Kazakhstan Country Profile
Kazakhstan is a sprawling nation that straddles East Asia and Europe, Russian culture and the Turkic mindset, historical nomadism and 21st century progression. It’s a key player in Eurasian economics and politics, wielding a powerful influence throughout the entire region.
Traveling across its arid steppe, you can envision the Kazakh tribesmen whose steps you are retracing. See remnants of their lifestyle in symbolic yurts, lively music strummed out on ancient instruments, skilled horsemen showing off their prowess in age-old outdoor games and freshly prepared meat and noodle dishes which taste twice as good when eaten traditionally, with the right hand.
The Kazakhstan Country Profile will acquaint you with this nation, a land that enjoys the Tian Shan Mountains, Lake Balkhash, Charyn Canyon and Shymbulak; the modern cities of Almaty and Astana and historical towns of Otrar and Baikonur; famed Bayterek Tower, Zelyony Bazaar and Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Mausoleum; and above all else, a welcoming and little-known people of nomadic heritage.
General Kazakhstan Facts
Official Name: Republic of Kazakhstan
Capital: Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana)
Kazakhstan Population: 18.6 million (2019)
Total area: 2.72 million square km
Land Boundaries: Russia (north, northwest), China (east), Kyrgyzstan (southeast), Uzbekistan (south), Turkmenistan (western edge)
Climate: dry continental
Languages: Kazakh, Russian
Religions: Islam, Sunni - 71%, Christianity, Eastern Orthodox and Romana Catholic – 26%, other – 4%
Ethnic mix: Kazakh (68%), Russian (19.3%), Uzbek (3%), Ukrainian (2.1%), Uyghur (1.4%), Tatar (1.3%), German (1.1%), other (3.8%)
Government: officially a presidential republic
Time Zones: GMT+5, GMT+6
Internet Domain: .kz
Kazakhstan President: Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
Administrative Divisions: 14 regions plus 2 cities
Independence: December 16, 1991
National currency: Kazakhstani tenge
Kazakhstan GDP: 168.5 USD Billion (2019)
Electricity: 220 volts AC, 50Hz. Round two-pin continental plugs are standard.
Flag of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan’s flag has a distinct, sky-blue background, with the emblem of a 32-ray golden sun and a soaring yellow eagle in the foreground. The left rim of the flag is flanked by traditional Kazakh ornamentation known as koshkar-muiz (ram’s horn), also in golden yellow.
The light blue color is historically representative of the Turkic peoples – their unity, integrity and ancient worship of the sky. It also reflects peace, prosperity and Kazakhstan’s clear blue skies and water.
The sun itself represents time and progress, energy and life, and a welcoming of partnership with all countries. Its 32 rays, shaped like sheaves of grain, symbolize the abundance and natural wealth of the nation.
The soaring eagle has historical significance for the Kazakh people, as many Kazakh tribes displayed it on their individual flags. The eagle denotes fierce independence, courage, strength and lofty goals for the future.
The ram’s horn pattern is indicative of the culture and artistic traditions of the Kazakh people, and a symbol of unity among all the peoples of the land.
Brief history of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan has been inhabited since ancient times. Tribes wandered its steppes as early as 17th century BC and were followed in later times by the Scythians (known locally as the Saka peoples). The Saka were a nomadic people, skilled horsemen and warriors.
Subsequent centuries saw the migration of Turkic tribes, who founded the present-day cities of Otrar and Taraz and whose settlement of Kazakhstan territory contributed to its significance along the Great Silk Road.
Arabs came in the 8th century, bringing Islam and the land’s first official writing system. They were followed in the 13th century by Genghis Khan and his army, under which Kazakhstan became a part of the newly developed ‘Golden Horde’. This formation was destroyed when Tamerlane’s army swept through in 1391.
With the appearance of distinct khanates in the late 15th century, Kazakhs became a distinct ethnic group.
