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Facts & Figures
Official Name: Republic of Kazakhstan
President: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (2019)
Prime Minister: Alihan Smaiylov (2022)
Land area: 1,049,150 sq mi (2,717,300 sq km); total area: 1,049,150 sq mi (2,717,300 sq km)
Population (2022 est.): 19,332,410 (growth rate: 1.05%); birth rate: 18.51/1000; infant mortality rate: 8.9/1000; life expectancy: 71.37
Capital (2020 est.): Astana 1,136,008
Largest city: Almaty 2,147,233 million
Monetary unit: Tenge
National name: Qazaqstan Respublikasy
Languages: Kazak (Qazaq, state language) 64%; Russian (official, used in everyday business) 95% (2001 est.)
Ethnicity/race: Kazakh (Qazaq) 70.4%, Russian 15.5%, Uzbek 3.2%, Ukrainian 2.0%, Uighur 1.5%, German 1.2%, Tatar 1.1%, other 5.1% (2021)
Religions: Islam 69.3%, Russian Orthodox 17.2%, other 0.2%, no religion/response 13.3%
National Holiday: Independence Day, December 16
Literacy rate: 99.7% (2009 est.)
Currency: Kazakhstani Tenge (KZT)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP $190.8 billion (2021); $10,041 (2021). Real growth rate: 4%. Inflation: 16% (2022 average). Unemployment: 4.9%. Arable land: 10.9%. Agriculture: grain (mostly spring wheat), cotton; livestock. Labor force: 9.247 million; industry 20.98%, agriculture 14,86%, services 64.16% (2019). Industries: oil, coal, iron ore, manganese, chromite, lead, zinc, copper, titanium, bauxite, gold, silver, phosphates, sulfur, iron and steel; tractors and other agricultural machinery, electric motors, construction materials. Natural resources: major deposits of petroleum, natural gas, coal, iron ore, manganese, chrome ore, nickel, cobalt, copper, molybdenum, lead, zinc, bauxite, gold, uranium. Exports: $60.62 billion (2022 est.): oil and oil products, natural gas, ferrous metals, chemicals, machinery, grain, wool, meat, and coal. Imports: $46.03 billion (2022 est.): machinery and equipment, metal products, foodstuffs. Major trading partners: China, Italy, Russia, Netherlands, Uzbekistan, Switzerland, and Austria (2022 ).
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 3.275 million (2019); mobile cellular: 24.29 million (2019). Broadcast media: state owns nearly all radio and TV transmission facilities and operates national TV and radio networks; nearly all nationwide TV networks are wholly or partly owned by the government; some former state-owned media outlets have been privatized and are controlled by the former press secretary Berik Uali, who heads the Khabar Agency that runs multiple TV and radio stations; a number of privately-owned TV stations; households with satellite dishes have access to foreign media; a small number of commercial radio stations operating along with state-run radio stations (2008). Internet Service Providers (ISPs): 67,464 (2012). Internet users: 15.47 million (2021).
Transportation: Railways: total: 16,060 km (2022). Roadways: total: 97,418 km; paved: 87,140 km; unpaved: 10,278 km (2020). Waterways: 4,000 km (on the Ertis (Irtysh) River (80%) and Syr Darya (Syrdariya) River) (2022). Ports and terminals: Aqtau (Shevchenko), Atyrau (Gur'yev), Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk), Pavlodar, Semey (Semipalatinsk). Airports: 175 (2022).
- Kazakhstan Profile
- News and Current Events
The Republic of Kazakhstan is located in the center of the Eurasian continent and is bounded by Russia in the north, China in the east, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the south, and part of Turkmenistan in the west. The Caspian Sea also makes up 1,422 km of Kazakhstan’s border in the west. Kazakhstan is about four times the size of Texas and is the largest country by surface area in Central Asia.
The territory is mostly steppe with vast hilly plains and plateaus. Forests cover only 5% of the land and around three-quarters of the rest is classified as semi-desert or desert. Part of the Kyzylkum Desert, the 15th biggest desert in the world, stretches across the country and there are two other named deserts within its Kazakhstani borders.
Many of the country’s rivers and lakes are seasonal due to the arid climate which causes the moisture to evaporate. The largest river is the Irtysh which also flows through China and Russia. Others include the Ishim, Ile, and Ural rivers which are surrounded by the most luscious parts of the country’s ecosystems. The largest lake is Lake Balkhash with an area of 16,996 km2. The Aral Sea used to be a significant body of water in Kazakhstan, but its volume has been almost entirely eliminated over the past 50 years in one of the worst single environmental disasters ever recorded.
