Kazahkstan: Facts and History

The Bayterek Tower is a Symbol of Kazakhstan

 Anton Petrus / Getty Images

Kazakhstan is nominally a presidential republic, although according to many observers, it was a dictatorship under the previous president. The current president is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the hand-picked successor of former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been in office since before the fall of the Soviet Union and had been accused of regularly rigging elections.

Kazakhstan's parliament has a 39-member senate and a 77-member Majilis, or lower house. Sixty-seven members of the Majilis are popularly elected, though candidates come only from pro-government parties. The parties elect the other 10. Each province and the cities of Astana and Almaty select two senators each; the final seven are appointed by the president.

Kazakhstan has a supreme court with 44 judges, as well as district and appellate courts.

Fast Facts: Kazakhstan

Official Name: Republic of Kazakhstan

Capital: Nur-Sultan

Population: 18,744,548 (2018)

Official Languages: Kazakh, Russian 

Currency: Tenge (KZT)

Form of Government: Presidential republic

Climate: Continental, cold winters and hot summers, arid and semiarid

Total Area: 1,052,085 square miles (2,724,900 square kilometers)

Highest Point: Khan Tangiri Shyngy (Pik Khan-Tengri) at 22,950.5 feet (6,995 meters)

Lowest Point: Vpadina Kaundy at -433 feet (-132 meters)

Population

Kazakhstan's population is estimated at 18,744,548 people as of 2018. Unusually for Central Asia, the majority of Kazakh citizens—54%—live in urban areas.

The largest ethnic group in Kazakhstan is the Kazakhs, who make up 63.1% of the population. Next are the Russians, at 23.7%. Smaller minorities include Uzbeks (2.9%), Ukrainians (2.1%), Uyghurs (1.4%), Tatars (1.3%), Germans (1.1%), and tiny populations of Belarusians, Azeris, Poles, Lithuanians, Koreans, Kurds, Chechens, and Turks.

Languages

The state language of Kazakhstan is Kazakh, a Turkic language spoken by 64.5% of the population. Russian is the official language of business and the lingua franca, or common language, among all ethnic groups.

Kazakh is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, a relic of Russian domination. Nazarbayev had suggested switching to the Latin alphabet but later retracted the suggestion.

Religion

For decades under the Soviets, religion was officially banned. Since independence in 1991, however, religion has made an impressive comeback. Today, only about 3% of the population are nonbelievers.

Of Kazakhstan's citizens, 70% are Muslim, mostly Sunni. Christians, predominantly Russian Orthodox, make up 26.6% of the population, with smaller numbers of Catholics and various Protestant denominations. There are also small numbers of Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, and Baha'i.

Geography

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, at 1,052,085 square miles (2,724,900 square kilometers). One-third of the area is dry steppe land, while much of the rest is grasslands or sandy desert.

Kazakhstan borders on Russia to the north, China to the east, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the west.

The highest point in Kazakhstan is Khan Tangiri Shyngy (Pik Khan-Tengri) at 22,950.5 feet (6,995 meters). The lowest point is Vpadina Kaundy at 433 feet (132 meters) below sea level.

Climate

Kazakhstan has a dry continental climate, meaning that winters are quite cold and summers are warm. Lows can hit -4 F (-20 C) in the winter and snow is common. Summer highs can reach 86 F (30 C), which is mild compared with neighboring countries.

Economy

Kazakhstan's economy is the healthiest among the former Soviet 'Stans, with an estimated 4% annual growth rate for 2017. It has strong service and industrial sectors, and agriculture contributes only 5.4% of GDP.

The per capita GDP of Kazakhstan is $12,800 US. Unemployment is just 5.5%, and 8.2% of the population live below the poverty line.

Kazakhstan exports petroleum products, metals, chemicals, grain, wool, and meat. It imports machinery and food.

The currency of Kazakhstan is the tenge. As of October 2019, 1 tenge = 0.0026 USD.

Early History

The area that is now Kazakhstan was settled by humans tens of thousands of years ago and has been dominated by a variety of nomadic peoples. DNA evidence suggests that the horse might have first been domesticated in this region; apples also evolved in Kazakhstan and then were spread to other areas by human cultivators.

