Kazakhstan - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Kazakhstan: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Kazakhstan, republic in Central Asia, bounded on the north by Russia; on the east by China; on the south by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan; and on the west by the Caspian Sea and Russia. Almost all of Kazakhstan is located in the west central portion of the Asian continent; however, a small part of the republic lies west of the Ural River on the European continent. The northern city of Astana (formerly Aqmola) is the capital of the country.

In Kazakh, the official state language, Kazakhstan is called Qazaqstan Respublikasy. The Kazakhs, a Turkic people, constitute a majority of the population. Kazakhstan was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1922 until December 1991, when it became independent. The republic has maintained a presidential system of government since independence. In 1995 Kazakhstan adopted a new constitution that granted extensive powers to the president.


Kazakhstan covers an area of 2,717,300 sq km (1,049,155 sq mi), making it by far the largest country in Central Asia. It was the second largest republic of the former Soviet Union, after Russia.

Although high mountain ranges fringe the republic’s eastern and southeastern borders, the terrain of Kazakhstan consists mostly of deserts, steppes (vast, semiarid grassy plains), and hilly upland areas. Deserts and semideserts (such as stone, salt, and sand wastelands) cover more than two-thirds of Kazakhstan’s surface area. The most expansive deserts in the republic are the sandy, barren Qyzylqum, which also occupies part of Uzbekistan, and the clay-crusted Betpak-Dala; both are located in the southern portion of the republic.

Kazakhstan contains extreme variations in elevation. The Tian Shan mountains contain the country’s highest point, Hantengri (6,398 m/20,991 ft), which lies in the extreme southeast where the borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China meet. The Altay Mountains along the country’s eastern border also contain high peaks. Kazakhstan’s lowest elevation is found in the extreme southwest, just east of the Caspian Sea, where the Karagiye Depression lies 132 m (433 ft) below sea level. The area north of the Caspian, in northwestern Kazakhstan, is occupied by the Caspian Depression, which also extends into Russia.

Rivers and Lakes in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan contains an extensive network of rivers and several large lakes. Many of Kazakhstan’s rivers drain within the republic, although the Ishim, Irtysh, and Tobol rivers flow north into Russia and eventually drain into the Arctic Ocean. Due to dry weather conditions, the riverbeds of most of the republic’s small and medium-sized rivers remain dry for much of the year.

One of Kazakhstan’s largest rivers, the Syr Darya, enters Kazakhstan in the south and follows a northwesterly course toward the northern portion of the Aral Sea, a saltwater lake that straddles Kazakhstan’s border with Uzbekistan.

The Ural River, which flows south from Russia, enters northwestern Kazakhstan and drains into the Caspian Sea, a saltwater lake that is the largest inland body of water in the world. The Caspian borders five countries and delineates roughly half of Kazakhstan’s western border. Another large river, the Ili, enters Kazakhstan from China and drains into Lake Balqash, a large lake in the eastern part of the country. A dam that was completed on the Ili in 1970 has reduced inflow to Lake Balqash, causing the lake’s surface level to lower. Other large lakes in Kazakhstan include the freshwater lake Zaysan and the saltwater lakes Alakol and Tengiz.

Plant and Animal Life in Kazakhstan

Forested areas amount to only 1 percent of Kazakhstan’s territory, as the steppes and deserts are virtually treeless. Drought-resistant plants such as wormwood, tamarisk (salt cedar), and feather grass are native to the steppes, although grain crops have largely supplanted native vegetation in the northern steppes. Scrub plants are common in the Qyzylqum desert. Thickets of elm, poplar, reeds, and shrubs grow along the banks of rivers and lakes. Coniferous trees, such as spruce, larch, cedar, and juniper, grow in thick forests on the mountain slopes in the extreme east and southeast.

Animal life in Kazakhstan varies by region. The republic is home to the extremely rare saiga antelope, which is protected by government decree. The saiga inhabits the steppes, as do roe deer, wolves, foxes, and badgers. Various animals thrive in the deserts, including gazelles; rodents, such as gophers, sand rats, and jerboas; and reptiles, such as lizards and snakes. Wild boars, jackals, and deer are found near the rivers and lakes. The mountains are home to ibex (wild goats), lynx (wildcats), wolves, wild boars, and brown bears. The endangered snow leopard, which has long been illegally hunted for its fur, also lives in the mountains, preying on ibex. Kazakhstan’s many different species of birds include ring-necked pheasants, partridges, black grouse, bustards, hawks, and falcons, all of which are native to the steppes. Eagles and lammergeiers (a type of vulture) nest mostly in the mountainous regions.

Natural Resources of Kazakhstan

Only 8 percent of Kazakhstan is cultivated, and the northern steppes are the most intensely farmed area. Kazakhstan contains vast mineral resources, with significant deposits of coal, iron ore, manganese, bauxite, chromium, tungsten, uranium, and other minerals. Kazakhstan also has large reserves of petroleum and natural gas in the western Caspian Sea area.

Climate in Kazakhstan

The climate of Kazakhstan is extremely continental, with hot summers and cold winters. Temperatures vary immensely by region, with the most dramatic differences between the deserts and mountains. The southern regions have milder winters and hotter summers than the northern and central regions. The steppes experience especially harsh winters due to strong, cold winds from the north. Depending on the region, the average daily temperature in January ranges from -19° to -4°C (-2° to 25°F), while in July it ranges from 19° to 26°C (66° to 79°F). Extreme summer temperatures can reach 45°C (113°F), and extreme winter temperatures can fall below -45°C (-49°F). Annual precipitation levels are generally low, ranging from less than 100 mm (4 in) in the deserts to between 250 and 350 mm (10 and 14 in) on the steppes, where summer thunderstorms often produce flash floods. During winter, most of the country is covered in snow. In the mountains, where peaks are perpetually snowcapped, precipitation averages 1,500 mm (60 in) per year.