The highest point is the summit of Khan Tengri at 7010 meters, a mountain that sits on the tri-point between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. The Altai Mountains is a major mountain range in northern Kazakhstan that runs through several other Asian countries. Another major land feature is the Charyn Canyon near the south-eastern border which extends for 154 km and is being developed as a major tourist destination.
Kazakhstan is home to a wide range of flora species due to its large steppe habitat. Within this, there are various endangered species of wild tulip and an endangered native wild apple (Malus sieversii). The argali is also native to Kazakhstan and is the largest species of sheep on the planet. Amongst other mammals like wolves, foxes, and moose, there are key endangered species like snow leopards, saiga antelopes, and the desert dormouse.
The capital Astana has only held its status since 1997 after the title was transferred from Almaty. Astana has since become the seat of government and the economic hub of the country, undergoing significant modernisation since its founding. It is a planned city and sits on the banks of the Ishim River. It is distinctive from other places in Kazakhstan because of its modern appearances such as futuristic skyscrapers and monuments. Astana is the second largest city in the country with Almaty being the most populous at 2,147,233 residents. Almaty is the cultural and historical heart of the country due to its long, ancient past.
Kazakhstan is technically a democratic, constitutional republic. It has a parliament composed of a lower and upper house where the former is made up of popular elections. The upper house or senate numbers 48 with 32 of those being selected by regional elected assemblies. The other fifteen are selected directly by the president.
It is aspects like this that mean, in practice, Kazakhstan is considered semi-authoritarian. The president holds significant power over parliament, free speech against the government is not permitted and the organization of rival political parties is heavily restricted. There are also allegations that Kazakhstan’s election processes lack full transparency and have been plagued by accusations of corruption in the past.
Nursultan Nazarbayev became the first President of Kazakhstan after it gained independence in 1991. He ruled until 2019 as an authoritarian leader, overseeing the suppression of political and personal freedoms as well as various other human rights abuses such as torture. Nazarbayev is also accused of corruption in the form of embezzlement totalling $85 million. After allegations began to build surrounding this area, Nazarbayev passed a law granting him legal immunity from any money laundering charges.
Mounting anger from the general population at the lack of democracy and human rights abuses came to a head in 2019 when mass protesting began. Protestors wanted the resignation of Nazarbayev and the installation of a truly democratic parliamentary system. After months of action, Nazarbayev resigned and was replaced by the now-president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. However, Nazarbayev maintained high-ranking political positions in the government for two more years until he was forced out of the government entirely in 2022 after further protests.
There remains great concern over how much has actually changed within Kazakhstan’s governmental system, with some alleging Nazarbayev remains secretly in power with Tokayev acting as a figurehead. However, in 2022, Kazakhstan ratified laws that limited a presidential term to seven years whilst also distributing power away from the president and toward parliamentary institutions.
Kazakhstan has been involved with several international situations that have drawn eyes from around the globe, including the following.
Independent Kazakhstan is a relatively new country. As part of the USSR, it was technically part of all their disputes, but since independence, Kazakhstan has remained a peaceful country on the international stage. In fact, it has pursued a very deliberate strategy of broad foreign policy that seeks to maintain friendly relationships with all countries, no matter their politics or actions. As such, all their international disputes have been about demarcating borders.
In 1998, Kazakhstan and China began discussing how to divide two disputed border areas. It ended in 2002, with the two countries agreeing to split the areas almost evenly.
A long-running border dispute with Kyrgyzstan was finally resolved in 2019 after the Kyrgyz’s ratified a delimitation agreement. Similar disputes with Russia and Turkmenistan were resolved in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Kazakhstan also disputed territory with Uzbekistan in 2004, arguing that it claimed a majority population of Kazakhs. Final drafts were agreed on a solution in March 2022 but it is still officially unresolved.
Perhaps the most famous border dispute involving Kazakhstan was over the Caspian Sea. Involving Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Iran, the dispute was decades in the running and involved access to the Sea and its resources. This was resolved in 2018 after all parties agreed to treat the body of water as a sea rather than a lake, therefore each country gained jurisdiction over 15 nautical miles of the Caspian Sea according to normal conventions.
