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Kazakhstan country profile

Kazakhstan (Qazaqstan in native Kazakh, officially the Republic of Kazakhstan) is a state in the center of the Eurasian continent. Surprisingly to the knowledge of some, some part of the country is located in Europe, the other bigger part is in Asia. Area is 2,7 sq km. For comparison, India’s area is 3,2 sq km, US area is 9,8 sq km. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world by area. According to statistics, as of 2020 Oct 1st population is 18,8 million people, not so many as compared to other Asian and European entities. Density is, as can be assumed, is one of the lowest in the word – less than 6 people per sq km. Based on that, it can be stated clearly that Kazakhstan is a big small country. Capital city is Nur-Sultan (previously it was named Astana). Although Almaty is the largest city with a population of around 2,4 million people (including big city area).

Kazakhstan is located between Caspian sea, Volga river (Edil in Kazakh), Ural mountains, Siberia, China and Central Asia. To the west and the north it is bordered with Russia (7500+ km), to the east with China (1700+ km), to the south with Kyrgyzstan (1200+ km), Uzbekistan (2300+ km) and Turkmenistan (400+ km). It is worth noting that Kazakh-Russian border is the second longest land border in the world after USA-Canada border. Also the distance between the most eastern point of Kazakhstan and the most western point of Mongolia is around 40 km. Historically, the Kazakhs and the Mongols had common borders and deep interrelations. However, because of Russian and Chinese politics, the border was drawn the way as it is today. Total length of land borders is 13 000+ km. From the east to the west the country is 3000+ km wide and from the north to the south – 1600+ km. Unfortunately, the state has not any access to the world ocean. Moreover, it is the largest landlocked country in the world. Wth!? Uzbekistan, the southern neighbor, is in a worse position: along with Liechtenstein it is one of two doubly landlocked countries. 

Geography of the country is almost as various as USA’s, Russia’s or some other’s. There are such landscapes as steppe, taiga, canyons, hills, snowcapped mountains and deserts. In the east Altai mountains and in the south-east Alatau mountains have peaks that can be as tall as 4000 m, 5000 m, 6000 m and 7000 m. In the south the deserts can be as hot and dry as the deserts in Egypt, Iran, etc.

Historically in the territory of contemporary Kazakhstan many nomadic tribes lived and did their business. There were the Huns who traveled as far as the Roman Empire; the Turkic Khaganate (not to be confused with Turkish), the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan, the Golden Horde, the Timurid Empire of Amir Timur, etc. As a result of long historical development, the Kazakh Khanate was founded in 1465. Hooray!!! Some events and time later the Khanate came under the control of the Russian Empire. Then in 1917 the October revolution took place that brought the Soviet Union into being. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and Kazakh SSR became a newly independent state of Kazakhstan. Again hooray!!!

As of January 2021 various ethnic groups live in Kazakhstan. The number of which is around 130 as per official government statements. They are the Kazakhs, the Russians, the Uzbeks, the Ukrainians, the Germans, the Uighurs, the Tatars, etc. Islam is practiced by +70% of the total number. Kazakh language is the state language, while Russian is the official language. Kazakhstan as a state is an official and recognized member of many international organizations such as the UN, WTO, CIS, etc.

As for administrative division, the state is divided into 14 provinces (oblys in Kazakh) and 3 republican status cities, namely Nur-Sultan, Almaty and Shymkent. When it comes to economy and geography, the state is divided into such parts as Western, Northern, Eastern, Central and Southern. It is worth noting that each of these parts is as big as many European countries in terms of area.

Since we are a tour operator and not an academic institution, we have no intention to write in detail all the things about the Kazakhs and Kazakhstan. One can go to Wikipedia or any other online/offline source to get all the necessary pieces of information, statistical data, etc. For that reason, we will try to put only such things on our web pages that can be interesting for readers and travelers. We believe that first of all a common man, an ordinary citizen must be able to get interested in getting to know some knowledge about the country. That way we are likely to put some subjective views alongside cold facts. The rest will follow on its own.