In the 17th century, Kazakhs developed into 3 distinct tribes: the Greater, Middle and Lesser Hordes. Even in the 21st century, this is still an important distinction for the Kazakh people.
Also during the 17th century and into the 1800s, the Kazakh hordes formed a partnership with Russia for protection against annihilation from warring, ruthless tribes on nearly every side. This partnership later turned into domination by the Russians, whose rule brought improved infrastructure to the land at the expense of dramatic and devastating changes to the Kazakhs’ traditional way of life.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of Russians were forcibly settled within Kazakh territory. This predicated the deadly years of 1916-1917, in which more than 150,000 people were killed and over a quarter million fled the Russian repression. The unrest eventually led to civil war and further casualties.
During the 1920s-1930s, over a million Kazakhs perished as this nomadic people was forcibly settled into the newly formed Kazakh SSR, a state within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). By 1940 the population of Kazakhstan had fallen more than 20% due to mass migration and starvation.
The following decades of Soviet rule saw the launching of the Soviet space program out of Baikonur, a nuclear program founded near Semey, and over a million Russian and Eastern Europeans forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan.
In December 1991, Kazakhstan gained independence from the USSR and Nursultan Nazarabaev was declared the country’s first president. In 1993 the national currency, the tenge, was introduced, and in 1997 Aqmola, renamed Astana in 1998, was declared the capital of Kazakhstan. (Almaty had previously held this title). Astana was renamed Nur-Sultan in 2019.
Kazakhstan is officially a Presidential Republic in which the president is also head of state and commander-in-chief. The president is supported by a prime minster, a civil law legal system and a bicameral parliament consisting of the 47-seat Senate and 107-seat Mazhilis (Assembly). The current constitution was adopted in 1995.
The country has had two presidents since gaining independence in 1991. Nursultan Nazarbaev served as president from 1991-2019, when he stepped down from office at the age of 78. While in office, Nazarbayev strengthened the authority of the president, giving him sole power to dissolve Parliament, amend the constitution and appoint new heads to governmental positions.
Current Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was appointed the interim president by Nazarbaev on March 20, 2019 and elected to office with 71 percent of the vote on June 9, 2019. Prime Minister Askar Mamin was also appointed to office in 2019.
Nazarbaev, while no longer president of Kazakhstan, remains head the National Security Council and the Nur Otan Democratic People’s Party, the ruling party in Kazakhstan.
There are 14 official regions of Kazakhstan. Almaty and Nur-Sultan also function as independent districts. Each region is overseen by a mayor approved by the president and appointed by the people.
Climate and Geography of Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, roughly half the size of the continental US. Over 90% of the country is covered in steppe, semi-desert or desert. The remaining land reflects the beauty of forests, mountains, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
The natural landscape is enhanced by thousands of plant and animal varieties found from the northern forest steppes to the mountains in the south and southeast of Kazakhstan. Most prominent are the Tien Shan and South Altai ranges that stretch for more than 2,500 km. The highest peak in the country is Khan Tengri at 7,000m above sea level. Kazakhstan’s entire mountain system is rich in mineral springs.
There are nearly 7 thousand natural lakes in the country. The largest are the Caspian Sea along Kazakhstan’s western border, Lake Balkhash in the sands of Central Kazakhstan, Lake Zaysan in the east, Alakol Lake in the southeast, and Tengiz Lake in the center of Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has a dry continental climate, but given its expansive size sees extreme variations in temperature and precipitation. The northern areas see long winters, more freezing temperatures and greater snowfall, while the south experiences intense summer heat, longer springs and autumns and significantly milder winters. July and August are the hottest months across the country.
The desert of Kazakhstan is an arid area, characterized by high temperatures in summer, severe and intensely cold weather in winter, infrequent rainfall and extremely dry air. Strong winds whip up sandstorms and summer temperatures can vary sharply during a 24-hour-period.
Kazakhstan is a unique land with over 130 nationalities calling it ‘home’. While Kazakhs comprise over two-thirds of the country’s population, there are significant minority groups of Russians, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Koreans, Tajiks, Tatars and Meskhetian Turks.