Environmental Issues in Kazakhstan

The environment of Kazakhstan began to suffer serious harm during the Soviet period. The country now faces an urgent need to address the Soviet legacy of ecological mismanagement.

Between 1949 and 1991 the Soviet government conducted about 70 percent of all of its nuclear testing in Kazakhstan, mostly in the northeastern area near the city of Semipalatinsk (now Semey). Nearly 500 nuclear explosions occurred both above and below ground near Semipalatinsk, while more than 40 nuclear detonations occurred at other testing grounds in western Kazakhstan and in the Qyzylqum desert. More than 1 million of Kazakhstan’s inhabitants were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation because the Soviet government did not evacuate or even warn nearby populations. In the late 1980s Kazakhs held large demonstrations calling for an end to the nuclear testing, and in 1991 the government of Kazakhstan put a stop to the practice. However, the testing grounds, and perhaps even underground aquifers (water-bearing layers of rock, sand, or gravel), remain highly contaminated. The Nevada-Semipalatinsk Organization, which led the campaign against nuclear testing during the 1980s, has turned its attention to teaching residents of polluted areas how to avoid nuclear contamination. One of every three children born in the Semipalatinsk region has mental or physical defects, and about half the population suffers from immune system deficiencies.

Another ecological disaster area in Kazakhstan is the Aral Sea, which is split roughly in half between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea has shrunk to less than half its former size since the early 1960s, when the Soviet government initiated a drive to increase cotton yields in the arid lands of Central Asia. Excessive irrigation substantially decreased inflow to the Aral, and the Aral’s shoreline began to recede rapidly. This has caused severe environmental problems in the Aral Sea Basin, including the destruction of wildlife habitat as a result of desertification (a process whereby previously habitable or arable land becomes desert). The Aral Sea crisis is also associated with a number of health problems, including respiratory infections and parasitic diseases. Efforts to address the crisis have focused on preventing further shrinkage of the Aral Sea, mainly because the damage is so severe that it is practically irreversible.

Kazakhstan also faces the problem of urban pollution, particularly in its eastern cities, which receive harmful emissions from lead and zinc smelters, a uranium-processing mill, and other industries. In recent years, environmental activist groups in Kazakhstan have begun lobbying for tighter emission controls. Other environmental issues in Kazakhstan include soil pollution from the overuse of pesticides in agriculture and the increasingly polluted waters of the Caspian Sea.


In 2009 Kazakhstan had an estimated population of 15,399,437, giving it an average population density of 6 persons per sq km (15 per sq mi). Some 56 percent of the population lives in urban areas, making Kazakhstan the most urbanized of the Central Asian republics. The republic’s larger cities include Almaty, the former capital; Qaraghandy (also spelled Karaganda); Shymkent (Chimkent); Semey; and Pavlodar. Astana, which replaced Almaty as the capital in 1997, is a relatively small city located in the north.

Ethnic Groups in Kazakhstan

Kazakhs constitute 53 percent of Kazakhstan’s population, according to the 1999 census. The next largest ethnic group is Russians, with 30 percent of the population. Russians are concentrated in the north and in large urban areas, whereas Kazakhs are the predominant ethnic group in rural areas. Other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan include Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans, Uygurs (Uighurs), Chechens, Tatars, and Koreans.

Kazakhstan was the only Soviet republic in which the titular nationality (or ethnic group for which a republic was named) constituted less than 50 percent of the population. Large numbers of Russians and Ukrainians settled in Kazakhstan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after Central Asia became part of the Russian Empire. During World War II (1939-1945), the Soviet authorities deported Germans, Crimean Tatars, Koreans, and others to Kazakhstan from other parts of the Soviet Union. Another wave of large-scale immigration of Russians and other Slavs into Kazakhstan began in 1954 as part of a Soviet program to increase the amount of cultivated land in northern Kazakhstan. By 1959 Russians outnumbered Kazakhs in the republic. During the 1980s this demographic trend reversed. Birth rates were higher among Kazakhs, and the immigration of other ethnic groups abated. By 1989, when the last Soviet census was conducted, Kazakhs outnumbered Russians, although only by a slim margin. At that time Kazakhs constituted 39.7 percent of the population, and Russians made up 37.8 percent. After Kazakhstan became an independent republic in 1991, the proportion of Kazakhs continued to increase because many Germans, Russians, and members of other ethnic groups left Kazakhstan, while a significant number of Kazakhs moved into the republic from the neighboring Central Asian states and from Mongolia. In addition, the birth rate was generally higher among Kazakhs.

Languages in Kazakhstan

The official language of Kazakhstan is Kazakh, which belongs to the Kipchak (or Western Turkic) branch of the Turkic languages. The Kazakh language developed originally in the Arabic script, but in 1928 the Soviet government mandated a switch to the Latin (or Roman) alphabet. Then in 1940 the Soviet authorities imposed the Cyrillic alphabet (the script of the Russian language), with some modifications for the Kazakh language. This writing system continues to be used today.