Etymology

The word “Kazakh”, or “Qazaq” in native Kazakh, has several theories of origin. Let us go through some main lines. One source says that the word translated from the Old Turkic language means “free, independent man”. Another source says that the word means “nomad, dweller”. Above mentioned versions seem to be true because the Kazakhs and other tribes that lived on the territory of contemporary Kazakhstan, Mongolia, etc. were the nomadic people. In a word, they were not like the European or Chinese peasants who lived permanently on the same location for long period. Unlike them, the nomads were moving across the large areas herding the cattle. As for “stan” in the name of the country, it is of Persian origin and means “place, country, land”. So “Kazakhstan” means “the land of the Kazakhs”; Hindustan (India) - the land of the Hindus; Hayastan (Armenia) – the land of the Hays; Pakistan – the pure country and so on.

Geography

The fact that Kazakhstan is located in the center of the giant Eurasian continent defines its geography. Since Eurasia is the largest continent in the world, there are very different types of terrain and landscape; sky high mountains, dry deserts, cold taigas, etc. Among all of these available variants, Kazakhstan has its own place to claim. E.g., Afghanistan mainly consists of mountains; Saudi Arabia – dunes and deserts; as for Kazakhstan - flat steppes. Southern parts of Russia, Mongolia and Canada share the same kind of geography and climate. Unlike Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have very different climate, apart from geography, although they are located on the same longitude. It must be noted that almost half of landscape is semi-desert. It is something between steppe and desert. Vast width of the continent itself and distance of the site from oceans also has a role to play. Therefore, water is a big problem. As a rule, it is a common belief that only somewhere in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya people live in oases where water is abundant and life is possible. More or less the same is also true for Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan. Distribution of water is not even across the area. In the east and southeast of Kazakhstan, the snowcapped mountains provide water for small and large rivers. Almaty and its surrounding area is a classic example. In the west and north, ground waters are a source for rivers. That is why historically all the small villages and large cities were situated close to them. It could not have been the other way. Where there is water, there is life. Moreover, the system of rivers and lakes are also distributed unevenly. The main bodies are Aral Sea (lake), Balkash lake, Caspian Sea (lake) and such rivers as Irtysh, Esil, Ile, Syrdarya, Ural, etc. In addition, there are such artificial water reservoirs as Buqturma, Shardara and Kapchagai (on the banks of which Kapchagai city is located – local Las Vegas).

Altai Mountains are currently divided between four states, i.e. Kazakh part, Mongolian part, Russia and China. Overall, the mountains have beautiful scenery. Since time immemorial, people lived there and left significant historical marks. Snowcapped peaks function as a source of water for mighty Siberian Rivers and other small creeks. That part of the country serves as an eastern border. In the southeast we have the Alatau mountains. They are also picturesque. Their range extends from China to Uzbekistan. The highest point of Kazakhstan - Khan-Tengri peak – is 6995 meters above sea level and is located in the Alatau range. The location is on the junction of Chinese and Kyrgyz borders. On the contrary, in the west there are lands, which are located below sea level. The lowest point is 132 meters below sea level. Even the Caspian Sea itself is almost 28 meters below the oceans. Unfortunately, the Sea is undergoing hard times: because of mindless human activity, rivers flowing into the Sea are exploited too much for industry and agriculture. Although, long times ago it was much larger than today. Geological studies prove it. The surrounding area, especially the Kazakh and Turkmen parts, is dry and not much suitable for plant agriculture.

Climate

Kazakhstan has extreme continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. The capital city of Astana (Nur-Sultan) is the second coldest capital in the whole world after Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar. Precipitation varies from dry to half dry. Since the width of the country is significant, difference in climate between North and South is also notable. E.g., in November it can be pretty cold in South and freezing cold in North. Therefore, a person who is going to travel from Almaty/Shymkent to Astana/Pavlodar in November or March must have proper winter clothes. Otherwise, there is a risk of catching cold and getting sick.

Natural resources

In Kazakhstan, it is accepted to boast of Mendeleev elements that are available in the country. And it seems to be a true statement. Geology of the location is very much suitable for natural resources to be abundant. Back in XIX century the Russians, the English and the Germans were doing research and business in the field of lead, iron, oil, gold, silver mining. Then after the founding of the Soviet Union, all these previous developments were continued at a new level. Modern plants, large-scale projects were implemented to mine more resources. In XXI century, Kazakhstan still remains as one of the largest holders of many types of precious metals, oil and gas reserves, etc. One can research statistical data to get more details.