The creation of a seabed boundary with Turkmenistan in the Caspian Sea concluded in 2021, when Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Iran ratified the Caspian seabed delimitation treaties based on equidistance in 2018. Kazakhstan also sent aid to Ukraine during the war with Russian invasion forces in 2022.
Kazakhstan is not a hotspot for drug production or trafficking, however, there are some examples. Synthetic drugs are the main element in the internal illicit drug trade which are commonly imported through China, Russia, Southeast Asia, and Europe. The organic production of synthetic drugs within the country is also rising. Kazakhstan is also one of the routes through which Afghan heroin is smuggled on the way to Europe and Russia.
Refugees and Displaced Persons
As of 2021, Kazakhstan had 7,915 displaced persons. Many of the refugees within Kazakhstan are from Afghanistan and in 2014, the government began the #IBelong Campaign aimed at naturalizing more refugees. Kazakhstan is one of the few Turkic countries to accept migrants from Armenia.
Kazakhstan has a rich culture rooted in historic ways of life that go back centuries. Before the modern era, Kazakh life was enmeshed with traditions of nomadism and animal husbandry. As such, their customs are often tied to livestock and animals in some way. For example, when greeting each other, it was normal to ask how someone’s livestock was faring before talking about anything else. Traditionally, ethnic Kazakhs lived in yurts like many other ethnic groups in the region and they were the center of domestic community life. Yurts were often used for rituals, with the right-hand side reserved for men and the left for women.
Because of this style of living, Kazakhs have many ingrained traditions surrounding hospitality and goodwill. Konakasy is the tradition of making a guest’s stay as comfortable and enjoyable as possible by providing food and accommodation. Korimdik is the practice of giving a gift when someone has something good happen to them in life. Kazakhs also believe that a wealth of treats brings good luck so heroes are showered with sweets at local events. Tusau kesu is the tradition of tying ribbons around a child’s legs after their first attempts to walk, then cutting them and celebrating to instill the child with energy.
Because of the traditions with livestock, Kazakh cuisine is focused on commonly kept animals; lamb and horse. Due to the need to preserve food, meat was often prepared through means such as salting or drying, and sour milk was preferred because it could be kept more easily. Traditional plates often consist of salted/dried meat platters.
The most popular dish in the country is besbarmak which consists of boiled horse or lamb eaten with pasta and broth. Others include kuyrdak (roasted animal offal), kazy (horse meat sausage), and pilaf (rice, vegetables, and meat). More western cuisine was imported by the previous government which saw some Kazakh fusion dishes. The national drink is fermented horse milk called kumys.
What Language is Spoken in the Country?
Kazakhstan has two official languages; Kazakh and Russian. The Russian language is spoken by almost all citizens in the country whereas only about half speak the Kazakh language. Minority languages, such as Uzbek, Ukrainian, Uyghur, and Tatar, reflect the migrant populations and neighboring countries. English is also growing in popularity as Kazakhs look to broaden their prospects for life and work elsewhere.
National Holiday and Why It's Important
Perhaps the most politically significant national holiday is Independence Day on 16th December. This marks the date that the country came under its own rule after being part of the USSR. Naruyz, or the Kazakh new year, holds the most cultural importance and is celebrated as a national holiday for a few days from March 21st. It marks new beginnings and has been celebrated since the ancient period in Kazakhstan.
Arts and Entertainment
In a bid to revive traditional art forms and showcase the country’s unique crafts trade, the government has staged the Sheber competition since 2006. Here artists and craftspeople produce artisan products to market to domestic and international buyers. Much of Kazakhstan’s classic literature is rooted in traditions of oral poetry which were the main art form during nomadic times. The author Abai Qunanbaiuly is known for his writings which sought to preserve traditional forms of poetry and culture.
Kazakhstan has put a lot of effort into improving its sporting capabilities over the past decades. The most popular sport is football although, at international levels, Kazakhstan is not very successful. In Olympic events, Kazakhstan is most successful in weightlifting and boxing. In terms of success, road cycling is Kazakhstan’s most prominent example. Many cyclists on the UCI World Tour are Kazakh and there is a major pro team, with wins in major races, named Astana which is owned by a group of Kazakh companies.
Islam is the dominant religion in the country with 70% identifying as Muslim. Islam first came to the county in the 7th century by their Arabic neighbors and now most are worshippers of the Sunni denomination. About 25% of the country is Russian Orthodox Christian, a relic of the country’s time in the USSR. In general, Kazakhstan has relatively good levels of religious freedom.
