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20 Facts about Kazakhstan

Updated on April 21, 2014
Kazakhstan flag
Kazakhstan flag | Source

Republic of Kazakhstan (Kazakstan, Qazaqstan) is an independent republic in Central Asia, formerly part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This country is very sparsely settled. Its ethnically mixed population includes a large Russian minority. Here are 20 facts about the Republic of Kazakhstan.

1. Kazakhstan is 33% semidesert and 44% desert and is characterized by eroded, broken uplands and some sand dunes. The Altai and Tien Shan mountain ranges of the east and southeast represent 13% of Kazakhstan's terrain; the remaining 10% is steppe.

2. The Syr Darya (Syrdariya), Ural (Zhayyk), and Irtysh (Ertis) are Kazakhstan's major rivers. Of Kazakhstan's many rivers and streams, however, only the Irtysh and its tributaries, the Tobol and Ishim (Esil), reach the ocean. The others either flow into landlocked bodies of water, such as the Caspian and Aral seas and Lake Balkhash (Balqash), or simply peter out; many are seasonal.

3. Soviet practices have damaged the environment. Much of the country's water is severely polluted. The Aral Sea has been destroyed by overuse of its tributary water, its shoreline having retreated as much as 44 miles (71 km), and Lake Balkhash is following a similar trajectory. Agricultural techniques have poisoned the soil and caused substantial erosion. Radiation pollution is serious in the Semey (Semipalatinsk) region, where the Soviets tested their nuclear weapons until 1990.

Map of Kazakhstan
Map of Kazakhstan | Source

4. The climate is very dry. Precipitation in the mountains can average 20 to 24 inches (510–610 mm), mostly in the form of snow, but is more typically only 4 to 8 inches (100–200 mm). Temperatures vary widely. Average winter temperatures are 0° F (−18° C) in the north and only 27° F (−3° C) in the south; average summer temperatures are 66° F (19° C) in the north and 82° to 86° F (28° to 30° C) in the south.

5. The population of Kazakhstan has experienced major demographic fluctuations. After World War II there was rapid growth as Soviet development policies moved millions of non-Kazakh peoples into the territory. The Kazakh portion of the population fell to as low as 40%. Owing to a higher rate of natural increase and the departure of many ethnic Russians, Germans, and Ukrainians in the 1980s and 1990s, Kazakhs became a small majority (54.3%) by the time of the 1999 census. Russians constituted 30%.

Kazakhstan People
Kazakhstan People | Source

6. The ethnic populations are not evenly distributed. Kazakhs predominate in the agricultural provinces of southern and western Kazakhstan, while Russians are in the majority in the more industrial provinces of the north. Over one-half of the population is urban dwelling. Almaty is the largest city, with a population of over a million. Qaraghandy has over 400,000, and Shymkent, Pavlodar, Semey, Taraz, and Öskemen each have over 250,000. With the exception of Shymkent and Taraz, the cities tend to be European and dominated by Russians.

7. Until 1989 all major economic, political, and personnel decisions concerning Kazakhstan were either made in or approved by Moscow. The actual head of the republic was the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, who was selected by the general secretary and Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

8. The last first secretary was Nursultan Nazarbayev, who became independent Kazakhstan's first president. The Kazakhstan Supreme Soviet appointed Nazarbayev to that post in 1990, and, two weeks before independence, he was elected to a five-year term of office, which was later extended to seven years.

kazakhstan Parliament Building
kazakhstan Parliament Building | Source

9. The constitution of 1995, which replaced one promulgated in 1993, established Kazakhstan as a republic with a strong presidency and a bicameral Parliament. The lower house of Parliament, the Mazhilis, has 67 members, who are elected. The upper house, the Senate, has 32 members who are selected by provincial legislatures and 7 who are appointed by the president. Originally, the president also appointed the prime minister, other cabinet members, and governors. Constitutional amendments that were approved in 2007 enhanced the role of the Parliament in appointing the prime minister and shortened the presidential term from seven years to five, but they also exempted the republic's first president (that is, Nazarbayev) from term limits. In 2009 an electoral law was changed to guarantee legislative seats to at least two parties.

10. Kazakhstan has distinct economic zones. Most of the republic's manufacturing, refining, and metallurgy is concentrated in the north and northeast. Agriculture is dominant in the north-central and southern part of Kazakhstan. Oil and gas production is concentrated in the west, especially in and around the Caspian Sea and near the Russian border. Fishing was important in the west, but salinization has made the Aral Sea sterile.