Russian is the primary language of interethnic communication in Kazakhstan. Most Russians do not know the Kazakh language, while many Kazakhs have a working knowledge of Russian. During the Soviet period, Russian was the primary language of instruction in most schools, and knowledge of Russian was necessary to acquire skilled jobs. Beginning in the late 1980s it became more important for residents to learn and speak Kazakh. In 1989 the Supreme Soviet (legislature) of Kazakhstan adopted legislation making Kazakh the official language of the republic, and the constitution of 1993 ratified this designation. However, the language law recognizes Russian as a national language and allows it to be used in education, government, the military, and the courts.

Religion in Kazakhstan

The Kazakhs are a Muslim people. Their first significant contact with Islam occurred in the 16th century, long after the Central Asian peoples to the south were introduced to the religion during the Arab conquests of the 8th century. Sufi ascetics, who wandered across western Asia during the 16th century, introduced the Kazakhs to Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. The personal focus of Sufism was compatible with the Kazakhs’ nomadic way of life. The Kazakhs adopted Islam gradually, with their conversion only becoming complete in the early 19th century.

During the Soviet period, the officially atheistic Communist regime sought to restrict the practice of Islam because of its potential for creating organized dissident movements. Most of Kazakhstan’s mosques were forcibly shut down in the 1920s. The regime briefly relaxed its antireligious stance during World War II but then reinstated restrictions. In the mid-1980s the Soviet government lifted most of these restrictions, and the number of practicing Muslims in Kazakhstan began to increase considerably. The revival of Islam in Kazakhstan intensified after independence in 1991.

Uzbeks and Tatars are also Muslims. The Slavic peoples of Kazakhstan are traditionally Orthodox Christians, and the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination in the republic. The Christian community also includes small numbers of Protestants (mainly Lutherans) and Roman Catholics.

Education in Kazakhstan

Education is compulsory in Kazakhstan until age 17. Primary education begins at age 7, and secondary education begins at age 11 and lasts for seven years. Primary and secondary schools provide education free of charge. Kazakhstan’s adult literacy rate is nearly 100 percent. During the Soviet period, a system of free and universal education was implemented. State funding for schools has been reduced since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Institutes of higher education in Kazakhstan include the Kazakh Al-Farabi State National University, located in Almaty, and the Qaraghandy State University, located in Qaraghandy. The republic also has numerous institutes that offer specialized courses of study in fields such as economics, civil engineering, and medicine.

Way of Life in Kazakhstan

Kazakhs were once an exclusively nomadic people who herded livestock on the vast steppes of northern Kazakhstan. This nomadic way of life continued until the late 1920s, when the Kazakhs were forced to settle. However, Kazakhs continue to identify with their nomadic ancestry. Today, some Kazakhs are seminomadic shabans (shepherds), working as employees of the state and of collective farms. For part of each year they reside in the steppes and mountain areas in portable, felt-covered dwellings called yurts, while they watch over their grazing herds. Kazakhs who reside in cities are more likely to demonstrate a mix of Kazakh and Russian cultural influences because of their interaction with the large urban Russian populations.

In Kazakhstan’s cities, residents eat both Russian and Kazakh dishes. In rural areas, the typical diet is similar to that of the early Kazakh nomads. The daily diet consists mainly of meat (especially mutton, beef, and qazy, or horse meat), served with rice or noodles, many types of milk products, and large loaves of unleavened bread. Smoked sausages made of qazy are a Kazakh specialty. Tea is served several times a day, while qymyz (fermented mare’s milk) and shabat (fermented camel’s milk) are prepared for special festivities.

Kazakhs wear both Western-style and traditional clothing. Men may wear a Western-style suit with a Kazakh-style felt hat. Most villagers live in brick homes with electricity but without running water. While some city residents live in houses, most live in small apartments built during the Soviet period. Kazakhs enjoy many family-centered social activities, such as visiting relatives and attending family celebrations. Popular spectator sports include soccer, wrestling, and horse racing. Kazakhs also play traditional horseback games that are said to date from the 13th century. In one such game, called kokpar, two teams of players compete to drag a goat carcass into a goal.

Living standards deteriorated for most people in Kazakhstan after the republic became independent in 1991. During the initial years of the country’s transition to a free-market economy, salaries and social benefits did not keep pace with skyrocketing inflation. As a result, many people could not afford food and other essential commodities. In 1995 inflation began to be brought under control, and conditions began to improve. However, unemployment and underemployment remain high, and many people continue to live in poverty. Former Communist officials are the most privileged group in Kazakhstan. They form a small, wealthy elite that has benefited the most from privatization (the transfer of enterprises from the public to the private sector). The country’s economic elite also includes entrepreneurs who import consumer goods on a large scale.


The cultural traditions that are distinctively Kazakh in orientation are grounded in the Kazakhs’ nomadic past. The culture of Kazakhstan also reflects strong Russian and Islamic influences. Due to settlement patterns, Russian culture is predominant in the cities.

A significant cultural development occurred during the Soviet period, when a government-mandated genre called socialist realism transformed art and literature into a form of Communist propaganda. Socialist realism directly contradicted Islamic tradition, which prohibits the representation of living things in art.