Politics

To understand politics in Kazakhstan, one needs to remember two main things, which the nation inherited from the past. It is the Mongolian and the Russian-Soviet styles of government. Both of these forces play a great role in society and public governance. A lot of texts and studies were published about this topic. Anyway, one important feature is that the Great Khan, the tsar, the General Secretary had a disproportionally large say in political matters. Moreover, personal loyalty to the persona of the ruler was valued above all. Unfortunately, it is a source of trouble during power transition. So-called division of power into executive, legislative and judiciary branches is mentioned in the Constitution BUT despite that the executive branch is able to use various means to achieve their aims. There is a famous quote attributed to comrade Stalin who said that it does not matter how they voted; what matters is how they counted the votes. Even today, it is an unpleasant fact of life in Kazakhstan. Although so-called Western democracies, where the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, do not seem to function properly as described in the Constitutions and told of frequently. Special interests, lobby by big corporations, low voter turnout in the elections, ambiguous Bush Jr presidency in the USA, invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, involvement of other Western countries into the war and so on do reveal the fact that something is wrong in their system as well. Not to mention XX century period, Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, etc. used their administrative power to dissolve parliament, to win presidential elections, etc.

Foreign relations

Unlike North Korea, Kazakhstan is not an isolated country from the rest of the world. Commerce chambers, free movement of people across the border, embassies of various states are present. There is a very weird term called “geopolitics”. So according to that term, geography of the nation plays a big role. It cannot be so. The fact that the Kazakhs historically bordered Russia, China and other Central Asian kingdoms shaped the nation’s foreign relations. The size and might of neighbors also influences relations. That way the nation is forced to play between empires. The state policy clearly says of so-called “multi-vector foreign policy”. In reality, it means to balance between Russia, China, the USA and the EU, etc. All these centers of power have their own interests in the Central Asian region and the Kazakh state is an integral part of it. The Kazakh government has a strong intention to use the country’s geographical location as a transportation hub between Europe and Asia, mainly China. On an annual basis, more roads are built and more traffic is going. In addition, the Chinese side is promoting so-called Belt and Road initiative, although various opinions are spoken about the program.

As a sign of the nation’s economic and political position, the Kazakh government offered humanitarian help to Kyrgyzstan when they experienced several revolutions; to Ukraine when they experienced Russian aggression act in 2014, etc. Moreover, a group of military experts was sent to Iraq to help the locals to clean the territory from bombs, mines, etc. In the future, the government plans to establish a state organization that will be executing humanitarian mission on a constant basis. As far as information is available, it will be named KazAID. It will be similar to other various international organizations established long ago.

Human rights

The following can be said of human rights in all former Soviet republics. So called Western experts make 2 big mistakes that contradict each other logically. The 1st mistake is based on the assumption that all men are equal absolutely and the 2nd mistake is euro centrism, sort of idea of democracy and certain values could be imposed from outside. It failed miserably. Kazakhstan is not an exception. It is not an easy task to change human mind and behavior within 10-20 years. Up to certain degree, mental and psychological forces and habits persist change. It is kind of a cultural matrix/code. On top of that, political leaders of states remained in their positions as before. So how on earth is western style democracy supposed to appear? It takes a long time and several generations. When there were demonstrations and protests against unfair elections, unpopular government decisions and so on, they were suppressed; active protestors were arrested, fined, intimidated, etc. Plus some websites on the internet were/are blocked. Despite such measures, public opinion is more or less favorable to the state policy and everybody seems to be content.

Economy

Like any other civilized country, Kazakhstan also has a normal economy with advantages and disadvantages. Among Central Asian five, it generates 60% of regional GDP. According to World Bank in 2019, the rank is 42nd worldwide by GDP (PPP). GDP is a popular monetary measure used by almost everyone to value the economy, although it also has its own flaws. So it shows that lion’s share of Kazakh economy belongs to oil, gas and natural resources. Despite all these riches, the experts describe the economy as a “banana republic” because the resources are mainly exported to foreign countries instead of local manufacturing and as a result, value added goes to their balance. It is necessary to take into account the fact that the extent of the market limits division of labor as written by Adam Smith himself. Population of 18 million people is not enough to run a big economy. Big production takes masses. Unfortunately, agriculture and textile industries are not as well developed as wished. Good economic policy and investment is expected to change the course. Systematically new companies are delivering locally made goods to the market. 