Much of Kazakhstan’s economic growth is reliant on global oil prices due to the country’s large natural reserves which it manufactures for export. It is also a major natural gas exporter and, combined with oil, amounts to over 65% of all the country’s exports. Cities like Karaganda and Shymkent are reliant on fossil fuel industries. The country also exports wheat and livestock but is the world leading exporter of uranium. Total exports accounted for 40% of the country’s overall GDP with China existing as their largest trading partner.
Tourism has remained a minor part of the economy due to poor infrastructure and a lack of marketing. However, there has been an attempt to boost this in 2020 with investment to make the major cities tourist destinations and to create 300,000 jobs. On top of this Kazakhstan has increasingly opened to foreign direct investment as a route to improving infrastructure and improving in areas such as science and research. There are also close links with banks in Tajikistan to increase non-commodity exports.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome is leased to Russia for use in its space program. The first man in space was launched from the site which is symbolic of the country’s importance to the space industry. The government wants to use this momentum to revolutionize industries such as aviation manufacturing and they have plans by 2050 to establish new fields in nano-space engineering, robotics, and engineering. In general, the country is seeking to diversify its means of economic activity to prove it viable for a more volatile future that lives without fossil fuels.
The indigenous Kazakhs were nomadic Turkic people who belonged to several divisions of Kazakh hordes. They grouped together in settlements and lived in dome-shaped tents made of felt called yurts. Their tribes migrated seasonally to find pastures for their herds of sheep, horses, and goats. Although they had chiefs, the Kazakhs were rarely united as a single nation under one great leader. Their tribes fell under Mongol rule in the 13th century and they were dominated by Tatar khanates until the area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century.
The area became part of the Kyrgyz Autonomous Republic formed by the Soviet authorities in 1920, and in 1925 this entity's name was changed to the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakh ASSR). After 1927, the Soviet government began forcing the nomadic Kazakhs to settle on collective and state farms, and the Soviets continued the czarist policy of encouraging large numbers of Russians and other Slavs to settle in the region.
Owing to the region's intensive agricultural development and its use as a testing ground for nuclear weapons by the Soviet government, serious environmental problems developed by the late 20th century. Along with the other central Asian republics, Kazakhstan obtained its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Kazakhstan proclaimed its membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States on December 21, 1991, along with ten other former Soviet republics.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also quickly built positive international relations with surrounding powers, importantly with Turkey. In 1993, the country overwhelmingly approved the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Nursultan Nazarbayev restructured and consolidated many operations of the government in 1997, eliminating a third of the government's ministries and agencies. In 1997, the national capital was changed from Almaty, the largest city, to Astana in a move to unite the north and south of the country.
Since then, Kazakhstan has existed in relative peace internationally. Nazarbayev was president from 1991 and remained until 2019 when large-scale protests finally forced him out of office. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev succeeded him and promised to reform the way Kazakhstan was governed after Nazarbayev’s authoritarian rule. Some policies have been brought in to democratize the country, such as limits on the amount of time a president can rule, but there remain concerns over whether Nazarbayev is still pulling strings behind the scenes.
Further protests in 2022 over the cost of living and the perceived lack of real change led to the complete removal of Nazarbayev from the government and further promises to make politics more even. It also led to the introduction of state-funded economic help with fuel bills. The country currently remains in an uncertain state with discontent bubbling amongst the general population.
News and Current Events
Get caught up with the most important historic and current events in Kazakhstan.
Oil Brings Hope for Prosperity
In Jan. 1999, Nazarbayev was sworn into office for another seven years, although the election was widely criticized when an opposition leader was disqualified on a technicality. Despite his authoritarianism, Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989 (when it was still part of the Soviet Union), is a widely popular leader.
Kazakhstan has the potential for becoming one of central Asia's richest countries because of its huge mineral and oil resources and its liberalized economy, which encourages Western investment. In 2000, oil was discovered in Kazakhstan's portion of the Caspian Sea. It is believed to be the largest oil find in 30 years. In March 2001, a pipeline opened to transport oil from the Tengiz fields to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. In 2004, Kazakhstan signed a deal allowing China to build an oil pipeline to the Chinese border.