Art and Architecture of Kazakhstan

The nomadic way of life did not lend itself to the construction of architectural monuments, and thus Central Asia’s ancient cultural centers, full of architectural grandeur, were located south of Kazakh lands. Southern Kazakhstan, however, is home to a number of important Islamic buildings, including the Arystanbab Mosque (built in the 12th century), located near the ancient city of Otrar and the villages of Talapty and Kogam; the Khoja Akhmed Yasavi Mausoleum (14th century), in the city of Türkistan; and the Aisha-Bibi Mausoleum (10th century), in the city of Taraz. Many new mosques have been built since independence. In the new capital, Astana, buildings were constructed or renovated specifically for the government’s move there in 1997; these include a modern complex in the city’s main square that serves as the government headquarters. The cities of Kazakhstan also contain examples of Russian architecture, such as the Zenkov Cathedral (built in 1904) in Almaty. The architecture of the Soviet period mostly took the form of drab, functional buildings.

Traditional Kazakh folk arts continue to be produced as an expression of cultural identity. Kazakhs are known for their handmade textiles, especially colorful felt and wool carpets. The carpets were traditionally used to decorate the floors and walls of yurts, and they were considered a sign of wealth. Kazakhs also make embroidered clothes and silver jewelry.

Music in Kazakhstan

Vocal music is an important part of Kazakh life. Performers called aqyns carry on a tradition developed centuries ago by traveling storytelling musicians, who gave dramatic recitations of verse tales and epic poems in the form of song. Recitals by aqyns, and contests between them, continue to be popular and important events. Kazakhstan also has small ensembles of musicians who perform traditional Kazakh melodies using instruments such as the two-stringed dombyra (similar to a lute) and the three-stringed kobiz (like a viola).

Theaters in Kazakhstan’s cities offer opera and symphony performances. These musical traditions originated in Europe and reached Kazakhstan by way of Russia. During the Soviet period, the European musical style was emphasized in musical academies. The Soviet government generally did not promote an appreciation for the complex melodies of traditional Kazakh music.

Literature in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has a small body of national literature, most of it recent in origin. Until the 19th century, the oral epics of the traveling aqyns formed the Kazakhs’ main literary tradition. Abay Ibrahim Kunanbayev, a poet of the late 19th century, is widely regarded as the father of Kazakh literature. During the reformist period of the early 20th century, before the Soviet imposition of socialist realism, several Kazakh authors developed a modernist body of Kazakh writing. Aqmet Baytursunov, an author and newspaper editor, is credited with leading this literary advancement. For their activism in cultural politics, these authors were imprisoned in the 1930s during Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s brutal purges, which targeted leading intellectuals among others (see Great Purge). The best-known Kazakh literary figure of the Soviet period was Mukhtar Auezov, a playwright and novelist.

Libraries and Museums in Kazakhstan

The largest library collections in Kazakhstan are held by the Scientific and Technical Library of Kazakhstan, the Central Library of the Kazakh Academy of Sciences, and the National Library of Kazakhstan, all in Almaty. Other large libraries are affiliated with the state universities in Almaty and Qaraghandy. Museums include the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan and the A. Kasteyev Kazakh State Art Museum, both located in Almaty.


The economy of Kazakhstan is largely based on its extensive natural resources. Kazakhstan’s vast steppes support wheat farms and livestock grazing. Abundant fossil fuel and other mineral resources lie beneath the land. Heavy industry was developed to support the extraction of these mineral reserves, giving the country a relatively diversified economy. In the 1990s the service sector increased in importance, due to an increase in retail outlets and financial services. In 2007 the gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of goods and services produced in the country, was $104.9 billion. Services (including education, health care, and retail trade) produced 53.3 percent of GDP, industry (including mining, manufacturing, and construction) produced 41 percent, and agriculture produced 6 percent.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Kazakh economy was based primarily on nomadic agriculture. The country underwent a rapid transformation during the Soviet period. Large sections of the northern steppes were converted into state farms, and some industry was introduced. Soviet planning also tightly tied the region to Russia. Most communication and transportation routes led through Russia, complicating Kazakhstan’s transition to an independent economy following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The economy of Kazakhstan declined precipitously following independence. The GDP immediately fell by more than half, as economic decline throughout the former Soviet Union resulted in plummeting regional trade. The economy continued to decline through most of the 1990s. Austerity measures began to bring Kazakhstan’s skyrocketing inflation under control in 1995, but the country faced a severe balance-of-payments problem due to its massive foreign debt. The growing fiscal crisis came to a head in 1999. That year, the government implemented an emergency program that included massive reductions in government jobs. Helped by growing regional demand and market prices for Kazakhstan’s products, the economy significantly improved in 2000. The government has remained committed to the transition to a free-market economy, although reforms have proceeded slowly. For example, it implemented several phases of mass privatization, with the goal of transferring the majority of state-owned enterprises and farms to the private sector. The government also opened the economy to foreign investment, which has tended to focus on the extraction and export of the country’s large petroleum and gas reserves.

Kazakhstan is home to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the leading space center of the former USSR. During the Soviet period the complex was operated almost exclusively by residents of Russia and created very little benefit for the Kazakh economy. Following independence, the facility was leased to Russia.

Agriculture of Kazakhstan

Before 1920 agriculture consisted primarily of herding livestock on the country’s expansive grass-covered plains. Wool, meat, milk, and other livestock products are still leading agricultural commodities, but the nomadic lifestyle of the herder has almost completely disappeared. During the Soviet period crop cultivation was greatly expanded, due in part to widespread mechanization and the construction of large-scale irrigation projects. Kazakhstan is a major producer of wheat, which is grown primarily in the north. Other crops include rice and cotton, which are grown on irrigated lands in the south. In 2003 the government of Kazakhstan passed a land reform bill that allows for private land ownership for the first time in the country. Opponents of the law voiced concern that it would benefit wealthy individuals who could afford to purchase large tracts of land, rather than farmers who work the land.