It’s also the most urbanized country in all of Central Asia, with two-thirds of the Kazakhstan population residing in cities. Interestingly, the historically nomadic Kazakhs still live disproportionately in rural areas; for example, while Kazakhs represent more than two-thirds of the population, they make up only half the population of Almaty. In total, 60% of Kazakhs live in villages or other rural areas.
More than any other Central Asian nation, the culture has been highly influenced by Russia due to the two nations’ close physical proximity, strong political and economic ties and the high percentage of Russians living in Kazakhstan. As a result, modern dress is seen in all the cities and to a lesser degree in the rural areas. Women often hold high positions in hospitals, businesses and educational institutions, and religious practice is usually tacked onto secular lifestyles rather than forming the backbone for individual and family decisions.
Yet there are still many facets of traditional Kazakh lifestyle that are reflected in the culture today. All Kazakhs know from which horde they are descended (Greater, Middle or Lesser), and will rarely marry a Kazakh that is not from their same tribe. At the same time, they must know their ancestry from 7 generations back, since they are forbidden from marrying anyone to whom they could be distantly related to. Bride stealing is still practiced occasionally in the southern regions, although officially illegal.
A Kazakh household, particularly in the villages, rarely contains just the nuclear family. Several generations often live together under one roof, with the youngest son and his wife expected to continue living with his parents, to care for them until death.
Horses have always been valued by Kazakhstan people, and today they are still used for racing, riding, cattle-herding and even eating. While it’s rare for anyone today to live in a traditional Kazakh yurt, they are still used on occasion by shepherds or as a venue for selling homemade products along the side of the road.
Woven into the fabric of the Kazakh lifestyle is a love for celebrations and holidays. Although people rarely smile at strangers, beneath the poised exterior is a courageous, enduring and hospitable people.
Kazakhstan: Economy and Industry
Kazakhstan has one of the strongest economies of the former Soviet Central Asian republics. It has over 90 natural resources, with oil and natural gas by far the most plenteous and valuable to Kazakhstan’s economy. Mining is another key sector, as scientists from around the world consider Kazakhstan to be 6th in the world in availability of minerals, with an estimated value of 10 trillion USD. Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium and also has sizable reserves of zinc, iron, copper, lead, chrome, gold and coal.
Other industries vital to the economy of Kazakhstan include the agricultural sector, most notably wheat, potatoes, melons and livestock, while lesser but growing industries include trade, construction, pharmaceuticals, food processing, transport, petrochemicals and telecommunications.
Since Kazakhstan is landlocked, it must export its goods via surrounding countries, most notably Russia. Exports are sent primarily to Russia, China, Ukraine, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Kazakhstan’s labor force is growing, and it holds great future potential. In the last two decades, poverty has sharply decreased, and the country’s per capita GDP has multiplied sixfold. It is also a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC).
The native language of the Kazakh people is Kazakh, a Turkic language closely related to Kyrgyz and Karakalpak. Yet Kazakhstan has three official languages: Kazakh, Russian and English.
In the north and around Almaty, Russian is much more common than Kazakh, and many Kazakhs do not know their native language. In Kazakhstan’s south and west, Kazakh is more prevalent, with many people also fluent in Russian as a second language. In many villages, Kazakh dominates and Russian is poorly spoken.
English is taught as a second language from kindergarten onwards, and parents have the option of putting their child in either a Russian or Kazakh-speaking school. A few Uzbek and Uyghur language schools are also present in areas where these minorities form a significant percentage of the population.
In 2017, an initiative was launched to transition from the Cyrillic script to the Latin script for the written Kazakh language. By 2025, the country is slated to officially transition to the 32-letter Latin alphabet. One of the government’s goals in so doing is to make English language learning easier for the younger generations and to strengthen Kazakh over Russian as the nation’s primary language.
