Even though Kazakhstan won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, little has changed in the power stakes

Chris Stowers / Panos

Kazakhstan is a nation of extremes. Temperatures in the Central Asian steppe peak at 50 degrees celsius in summer, plummeting to minus 50 in winter. Clapped-out Lada cars with broken air-conditioning are standard and long journeys by road quickly become very uncomfortable. But beneath the grassland and desert stretching from Siberia to the Caspian Sea sits vast oil and mineral wealth that fuels an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Even though Kazakhstan won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, little has changed in the power stakes. President Nursultan Nazarbaev effectively took control in 1989 when he became the First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party and has not shown any signs of budging since winning flawed polls in the country’s first presidential election. His Nur Otan Party holds every seat in the Majilis and several prominent opposition politicians have been murdered or jailed on trumped-up charges since 1991.

The Nazarbaev Government has repeatedly censored the press through the arbitrary use of libel and slander laws, and mosques can be shut down for not presenting the correct property registration documents.

As a major oil, uranium and grain exporter, Kazakhstan’s economic growth is strong. The capital, Astana, along with the financial centre, Almaty, are fast becoming two of the most expensive cities in the world. Business is good for the President’s friends. A handful of powerbrokers occupy every niche in the oil, banking and media sectors. In summer, the upper echelons of society traipse over the border into Kyrgyzstan, paying $20,000 apiece to shoot endangered Marco Polo sheep while taking swigs from an endless supply of vodka.

Rural migrants are flocking to the city in an effort to claim their share of petrodollars, but space is tight. House prices in Almaty jump by 70 to 140 per cent a year and what little affordable accommodation the Government sponsors is snapped up by officials who sell it on at enormous profit. Large families often squeeze into a tiny apartment where hot water supplies are unreliable.

All public services are slowly deteriorating and the widening poverty gap is inducing nostalgia for the good old Soviet days when ‘childhood was happy’. Indeed, Saturday morning television broadcasts 1970s cartoons about lazy farmers who bring about their villages’ demise in between ad breaks promoting happy hardcore cellphone ringtones.

Under Joseph Stalin, Kazakhstan became the agricultural and industrial backbone of the Soviet Union. Kazakhs were forced to join collective farms or heavy industry and those that refused were deported to labour camps. Around 1.5 million people died of famine and disease during the 1930s and another half a million fled in horror to Mongolia, China or Turkey. By 1936, ethnic Kazaks, who are descended from 15th-century Turkic or Mongol tribes, had become a minority in their own country.

Unlike in the rest of Central Asia, their horse-riding, nomadic way of life has almost completely died out. Despite a glossy tourism campaign that says otherwise, few people in Kazakhstan actually hunt with falcons or live in yurts any more and much of the country’s beautiful wilderness is a toxic hell.

Weapons-testing sites established in northeastern Kazakhstan during the 1950s are still radioactive, and some babies near Semipalatinsk are born with defects. The Aral, which used to be the fourth largest inland sea, is now mostly desert after the two main rivers that flow into it were rerouted for irrigation during the 1960s. Strong winds whip up salt and biochemicals from the dry basin, blowing noxious dust storms as far as the Himalayas.