Population

Travelers as a rule do not come to see the landscape of the country such as mountains, lakes, rivers, etc. The people who live in the territory are also of interest. Their culture, language, religion, life style, cuisine, traditions and so on also attract men’s attention. France is France because the French live there. Germany is Germany because the Germans live there. How can one imagine them without the main ethnic groups? The people are the content inside the container. They are unique and marvelous. As for their geography and climate, it is not something very rare that cannot be found somewhere else on planet Earth. For that reason, civilization is of primary interest for anyone who travels. It is almost impossible to avoid direct or indirect interaction with people.

In XXI century, it is popular to talk about globalization, multiculturalism, diversity, interracial marriages, etc. Kazakhstan is not new to this trend at all. The nation has already become a melting pot for many ethnic groups and cultures - it was dubbed a laboratory of people's friendship - Soviet speak for diversity, multiculturalism. There is a saying that goes like this: Asia is for Asians, Africa is Africans, Europe and North America is for everyone. That may sound cynic but there is a grain of truth to it. Many countries of Asia and Europe can be described as mono-ethnic, i.e. the share of the main ethnicity is around 99% and the share of minorities is around 1%. Japan, South Korea, Hungary, Thailand, Armenia, Poland and so on are good examples. As for Kazakhstan, it is a multiethnic nation. So how come that the nation became one? For that, a quick survey of history and geography is helpful. Prior to the expansion of Russian Empire into Central Asia in general and what is now Kazakhstan in particular, the region was almost 100% mono-ethnic Kazakh, although many tribes and people lived among the Kazakhs, under & over the Kazakhs, close to the Kazakhs, etc. Then after the start of colonization, Russian-Slavic settlers arrived. Later by the end of XIX century the Russian tsar gave permission to the Dungans and the Uighurs emigrate from Qing China into Jetysu area. After October revolution, the Civil war and establishment of Soviet rule, many Russians, Jews, Ukrainians, etc. came to live and work in Kazakhstan. Then a new wave came into life – deportation or forced transfer. First came the Koreans in 1937 November because they were suspected to be loyal to the Japanese. In 1940-41 the Polish were deported from Poland after the invasion by the Soviet Union. The Volga Germans were deported in 1941 after the start of invasion by Nazi Germany. In 1942 the Greeks, the Azerbaijanis and others were deported. 1943-44 the Balkars, Chechens, Turks and Crimean Tatars were deported. Between 1937 and 1944 around 1.2 million people were deported forcefully. Moreover, many people were evacuated from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia due to Nazi German invasion. That way, within 20 years Kazakhstan became a multicultural nation because of the crazy politics of the Soviet government led by comrade Stalin. Are there any nation that experienced something similar to what Kazakhstan went through? Probably not! After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, many ethnic Kazakhs who had to flee the country because of brutal collectivization back in 1930s started coming home from Mongolia, China, Turkey and other neighboring CIS nations. Because of open borders and formation of a new sovereign nation, many ethnic Germans, Russians, Chechens and others emigrated to their historic homelands or some other place. That way for the last 100 years Kazakhstan has been living through a tumultuous time in terms of ethnic diversity.

As of 2021, Kazakhstan remains a multiethnic nation with its advantages and disadvantages. Despite the official government statements about 130+ different ethnic groups that live in the territory of present Kazakhstan, around 9 of them are 100 000+ strong in number. The rest are less than that. They are the Kazakhs, the Russians, the Germans, the Koreans, the Uzbeks, the Uighurs, the Turks, the Ukrainians and the Tatars. In USA the society is divided into the whites, the blacks, the Hispanics and Asians. In France society is divided in the French, the Arabs, the Blacks and the rest. In a similar manner, Kazakhstan’s society is divided into the Kazakhs and the Russians. Other features are based on this ethnic division, such as language and religion.

