying factors of the Russian language and Kazakhstan's obvious economic potential, was to make many young people think again about emigrating to the lands of their fathers in the West.
A less obvious reason for the fall in population was a temporary decline in the birth rate and an increase in the death rate. Experts attributed both to the fall in living standards associated with the unemployment and poverty resulting from the collapse of the command economy and the transition to the market economy in the early 1990s. Yet within ten years, that was to have altered. At the beginning of the new millennium, the economy was growing at over ten per cent a year; the trends were on the turn, and a growing and prosperous urban middle class was gaining the confidence to establish families. By the year 2002 it seemed that the outflow to Europe had been staunched. Those intending to move had already moved; birth and death rates were stabilising; the national population was set to rise.
With such a large country of such extensive natural resources, the interest of the Government of Kazakhstan is to increase the population. One way of doing this has been to encourage expatriate ethnic Kazakhs to return to their homeland. It has been estimated that as many as one million Kazakhs still live outside the country. These are termed Oralmans, many of whose parents or grandparents had fled the fearful privations of collectivisation of the 1930s. Within the first decade of independence over 180,000 Oralmans returned to settle in Kazakhstan. Some came from Russia, many from other CIS countries and from Mongolia; it was expected that up to half a million would emigrate to Kazakhstan from Uzbekistan in the first decade of the new century. Most oralmans have retained Kazakh as a language of communication and most appear to have maintained the traditional Kazakh livelihood of livestock herding and pastoralism. The reintegration of the Oralman population is thus likely to increase the Kazakh component of the country's population.
The growth in the Kazakh population - supplemented by the Oralmans - in the first decade of Kazakhstan's independence, had made the country, at least from a demographic point of view, more 'Asian' in blood yet not necessarily so in outlook.