Mining in Kazakhstan

Mining is the leading branch of industry in Kazakhstan. The republic contains large reserves of tungsten, lead, copper, manganese, iron ore, gold, chrome, and zinc. It also possesses great quantities of coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The value of mineral extraction increased substantially in the 1990s. The increase is attributed to private investment, which has enabled the sector to benefit from new efficiency-boosting technologies and processes.

Kazakhstan contains two of the world’s largest oil fields: the Tengiz field, located on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, and the offshore Kashagan field. The Tengiz field was first discovered in 1979, but it remained undeveloped until 1993. The Kashagan field was discovered in 2000 and is believed to contain reserves exceeding those of Tengiz. The country’s largest known gas reserves are also located near the Caspian Sea, at the Karachaganak field. Foreign investment has been key to development of the fields and their distribution routes. The Caspian Pipeline Consortium was formed in 1993 to address the lack of viable oil and gas pipelines from landlocked Kazakhstan. The consortium involves international oil companies and the governments of Kazakhstan, Russia, and Oman. In 2001 the consortium opened a new pipeline from the Tengiz field to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Domestic use of the country’s oil and gas is hindered by the lack of pipelines connecting producing areas in the west with consuming areas in the populous southeast and industrial north. The country therefore exports gas and oil through Russia and imports its energy needs from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Manufacturing in Kazakhstan

Manufacturing is also an important industrial branch in Kazakhstan. Much of the country’s manufacturing is centered on refining ores, creating petrochemicals, and processing agricultural products. Other sectors include heavy engineering works, which produce machinery and machine tools, and light manufacturing such as the production of textiles.

Energy in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s distribution system for electricity is split into two networks: the Russian network in the north and the Central Asian network in the south. A legacy of the country’s years as a part of the Soviet Union, this inefficient arrangement forces the country to import electricity for regional needs even though it produces more than enough to meet demand. In 2006 some 89 percent of electricity was generated in thermal plants, nearly all of which burned coal. Hydroelectric facilities produced 11 percent of the electricity. Kazakhstan’s only nuclear power plant, which began operating in 1973 at Aktau on the Caspian Sea coast, was permanently shut down in 1999 due to safety concerns.

Currency in Kazakhstan

In 1993 Kazakhstan issued its own currency, the tenge (122.60 tenge equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The tenge can be freely exchanged with the currencies of other countries. The previous official currency, the Kazakh ruble, was a parallel currency to the Russian ruble and was printed in Russia.

Foreign Trade in Kazakhstan

In 2007 exports earned $46.9 billion and imports cost $32.8 billion. Chief exports were crude petroleum, refined and unrefined metals, coal, and cereals. Imports included machinery, vehicles, consumer goods, foodstuffs, and natural gas. Although Kazakhstan conducts trade with a diverse number of countries, Russia is by far the largest single trading partner.

Since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has become more integrated into the world economy while also seeking closer economic integration with other former Soviet republics. In 1994 Kazakhstan signed a partnership accord that established economic contacts with the European Union (EU). Also that year, Kazakhstan formed a trilateral economic and defense union with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan; with the addition of Tajikistan in 1998, the four nations formed the Central Asian Economic Union (renamed the Central Asian Economic Forum in 2001). In 1996 Kazakhstan formed a customs union with Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia to reduce or eliminate barriers to trade; in 1998 Tajikistan also became a member. In 2000 these five countries broadened the scope of the customs union by founding the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) to coordinate trade policies and promote economic interaction. Kazakhstan is also a member of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), which promotes economic cooperation between Islamic states.


In 1993 Kazakhstan promulgated its first post-Soviet constitution, which officially established Kazakhstan as an independent republic with a democratic system of government. In a referendum held in August 1995, voters approved a new constitution that provided for substantial changes in government, including the creation of a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature. Constitutional amendments that were enacted in 1998 lengthened the terms of office for the president and the members of the legislature. All citizens aged 18 and older may vote.

Executive of Kazakhstan

The president of Kazakhstan is head of state. The president is directly elected to a seven-year term. The president appoints a prime minister, with the approval of the legislature, to head the government. The president also officially confirms the prime minister’s recommended appointments to the Council of Ministers. The constitution gives extensive powers to the president, including the rights to rule by decree and to dissolve the legislature under certain conditions. The constitution also prohibits the president from being officially affiliated with a political party.

Legislature of Kazakhstan

The legislature of Kazakhstan comprises two chambers, the Senate (upper house) and the Majlis (lower house), with a combined total of 116 members. Members of the lower house serve five-year terms, while members of the upper house serve six-year terms. Of the 39 members of the Senate, 32 are elected by regional assemblies (special electoral colleges comprised of members of local councils), and 7 are appointed by the president. All 77 members of the Majlis are directly elected.

Judiciary in Kazakhstan

The highest court in Kazakhstan is the Supreme Court, whose members are nominated by the president and chosen by the Senate. Supreme Court judges are appointed for life. Under the 1995 constitution, the Constitutional Court that had been established in 1991 was replaced by the Constitutional Council. The council rules on all constitutional matters, but its decisions are subject to a presidential right of veto. The council is composed of seven members: three appointed by the president and four appointed by the legislature.