President Nazarbayev Continues to Consolidate Power and Stifle Opposition
But as its economic outlook blossoms, Kazakhstan's scant democratic principles continue to wither. In the past several years, the president has harassed the independent media, arrested opposition leaders, and passed a law making it virtually impossible for new political parties to form. In Dec. 2005, President Nazarbayev was reelected with 91% of the vote. In May 2007, Parliament voted to do away with term limits, thus allowing President Nazarbayev to remain in office indefinitely. In June, Nazarbayev dissolved parliament and called for elections in August, two years ahead of schedule. The opposition complained that the move did not give them adequate time to campaign.
Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov resigned in Jan. 2007, without giving a reason. He was replaced by former deputy prime minister Karim Masimov.
In Aug. 2007 parliamentary elections, the governing party, Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland), won 88.1% of the vote and all 98 contested seats. The victory further consolidated power in the hands of Nazarbayev.
President Nazarbayev's Absence Raises Concern
In April 2011, President Nazarbayev was elected to another five-year term, winning 95.5 percent of the vote. In July 2011, Nazarbayev's office reported that he was on vacation, but would not release where he was or what he was doing. Later that month, Bild, a German newspaper, reported that Nazarbayev was in Hamburg, recovering from prostate surgery. The report raised concerns about political instability in the country. Kazakhstan's government responded to the Bild's report with a one sentence statement: President Nursultan Nazarbayev is on a short-term leave.
The Bild reported that President Nazarbayev, age 71, responded well to the surgery and would soon be back on his feet. In Oct. 2011, he chaired a Security Council meeting in Astana. Still, President Nazarbayev's surgery and the mystery surrounding it raised questions of a potential successor.
2012 Election Brings Criticism and Little Change
In Nov. 2011, President Nazarbayev called for a parliamentary election. The election, which will be held in Jan. 2012, is supposed to encourage a multiparty system. However, the only other party expected to participate is also a supporter of Nazarbayev. President Nazarbayev stated that the rising global economic crisis was his reason for a quick election.
When the election was held in Jan. 2012, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the main Western-backed election monitoring group, criticized authorities for removing parties and candidates from the ballots at the last minute, denying voters those options. Other examples of voter fraud were reported. For example, Radio Liberty posted a video showing a woman voter putting multiple ballots in the ballot box. In the election, Nur Otan, the ruling party which held all elected seats before Parliament was dissolved in November 2011, received 80.7 percent of the vote, a strong majority. However, because of the new, lower election threshold, two parties also won seats in Parliament, the Communist People's Party, and Ak Zhol, a pro-business party. Both parties received just over seven percent of the vote. Seven percent was the new minimum required to receive representation in Parliament.
On September 24, 2012, Prime Minister Karim Massimov resigned after holding the position for five years. Massimov's resignation was long expected in Kazakhstan due to Nazarbayev's desire to consolidate power. First Deputy Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov was appointed to replace Massimov. Akhmetov assumed office immediately.
In a cabinet reshuffle in early April 2014, Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov resigned, President Nursultan Nazarbayev named Karim Masimov as new prime minister, and appointed Akhmetov defense minister.
The 2015 presidential election was held on April 26. President Nazarbayev won, receiving 97.7% of the vote. According to the Central Elections Commission, turnout was over 95%. Two other candidates were on the ballot, Communist People's Party Central Committee Secretary Turgun Syzdykov, and Trade Union Federation Chairman Abelgazi Kusainov.
Modern Elections and Protests
In 2019, mass protests broke out within the general population of Kazakhstan. After decades of corruption, human rights abuses, and declining living standards, people in Kazakhstan wanted to see real change in their government. Three months after the protests broke out, President Nazarbayev agreed to resign as president but remain within the government as head of the security council. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over and pledged to reform the country’s democratic process.
Discontent remained throughout 2020 and 2021 although protests weren’t as vigorous. However, in 2022, the situation erupted once more as the cost of living worsened even further and people saw that Nazabayev still remained in significant positions of power. After weeks of disruption, Tokayev gave in to protestor demands and formally removed Nazarbayev from all government positions. He also passed a law that reduced the maximum term a president can serve to seven years and also loosened laws on the formation of opposition political parties.
Kazakhstan’s elections have long been regarded as unfair due to the suppression of opposition and the dominance of Nazarbayev’s power, so these moves could come as significant reforms. However, there are concerns that Nazarbayev remains in true power behind the scenes, especially because Tokayev was a close ally of his during his presidency.
Modern-day Kazakhstan has been greatly influenced by its time within the USSR. Head over to our breakdown of the former Soviet Union to get the full picture.
See also Encyclopedia: Kazakhstan .
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: Kazakhstan