In 2020 in USA there were race-based demonstrations because of police brutality when a member of minority had been killed. Prior to that in 2015 in Myanmar a refugee crisis took place as a result of ethnic clashes. In Israel the Jews and the Palestinians clash with each other frequently. In South Africa the black and white groups also fight each other. Moreover, among CIS countries there were ethnic conflicts as well, e.g. 2014 crisis in Ukraine and the following wars. So what is going in Kazakhstan taking into account the events happening in CIS and other regions? Thanks to flexible and systemic policy of former President Nazarbayev and the current Kazakh government, interethnic relations and friendship is a top priority. On paper and in fact overall state of ethnic relations is in superb position. There are no full-blown and aggressive conflicts where sides clash with each other until death. Government stuff, big corporate stuff is of mixed origin – one can see ethnic landscape of Kazakhstan upon visit to state and corporate entities. 

Despite rosy talks about diversity being a strength, it is important to be realistic. When two or more different racial/ethnic groups live in the same territory, clashes are more than likely to happen. What language to speak, what music to listen and other small and big matters are likely to be a source of disagreement. Since Kazakhstan is a multiethnic nation unlike Japan, South Korea, Hungary, so it is also subject to diversity’s disadvantages. E.g. it is common for companies (small, medium and large) to hire based on ethnicity, although it against the Constitution. In addition, it is necessary to keep in mind the fact that the Soviet Empire collapsed approx. 30 years ago and the imperialist/chauvinistic attitude of certain groups of people is still present. On top of that, in 2014 the Russians and the Ukrainians went into conflict based on ethnicity and its consequences. Since Kazakhstan was also a member of the Red Union and borders with Russia and has a significant Slavic population, here those events also influenced public attitude and opinion. In the past, there were also interethnic small and large-scale conflicts – not just against the Kazakhs or the Russians; also between other ethnicities. 

Language

In Japan all citizens speak only Japanese, in France – French, in Poland – Polish, etc. However, in some countries people speak 2 or more languages. E.g. in India English, Hindi and many other languages are spoken, in Philippines – Filipino and English, in Switzerland – French, German and Italian, etc. Kazakhstan belongs to the latter group since over there 2 languages are widely spoken - native Kazakh and Russian inherited from the Soviet Union. According to the Constitution, Kazakh is a state language while Russian is an official language. Moreover, according to the law on languages, Russian is used along with Kazakh in all state organizations. In reality, depending on situations, Kazakh is used along with Russian. In a word, Russian is a leader while Kazakh is a follower. Why did Kazakhstan become a bilingual nation? There are several reasons as to why. Contrary to some views about Russian being widely spoken among the Kazakhs since XIX or the beginning of XX century, it is not so. Policy of russification came into full force only in the period of 1950-1980s because of virgin lands campaign and active national policy, etc. Speaking shortly, it is a result of Soviet state policy in XX century. Otherwise, Kazakh society could have stayed monolingual as any other society. 

To understand the current language landscape in Kazakhstan, it is useful to know a few things about history of the nation. Since the nation was part of the mighty Soviet Union, it was more than acceptable and necessary to speak Russian as a primary language, while Kazakh, Uzbek, Armenian, etc. were the languages of national minorities spoken mainly by the native speakers. On top of that, policy of russification was imposed on all ethnic groups. As a result, there were many ethnic minority members who “forgot” how to speak their native tongue and acquired Russian as their main language. Not surprisingly, not everyone had a favorable view of the situation. When the Union collapsed and new sovereign nations came into existence, there were national euphoria, rebirth of national languages. Kazakhstan was not an exception. Despite that, it was not easy at all to change languages in a night because Russian and other many national languages are not interchangeable. Because of that, many people moved to other parts of the world, it served as a source of conflict on street and institutional levels. Even after 30 years since Independence, bilingualism is still present and not everyone speaks 2 languages well because they are not interchangeable. It is not an exaggeration to state that Russian claims around 80% of the “market”. Around 90% of search engine (Google, Yandex) keywords are in Russian. 90% of all business communication is in Russian. Therefore, foreign companies prefer usage of Russian as a primary means. Although, share and status of Kazakh is increasing steadily, at least due to demography. Edited 2021Feb1