The history of religion in Kazakhstan stretches back millennia, with evidence that Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Tengrism were all practiced at one time by the Kazakh people. 21st century religion in Kazakhstan has been shaped by the people’s nomadic ancestry, Russian dominion and the current pull between Westernization and maintaining cultural identity.
Today, over 70 percent of Kazakhstan’s population officially identifies as Sunni Muslim, with another quarter of the people adhering to Orthodox Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Catholicism. Kazakhstan is an officially secular nation, and much of Kazakhstan religion is a blending of religious adherence with secular practices and superstitious beliefs. For example, an individual might attend Friday prayers or a Sunday Orthodox service while hanging amulets in their car and home for protection, or officially register as ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’ without ever stepping foot in a house of worship or reading the Bible or Quran.
In the three decades since independence, outward indications of religious practice, such as the building of hundreds of mosques and the re-installation of Friday prayers, have continued to gain momentum. This is due, in part, to the idea that religion is an inherent part of cultural identity and ethnicity: for many Kazakhs, this means faithfulness to Islam, and for Russians, following in the steps of their ancestors who practiced the Orthodox faith. People of different faiths usually co-exist together peacefully and with mutual respect.
Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana, has been Kazakhstan’s capital since 1998. However, the city has been through so much change over the years that it begs a quick overview:
1830 – founded by the Russians as Akmola, an insignificant defensive outpost
1832 – renamed Akmolinsk to acknowledge its status as a city
1961 – renamed Tselinograd, “City of Virgin Lands”, as part of a Soviet initiative to increase production in the region
1992 – name reverts back to Akmola shortly after Kazakhstan’s independence
1997 – Akmola replaces Almaty as the Kazakhstan capital on December 10, 1997
1998 – Akmola is renamed Astana on May 6, 1998
2019 – Astana is renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of the country’s first president
Today, Nur-Sultan is a growing city with a young population. This political and economic capital draws people daily from all across the country to its prestigious universities, increasing work opportunities and modern conveniences.
What the city is lacking in history and charm, it makes up for in modern parks, recreation centers, malls, museums and immaculate boulevards. Consider Bayterek Tower, the city’s most popular attraction, which provides an amazing view of the city on a clear day and the chance to place your palm in the famed golden imprint of Nazarbayev’s hand.
Then there’s Kan Shatyr, a modern shopping mall housed in the largest tent in the world, or the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a huge pyramid built by architect Norman Foster. The Atameken Memorial Complex and Duman Recreational Complex will delight young and old, as will the many museums and parks.
January 1-2 – New Year
January 7 – Russian Orthodox Christmas
March 8 – International Women’s Day
March 21-22 – Navruz
May 1 – Solidarity Day
May 9 – Victory Day
July 6-7 – Capital City Day
August 30 – Constitution Day
December 1-2 First President’s Day
December 16-17 Independence Day
Date varies - Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan celebration)
Date varies - Eid ul-Adha (70 days after Ramadan ends)
Notable Historical Figures
Tole-bi (1663-1756) - poet, author, speaker and head of the Greater Horde
Abai Qunanbaiuly (1845-1904) – One of Kazakhstan’s most famous poets, Abai was the founder of Kazakh literature and pushed for cultural reform through religious principles
Saken Seifullin (1894-1938) - famous poet, playwright and statesman, Seifullin began a writer’s union and called for greater autonomy of Kazakhstan from Russia.
Mukhtar Auezov (1897-1961) – esteemed writer, professor and scientist whose works were highly influenced by Abai
Tauke Khan (1680-1715) - former leader of the Kazakh Khanate who solidified the Kazakh Code of Laws and helped to defeat invading Chinese warlords in an epic battle.
Kazybek bi, Tole bi and Aiteke bi (17th-18th centuries) - the three great leaders, judges (bi) and advisors to Tauke Khan whose wise rulings helped the Kazakh people to escape suppression and extinction at the hands of warring Chinese tribes. They were also known for their refined oratorial abilities.