The original nomadic Turkic tribes inhabiting the region had a culture that featured the Central Asian epics, ritual songs, and legends. These Kazakh groups were conquered by the Mongols in the 13th cent. and ruled by various khanates until the Russian conquest (1730–1840). The 19th cent. saw the growth of the Kazakh intelligentsia. A written literature strongly influenced by Russian culture was then developed.
In 1916 the Kazakhs rebelled against Russian domination and were in the process of establishing a Western-style state at the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but by 1920 the region was under the control of the Red Army. Organized as the Kirghiz Autonomous SSR in 1920, it was renamed the Kazakh Autonomous SSR in 1925 and became a constituent republic in 1936. During the Stalin era, collectivization was instituted and millions of Kazakhs were forced to resettle in the region's south in order to strengthen Russian rule. In the early 1960s parts of republic saw extensive agricultural development as the Virgin Lands Territory.
Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union on Dec. 16, 1991, and the new nation became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Nursultan Nazarbayev became the country's first president and soon began a gradual movement toward privatization of the economy. In 1994, Kazakhstan signed a series of security agreements with the United States, in which the latter would take control of enriched uranium usable for nuclear weapons and aid Kazakhstan in removing extant nuclear weapons, closing missile silos, converting biological-weapons-production centers, and destroying its nuclear test ranges. These projects were financed by the United States, and most of the work was completed by 2005.
Elections in 1994 gave a parliamentary majority to allies of Nazarbayev, but they resisted his reform plans. In Apr., 1995, after the 1994 election results were dismissed as invalid by the constitutional court, he suspended parliament and ruled by decree. New elections in Dec., 1995, gave his allies a majority in parliament but were criticized by the opposition and others as flawed. On the basis of referendums held in 1995 and 1996 that were denounced by the opposition, Nazarbayev's term in office was extended to the year 2000 and his powers were increased. In an election rescheduled to Jan., 1999, Nazarbayev was reelected after disqualifying the major opposition candidate. Later the same year, the governing Otan [fatherland] and its allies won a majority in parliament.
Kazakhstan, along with Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, signed an economic cooperation pact with Russia in 1996. In 1997 the capital was moved from Almaty to the more centrally located Aqmola (subsequently renamed Astana; now Nur-Sultan). In 1999, as Kazakhstan's economy worsened, the government agreed to sell some of its stake in the vast Tengiz oil field. In Sept., 2003, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine signed an agreement to create a common economic space. It was later agreed (2009) to establish the customs union in 2010, but Ukraine was not a party to that accord. An agreement to establish the Eurasian Economic Union, to increase economic coordination and integration, was signed by Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia in May, 2014.
Parliamentary elections in 2004 were criticized by foreign observers as biased toward the government, and the main moderate opposition party accused the government of tampering with the vote. Following the collapse of the government in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 2005, the parliament passed a series of repressive measures intended to prevent a similar popular revolt in Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev was reelected in Dec., 2005, but the campaign and balloting was called undemocratic by European observers.
The killing of a leading opposition figure in February (the second such killing since Nov., 2005) provoked an outcry from opposition politicians and media. The government announced that a senior senate adminstrative official had confessed to ordering the February murder, and that members of a special forces unit had been arrested for carrying it out. Both murdered men were former government officials who had accused the president's family of corruption, and many opponents of the government believed that the accused senate official was a scapegoat. The official and the alleged assassin, who recanted their confessions during the trial, and eight others were convicted in Aug., 2006. In September Otan merged with three other parties, including one headed by the president's eldest daughter, to form the Nur Otan [light of the fatherland] party.
Constitutional amendments adopted in 2007 removed the term limits on President Nazarbayev, decreased the length of the president's term, and increased the number of representatives in the parliament. In May, 2007, the government moved to arrest the president's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, on kidnapping and assault charges involving bank officials. Aliyev, who had long been viewed as an example of nepotism, had been rumored in 2002 of plotting to oust Nazarbayev, and in Feb., 2007, had been demoted from deputy foreign minister to ambassador to Austria. Aliyev had also been critical of the 2007 constitutional changes. Kazakhstan sought, unsuccessfully, his extradition from Austria, and Nazarbayev's daughter divorced him; he was convicted in absentia in 2008 of corruption and plotting to overthrow the government.
Parliamentary elections in Aug., 2007, resulted in all 98 elected seats being won by the ruling Nur Otan party. The largest opposition parties denounced the result as fraudulent, and international observers noted problems with the way votes were counted and questioned the outcome. In June, 2010, the president was named “leader of the nation” by legislation that gave him additional powers (including control over national policies after he retires as president) and protection from prosecution. In 2011, after rejecting a referendum on extending his term until 2020, he called an early presidential election, and the generally popular president was reelected in a landslide. The campaign and voting, however, suffered from significant irregularities.
In Dec., 2011, a half-year strike by oil workers in Zhanaozen, in the southwestern province of Mangystau, led to violence and an uncertain number of deaths when police fired on protesters; demonstrations subsequently spread to other provincial towns including Aqtau (Aktau), the provincial capital. Early parliamentary elections in Jan., 2012, were again won by Nur Otan in a landslide, and again criticized by international observers; the two oppositions parties that won some seats were generally supportive of Nazarbayev.
In a snap presidential election, Nazarbayev was reelected in Apr., 2015, by a landslide; he faced no significant opposition, but there also were indications of ballot stuffing. In Mar., 2016, early parliamentary elections were held, with results similar to the 2012 elections; European observers again criticized the vote for falling short of democratic standards. In Apr.–May, 2016, a plan to lease fallow government-owned agricultural land sparked the first significant demonstrations since 2011, and the government delayed the plan and later postponed it for five years. Constitutional amendments adopted in 2017 distributed some of the president's powers concerning economic and social development to government ministers and legislators.
Nazarbayev resigned as president in Mar., 2019, and was succeeded by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the chairman of the Senate. Nazarbayev remained head of Nur Otan as well as of the country's security council, and the capital was renamed Nur-Sultan to honor him. In June, Tokayev was elected president with 70% of the vote; European observers criticized the election as undemocratic. Tokayev's independence was undermined in October when a presidential decree required that Nazarbayev approve many government leadership appointments made by the president. In Jan., 2021, the Nur Otan party overwhelmingly won the parliamentary elections; the only legal opposition party refused to participate. Protests broke out in early 2022 due to fuel shortages that expanded into calls for more political freedom; an alliance of Russian-backed troops were called in to help quell the rioting.
Sections in this article:
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: CIS and Baltic Political Geography