Local Government of Kazakhstan

For purposes of local government, Kazakhstan is divided into 14 administrative regions, called oblystar in Kazakh and oblasts in Russian. These units are administered by councils (in Kazakh, maslikhat) that are directly elected for four-year terms. The councils implement national policies on the local level and coordinate these policies with the individual needs of their particular region. Although the councils wield considerable authority, the system ensures that ultimate power lies with the national government. The president of the republic appoints the senior administrators (akims) of each region. The akims head the councils and can override council decisions. Furthermore, the president of the republic may cancel or suspend acts of the akims.

Political Parties of Kazakhstan

Parties that support President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since 1990, dominate the parliament of Kazakhstan. After the 1999 parliamentary elections, the dominant faction in government was formed by Otan (Fatherland), the Civic Party of Kazakhstan, and the Agrarian Party of Kazakhstan. Reformist factions within the government have tended to represent regional and business interests. Political opposition parties are generally small, poorly funded, and weak. A law introduced in July 2002 required all parties to reregister under new rules, including a membership requirement of at least 50,000 (increased from 3,000), effectively disqualifying most opposition parties from participating in parliamentary elections. A notable exception is the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) Democratic Party, a reformist party formed in 2002 by political insiders. Other opposition parties include the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK), which was banned in 1991 but then legalized again in 1994; and the Azamat (Citizen) Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, a small left-leaning reformist party. Extreme Russian nationalist groups have been crushed, but moderate groups representing Kazakhstan’s large Russian minority are tolerated.

Social Services in Kazakhstan

During the Soviet period, Kazakhstan’s social welfare system was funded by the Soviet central government. In the early 1990s the government of a newly independent Kazakhstan introduced pension, social insurance, and unemployment funds. The new government aimed to make its social welfare funds largely self-financing. The pension and social insurance funds do not receive state funding; instead they are financed entirely by employer and employee contributions. The state does finance the unemployment fund, which is intended to offset the increase in unemployment caused by economic reforms.

Kazakhstan’s health-care system is limited in terms of facilities and coverage. Although hospitals exist in all of the country’s rural areas and are staffed by well-trained doctors, the quality of care is limited by a lack of technology and medicines. Any future expansion of health care in rural areas will be costly due to the large size of the country. The government has sought foreign investment in the health sector.

Defense of Kazakhstan

Prior to independence, Kazakhstan had no armed forces separate from those of the Soviet Union. In 1992 Kazakhstan began to establish a national defense force. In 1996 a small navy was established. By 2006 the country had an army of 46,800 personnel, an air force of 19,000, and a navy of 100. The armed forces also include three paramilitary units—the Republican Guard, security troops of the Ministry of the Interior, and border guards. A two-year term of military service is mandatory for all males when they reach the age of 18.

International Organizations in Kazakhstan

In 1991 Kazakhstan joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose military and political alliance of 12 former Soviet republics. Kazakhstan is also a member of the United Nations (UN); the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); and the Partnership for Peace program of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), established to provide for limited military cooperation between NATO and non-NATO states.


The region that is now Kazakhstan was settled by Turkic tribes beginning in about the 8th century AD. In the 13th century the area was incorporated into the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan. Upon Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his empire was divided among his descendants. Most of present-day Kazakhstan became part of the territory ruled by his son Chagadai, but the western and most of the northern parts were included in the far-reaching empire of the Golden Horde established by Batu Khan, Genghis’ grandson.

By the end of the 15th century, the Kazakhs emerged as a distinctive group, created by the intermingling of Mongol and Turkic peoples. In the early 16th century the Kazakh tribes united to form a great nomadic empire under the warlord Kasim Khan. The Kazakhs soon became divided, however, with the tribes fighting among themselves. As a result of these internecine struggles, three major groupings emerged among the Kazakhs—the Great Horde (Ulu Zhuz) in the southeast portion of present-day Kazakhstan, the Middle Horde (Orta Zhuz) in the central steppe region, and the Little Horde (Kishi Zhuz) between the Aral Sea and the Ural River in the west. Each horde was composed of a number of tribes that were collectively ruled by a khan. The khan Haq Nazar succeeded in uniting the Kazakh hordes between 1538 and 1580, but by the 17th century the Kazakhs were again fragmented. In the 1680s the Kazakhs began to fight a series of wars against invaders from the east called Oirots, a group of four Mongol tribes, including Dzungars, that sought to conquer Kazakh lands. Although the Kazakh hordes united again for purposes of war, Dzungar invasions completely devastated the Kazakhs by 1720. This period is remembered in Kazakh history as the “Great Disaster.”

Russian Conquest

Meanwhile, Cossacks (frontier settlers) from Russia had begun to settle along the Ural River in the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century a formal relationship had developed between the Cossacks and the Russian imperial government, in which the Cossacks protected the Russian frontier in exchange for title to land and local autonomy. In the early 18th century the Cossacks established a line of settlements and fortifications across the Kazakhs’ northern boundary in order to defend the Russian frontier, which had expanded eastward into Siberia. During the Dzungar invasions, the Kazakhs appealed to Russia for protection and military supplies. Although Russia was, at the time, unwilling to become involved, the Kazakh hordes subsequently declared allegiance to Russia in return for Russian protection. In 1731 the Little Horde signed an oath of allegiance, followed by the Middle Horde in 1740 and the Great Horde in 1742, although part of this horde was subject to the Qing dynasty of China between 1757 and 1781. The khans of each horde promised to protect Russian borders adjacent to Kazakh lands, to defend Russian trade caravans in the steppes, to provide troops when needed, and to pay tribute to Russia. Russia gradually came to dominate local affairs, limiting the powers of the Kazakh khans and imposing the Russian administrative system. As Russian domination increased, the power of the khans eroded. In the 1790s the Kazakhs revolted against Russian rule, but their uprisings were ultimately ineffectual and were followed by Russia’s decision to abolish Kazakh autonomy. The Kazakh hordes lost their independence in succession—the Middle Horde in 1822, the Little Horde in 1824, and the Great Horde in 1848—and Kazakh lands were absorbed into the Russian Empire.

