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Kazahkstan | Facts and History

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The dombra, a two-string lute, is the national instrument of Kazakhstan

Two young musicians in Kazakhstan play the dombra, a traditional Kazakh musical instrument

Engle & Smith on Flickr.com
Russian Orthodox Church in Almaty, Kazakhstan

This ornate church in Almaty, Kazakhstan is made entirely of wood

Alastair Rae on Flickr.com
The desert scenery in Kazakhstan, Central Asia

Landscapes of Kazakhstan, Central Asia

Dmitri Papkovich on Flickr.com

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital: Astana, population 390,000

Major Cities: Almaty, pop. 1.3 million

Shymkent, 455,000

Taraz, 398,000

Pavlodar, 355,000

Oskemen, 344,000

Semey, 312,000

Kazakhstan's Government:

Kazakhstan is nominally a presidential republic, although in fact it is a dictatorship. The president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in office since before the fall of the Soviet Union, and rigs elections regularly.

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, but candidates come only from pro-government parties. The parties elect the other ten. 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.

Population of Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan's population is approximately 15.8 million as of 2010. Unusually for Central Asia, the majority of Kazakh citizens live in urban areas. In fact, 54% of the population live in cities and towns.

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 (2.8%), 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 is the lingua franca among all ethnic groups.

Kazakh is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, a relic of Russian domination. President Nazarbayev has 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 non-believers.

Seventy percent of Kazakhstan's citizens are Muslim, mostly Sunni. Christians make up 26.6% of the population, mostly Russian Orthodox, 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 2.7 million square kilometers in area (1.05 million square miles). Approximately one-third of that area is dry steppeland, while much of the rest of the country is grasslands or sandy desert.

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

The highest point in Kazakhstan is Khan Tangiri Shyngy, at 6,995 meters (22,949 feet). The lowest point is Vpadina Kaundy, at 132 meters below sea level (-433 feet).

Climate:

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

Economy:

Kazakhstan's economy is the healthiest among the former Soviet 'Stans, with an estimated 7% annual growth rate for 2010. 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. (CIA figures)

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

The currency of Kazakhstan is the tenge. As of May, 2011, 1 USD = 145.7 tenge.

History of Kazakhstan:

The area that is now Kazakhstan was settled by humans tens of thousands of years ago, and was dominated by a variety of nomadic peoples over that time span. DNA evidence suggests that the horse may 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, creating a new people. They exerted control over what is now Kazakhstan, calling themselves the Kazakh Khanate.

The Kazakh Khanate lasted until 1847. 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.

By the mid-18th century, the Kazakhs were facing encroachment from Tsarist Russia to the north and from Qing China in the east. In order 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 would last from 1847, when the Russians imposed direct control, through 1858. Small groups of nomadic Kazakh warriors fought running battles with the Russian Cossacks, as well as with other Kazakhs allied with the Tsar's forces. The war cost hundreds of Kazakh lives, civilians as well as warriors, but Russia did make some concessions to Kazakh demands in the 1858 peace settlement.

In the 1890s, the Russian government began to settle thousands of Russian farmers onto Kazakh land, breaking up the pasture 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, Tsar Nicholas II ordered the conscription of all Kazakh and other Central Asian men to fight in World War I. This conscription order sparked the Central Asian Revolt, in which thousands of Kazakhs and other Central Asians were killed, and tens of thousand fled to western China or Mongolia.

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 were able to retake 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 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 one million Kazakhs died of starvation, and 80% of their precious 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 all of these starving new-comers. Approximately half of 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.

In September of 1989, an ethnic-Kazakh politician named Nursultan Nazarbayev 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.

The Republic of Kazakhstan has a growing economy, thanks in large part to its reserves of fossil fuels. It has privatized much of the economy, but President Nazarbayev maintains a KGB-style police state, and rigs elections. (He received 95.54% of the vote in April 2011 presidential elections.) The Kazakh people have come a long way since 1991, but they have some distance to go yet before they are truly free of the after-effects of Russian colonization.

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