In historic times, such peoples as the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Kyrgyz, the Gokturks, the Uyghurs, and the Karluks have ruled the steppes of Kazakhstan. In 1206, Genghis Khan and the Mongols conquered the area, ruling it until 1368. The Kazakh people came together under the leadership of Janybek Khan and Kerey Khan in 1465, exerting control over what is now Kazakhstan, calling themselves the Kazakh Khanate.

The Kazakh Khanate lasted until 1847. Previously, during the early 16th century, the Kazakhs had the foresight to ally themselves with Babur, who went on to found the Mughal Empire in India. By early in the 17th century, the Kazakhs frequently found themselves at war with the powerful Khanate of Bukhara, to the south. The two khanates fought over control of Samarkand and Tashkent, two of the major Silk Road cities of Central Asia.

Russian 'Protection'

By the mid-18th century, the Kazakhs were facing encroachment from czarist Russia to the north and Qing China in the east. To fend off the threatening Kokand Khanate, the Kazakhs accepted Russian "protection" in 1822. The Russians ruled through puppets until the death of Kenesary Khan in 1847 and then exerted direct power over Kazakhstan.

The Kazakhs resisted their colonization by the Russians. Between 1836 and 1838, the Kazakhs rose up under the leadership of Makhambet Utemisuly and Isatay Taymanuly, but they were unable to throw off Russian domination. An even more serious attempt led by Eset Kotibaruli turned into an anti-colonial war that lasted from 1847, when the Russians imposed direct control, through 1858. Small groups of nomadic Kazakh warriors fought with the Russian Cossacks and with other Kazakhs allied with the czar's forces. The war cost hundreds of Kazakh lives, civilians as well as warriors, but Russia made concessions to Kazakh demands in the 1858 peace settlement.

In the 1890s, the Russian government began to settle thousands of Russian farmers on Kazakh land, breaking up the pastures and interfering with traditional nomadic patterns of life. By 1912, more than 500,000 Russian farms dotted Kazakh lands, displacing the nomads and causing mass starvation. In 1916, Czar Nicholas II ordered the conscription of all Kazakh and other Central Asian men to fight in World War I. This order sparked the Central Asian Revolt, in which thousands of Kazakhs and other Central Asians were killed and tens of thousands fled to western China or Mongolia.

Communist Takeover

In the chaos following the Communist takeover of Russia in 1917, the Kazakhs seized their chance to assert their independence, establishing the short-lived Alash Orda, an autonomous government. However, the Soviets retook control of Kazakhstan in 1920. Five years later, they set up the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakh SSR), with its capital at Almaty. It became a non-autonomous Soviet republic in 1936.

Under Russian leader Joseph Stalin's rule, the Kazakhs and other Central Asians suffered horrifically. Stalin imposed forced villagization on the remaining nomads in 1936 and collectivized agriculture. As a result, more than a million Kazakhs died of starvation and 80% of their livestock perished. Once again, those who were able tried to escape into civil-war ravaged China.

During World War II, the Soviets used Kazakhstan as a dumping ground for potentially subversive minorities such as Germans from the western edge of Soviet Russia, Crimean Tatars, Muslims from the Caucasus, and Poles. What little food the Kazakhs had was stretched once more as they tried to feed these starving newcomers. Approximately half the deportees died of starvation or disease.

After World War II, Kazakhstan became the least neglected of the Central Asian Soviet Republics. Ethnic Russians flooded in to work in industry, and Kazakhstan's coal mines helped supply energy to all of the USSR. The Russians also built one of their major space program sites, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev Gains Power

In September 1989, Nazarbayev, an ethnic Kazakh politician, became the general secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, replacing an ethnic Russian. On December 16, 1991, the Republic of Kazakhstan declared its independence from the crumbling remains of the Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan has a growing economy, thanks in large part to its reserves of fossil fuels. It has privatized much of the economy, but Nazarbayev maintained a KGB-style police state and was accused of rigging elections during his long, five-term tenure. While he was widely expected to run again in 2020, in March 2019 Nazarbayev resigned, and Senate Chairman Tokayev was tapped to take over as president for the remainder of his term. On June 9, 2019, early elections were held to avoid "political uncertainty" and Tokayev was re-elected with 71% of the vote.

The Kazakh people have come a long way since 1991, but they have some distance to go before they are truly free of the after-effects of Russian colonization.