In the 1860s Russian forces mounted a large-scale military offensive southward in an attempt to secure free access to Khiva and other trade centers of southern Central Asia. By the 1880s Russian forces had conquered all of Central Asia. In present-day Kazakhstan, Cossack outposts developed into peasant settlements as Russians and other Slavs migrated to the steppes in increasingly large numbers. In the period between 1906 and 1914, the influx of settlers averaged more than 140,000 people per year.

The settlements severely restricted the Kazakhs’ traditional nomadic routes, and friction developed between the Kazakhs and the new settlers. Tensions were exacerbated by a June 1916 governmental decree recruiting Kazakhs and other Central Asians into workers’ battalions. The Central Asian peoples revolted against the decree in what, by August, became a widespread and bloody rebellion. The Kazakhs directed their wrath against Russian settlers, killing thousands, while settlers in some areas formed armed groups that massacred the local population. During the revolt, which continued until the end of the year in some areas, about 300,000 Kazakhs fled to the Xinjiang Province of China.

Russian imperial rule ended with the Russian Revolution of 1917, and Bolsheviks (militant socialists) seized control of the Russian government. A Kazakh nationalist party, Alash Orda, proclaimed the autonomy of the Kazakh people in December 1917. Alash Orda leaders then established a Kazakh government, which was divided into eastern and western administrative zones due to the immensity of the Kazakh lands.

Soviet Period

Alash Orda leaders initially sided against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). Some Kazakh leaders appealed to the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the Whites for weapons to help fight the Bolshevik forces. The leader of the Whites, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, refused the request and ordered the suppression of Alash Orda. The Kazakh nationalists then sought compromise with the Bolsheviks and received assurances from them that Kazakh autonomy would be maintained. In 1920 an area roughly corresponding to present-day Kazakhstan (borders were later redrawn) was designated an autonomous socialist republic. The Kazakh national elite, composed mostly of Alash Orda leaders, participated in local government. In the early 1920s the Kazakh population suffered a devastating famine in which 1 million to 3 million people died from starvation.

In December 1922 the Bolsheviks founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Kazakhstan was incorporated into the USSR as the Kirgiz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). It kept that name until 1925, when it was renamed the Kazakh ASSR. In 1929 the southeastern city of Almaty was designated the capital of the republic. In 1936 the Kazakh ASSR was upgraded to the status of a constituent republic, or Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), of the Soviet Union. In 1937 the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), was established.

In 1928 the Soviet authorities removed all Kazakh leaders from the local government. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin then instituted a rigorous program to collectivize agriculture, in which the state confiscated and combined all arable land into large collective and state farms. Kazakh culture and way of life were virtually destroyed as a result of the Soviet program to forcibly settle Kazakhs on these farms. Kazakh nomads slaughtered their livestock rather than turn it over to the Soviet authorities. More than 1 million Kazakhs died as a result of starvation, and many more fled to China to escape the forced settlement. In the late 1930s, during Stalin’s purges of Soviet society, the Kazakh national elite was brutally and systematically eliminated (see Great Purge). During World War II (1939-1945), Stalin ordered large-scale deportations of ethnic groups he deemed untrustworthy to the more remote regions of Central Asia. Many of those deported were sent to the Kazakh SSR, including Germans from the Volga River area of Russia, Crimean Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula (in present-day Ukraine), and Koreans from the Soviet Far East.

In the 1950s Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched the Virgin Lands program, a scheme to bring extensive tracts of land in southwestern Siberia and the northern part of the Kazakh SSR under cultivation. The program was supervised in the Kazakh republic by Khrushchev’s protégé, Leonid Brezhnev, who in the 1960s succeeded Khrushchev as Soviet leader. Although the program was flawed, it succeeded in rapidly transforming the northern grassy plains of the Kazakh republic into an agricultural area specializing in wheat and other grains. Also during the 1950s the Soviet authorities established a space center called the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the east central part of the Kazakh republic. In addition, the Soviets created nuclear testing sites near Semipalatinsk (now Semey) in the east and huge industrial sites in the north and east. A new wave of Slavic immigrants flooded into the Kazakh republic to provide a skilled labor force for the new industries. Russians surpassed Kazakhs as the republic’s largest ethnic group, a demographic trend that held until the 1980s.

In 1986 the Soviet authorities in Moscow installed a Russian official, Gennady Kolbin, as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Thousands of Kazakhs rioted in Almaty to protest the ouster of Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a Kazakh official who had held the post since the 1960s. The Soviet leadership had replaced Kunayev in an attempt to eliminate the corruption associated with his government. Exactly how many people died in the riot is still unclear.

Kolbin was a supporter of the extensive political and economic reforms that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had begun to implement in the mid-1980s. In 1989 Kolbin was transferred to Moscow, and Soviet authorities appointed Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, a prominent Kazakh official, in his place. In March 1990 the Supreme Soviet (legislature of the Soviet Union) elected Nazarbayev to the newly established post of president of the Kazakh republic. Nazarbayev ran unopposed in the republic’s first democratic presidential elections, held in December 1991, and won 95 percent of the vote. Kazakhstan declared its independence later that month, shortly before the USSR broke apart.