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11. Until 1990 Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet planned economy. The collapse of the planned economy and the Soviet domestic trading system caused Kazakhstan's economy to spiral downward until 1995. Inflation exceeded 1,800% in 1994. In the late 1990s a program to privatize state-owned enterprises was expanded to include the large and strategic oil, gas, and metallurgy industries. The economy then began to recover, largely on the basis of oil exports. In 2002 Kazakhstan was recognized as a market economy, under U.S. trade laws, by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Economic growth at that time was in excess of 9% a year.

12. The traditional Kazakh economy was based on livestock herding. Kazakhstan was a major food producer for the former Soviet Union, especially of wheat, corn, meat, and milk. In the course of the 1990s, the country's 70,000 large-scale state-owned and collective farms were privatized in the form of joint-stock companies, associations, and cooperatives. Kazakhstan has continued its role as an agricultural exporter to Russia and other former Soviet republics and increasingly to countries of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. Wheat is the principal export item, but fruit, vegetables, meat, milk, and wool also are produced.

Baiterek Monument
Baiterek Monument | Source

13. Under the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan developed as an exporter of raw materials and an importer of finished goods. The republic is rich in iron ore, coal, manganese, and nonferrous metals. It has fairly large gold deposits as well as deposits of chrome, titanium, nickel, wolfram, molybdenum, bauxite, and copper. Petroleum, however, will play the largest role in Kazakhstan's future. The oil fields developed in the 1990s made the country a significant world supplier by the early 2000s.

14. Kazakhstan makes few finished products. Most industry involves the extraction or processing of the country's natural resources, although there is also a sizable machine-building sector. Some former Soviet defense plants have been converted to civilian production. China has invested heavily in Kazakhstan's energy sector.

15. Kazakhstan's existing transportation was created to bind it to the former Soviet Union, especially Russia. Road networks are poorly developed, although paved roads connect Almaty with Central Asian capitals and industrial cities.

Baikonur cosmodrome
Baikonur cosmodrome | Source

16. There are rail links along the Syr Darya Valley and through the industrial north. A rail link with China opened in 1991; another, built in the early 2000s, links central and western Kazakhstan without passing through Russia. Oil exports are carried by rail, pipeline, and barge (on the Caspian Sea).

17. There are four international airports, including those at Almaty and Astana. Baikonur Cosmodrome, the former Soviet space facility near Tyuratam, is leased to the Russian Federation under a 1994 agreement. In 2006 Kazakhstan launched its first satellite into space from this facility aboard a Russian rocket. By 2013 the United States and virtually every other country except China relied on Baikonur for manned space launchings. Nevertheless, the center had lost its symbolic importance and its infrastructure had been neglected due to post-Soviet social and economic problems. Russia said that it might end its lease in 2018, when the Vostochny Cosmodrome was scheduled for completion in the Russian Far East.

18. As a Soviet republic, Kazakhstan was an active trading partner with Russia and the other republics. With the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Federation remained its largest partner. Nonetheless, trade was diversified to include China, the United States, and countries of Europe as major partners as well. Oil and gas are the country's principal exports. The first natural gas pipeline that did not require Kazakh exports to pass through Russia opened in 2009; it linked Central Asia to China. Other significant products are iron, steel, refined copper, and grain. Because Kazakhstan is landlocked, all of its imports and exports must pass through other countries.

19. There is no clear history of the origins of the Kazakhs, who emerged in the 15th century. Turko-Mongolian nomadic pastoralists, they led a life built around herd animals and migration, and their society was divided on the basis of membership in one of the three Hordes (Great, Middle, or Lesser), then by clan and subclan. The legendary founder is Alash. Although there is no historical evidence for him, the name and legend have played an important unifying role in the 19th and 20th centuries.

20. It is generally believed that the Kazakhs, as an ethnic group, began when Dzhanibek and Girei, of the Mongol White Horde, broke with Abulkair, khan of the Uzbeks. They formed the first Kazakh khanate, which was unified and formalized under Qasim Khan (reigned 1511–1523). In the early 17th century Kalmyks (Mongol nomads) moved into the area just east of the Kazakhs, and a century later Russia began to establish frontier forts to the north. In 1731 Abul Khayr, khan of the Lesser Horde, swore fealty to the Russian czarina Anna Ioanna in exchange for military support and protection against the Kalmyks.

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