Nazarbayev Presidency

After Kazakhstan became independent, former Communist officials continued to dominate the government and the legislature, which was renamed the Supreme Kenges. In 1993 Kazakhstan ratified its first post-Soviet constitution, and in March 1994 the republic held its first free multiparty legislative elections since independence. President Nazarbayev’s supporters emerged as the strongest force in the new 177-member legislature. The People’s Unity Party (PUP), a centrist party led by Nazarbayev, won 33 seats, and individual candidates nominated by Nazarbayev won 42 seats. Independent candidates, who were overwhelmingly supporters of Nazarbayev, won 59 seats. International observers monitoring the election reported a number of irregularities, as a number of candidates were allegedly prevented from registering.

Tensions between Nazarbayev and the legislature flared in early 1995. The legislature refused to adopt a new draft budget prepared by the executive branch of government, although Nazarbayev expressed his support for the budget proposals. In February the Constitutional Court proclaimed the previous legislative elections illegitimate, and in March Nazarbayev used this ruling to dissolve the legislature. More than 100 legislators refused to disband and asked for an international inquiry. Nazarbayev effectively began ruling the country by decree until new elections could be held. In a referendum held in April, voters approved the extension of Nazarbayev’s term, which was set to expire in 1996, until 2000. Meanwhile, Nazarbayev ordered the drafting of a new constitution. In a referendum held in August, voters approved the new constitution, which reconfigured the legislature into two chambers with fewer members. Elections to the new legislature were held in December, with runoff elections in early 1996. Nazarbayev’s supporters again won the dominant share of seats.

Kazakhstan’s new constitution also granted extensive powers to the president, including the right to rule by decree and to dissolve the legislature. As Nazarbayev solidified his hold on power, his style of rule became increasingly authoritarian. At first his decrees focused on stifling the activities of more radical opposition groups, specifically Russian and Kazakh nationalists and fundamentalist Muslims. For example, he outlawed activities that might foment ethnic tensions, such as demonstrations organized by Kazakh nationalists who called for the expulsion of all non-Muslims from Kazakhstan. His supporters credited him with maintaining order in the country during the difficult economic and social transitions following the breakup of the USSR.

However, the government soon began to extend restrictions on free speech and free assembly to other groups. Following a number of strikes in the mid-1990s by employees of public-sector firms, which were chronically late in paying wages, the legislature passed a law in 1996 considerably restricting workers’ right to strike. In addition, Nazarbayev became increasingly intolerant of criticism of his programs in the popular press. Independent journalists have faced prosecution, including imprisonment, and the government routinely censors the media. Nazarbayev has also used intimidation and slander campaigns to silence his political rivals within the government. In addition, a law passed in 2002 severely limits the ability of political opposition parties to participate in legislative elections.

Nazarbayev overwhelmingly won a second term as president of Kazakhstan in January 1999. The election, originally scheduled for 2000, was moved up by more than a year, giving opposition candidates little time to prepare. International observers criticized the election for failing to meet democratic standards. In 2000 the legislature passed a law granting Nazarbayev extraordinary powers and privileges, which are to remain in force even after he ceases to be president.

In December 2005 Nazarbayev easily won reelection to a third term in office. International election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, said the election failed to meet democratic standards due to pro-government bias in the media, restrictions on freedom of the press and assembly, voter intimidation, and irregularities in election-day balloting. Official election results showed Nazarbayev winning 91 percent of the vote. In 2007 the legislature passed a bill allowing the president to remain in office for an unlimited number of terms.

Nazarbayev again won parliamentary elections in August 2007. The Nur Otan Party, headed by Nazarbayev, won all contested seats of the lower house of parliament with 88 percent of the vote. The OSCE again cited failures to meet international standards, including a lack of transparency and procedural problems with vote counting.

Other Developments

In April 1995 Kazakhstan, which had held a portion of the nuclear arsenal of the former USSR, completed the transfer of its nuclear weapons to Russia. The transfer was part of Kazakhstan’s commitment to becoming a nonnuclear state, and it fulfilled its obligations under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which the country ratified in 1992.

In 1997 the capital of Kazakhstan officially changed from Almaty, in southeastern Kazakhstan, to Aqmola (now Astana), a small city in the north. Almaty’s vulnerability to earthquakes and Astana’s better transportation links were cited as reasons for the move, although international observers speculated that the move also was designed to allow for more government influence in the Russian-dominated north.

As president, Nazarbayev promoted close economic and political ties between Kazakhstan and Russia, despite opposition by Kazakh nationalists. In 1996 Nazarbayev and Russian officials agreed to cooperate in the fields of energy and railroad transportation. That same year the Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) ratified a 20-year Russian lease of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in south central Kazakhstan. In 1998 the facility began to serve as the main launch site for components of the International Space Station (ISS), an international venture involving primarily Russia and the United States.

After nearly a decade of economic decline and hardship, Kazakhstan’s economic outlook had significantly improved by 2001, ten years after the collapse of the USSR. The country’s vast mineral resources had drawn massive foreign investment in the mining and energy sectors. In just a few years, Kazakhstan doubled its oil production. However, exports were hindered by the country’s landlocked location, requiring it to form joint ventures with other countries and international corporations. One of these ventures, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, opened a new pipeline in 2001 from Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. The government of Kazakhstan has created a national fund to set aside some of its oil wealth for future generations. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the flow of oil will soon benefit the general population, which is desperately in need of improved education, healthcare, and other social services.

© The Globe Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. Distributed by ASThemesWorld