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Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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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.

Fact file

Leader President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Economy GNI per capita: $3,790 (Kyrgyzstan $490, Japan $38,410)
Monetary unit Tenge
Main exports The wealthiest country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan’s annual economic growth rate is a massive 10.5%. The economy hinges on extracting and exporting vast reserves of fossil fuels, uranium, metals and other minerals. The country is also the sixth-largest grain exporter in the world. In 2006, the Government adopted a policy designed to diversify the economy away from dependency on oil: machine-building and banking are developing apace.
People 15.3 million
Health Infant mortality 63 per 1,000 live births (Kyrgyzstan 58, Japan 3). General healthcare is better than the other Central Asian states but still inadequate. At least 133 children were infected with HIV in 2006 after being treated at hospitals in Shymkent. Birth defects, cancer and other illnesses related to radiation poisoning occur near old Soviet weapons-testing sites in the north.
Environment Poorly managed, posing serious risks. Toxic chemicals from industrial sites regularly leak into groundwater and large areas of the country are still radioactive. The Aral Sea continues to shrink. Illegal fishing and oil industry waste in the Caspian threaten sturgeon and other marine life. Farmland is steeped in chemical pesticides and salt.
Culture Ethnic Kazaks 53 per cent, Russian 30 per cent, Ukrainian 4 per cent. Smaller minorities of Uzbeks, Germans, Tatars and Uygurs.
Religion Islam, Russian Orthodox
Language Russian is the official language of inter-ethnic communication, followed by Qazaq Tili, a Turkic language written in Cyrillic script.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Around 19 per cent of people live below the poverty line and the gap between urban and rural areas is growing. Pay in the public sector is appalling.
Literacy Access to schools is good after the age of four and literacy is almost 100%. Many teachers take bribes for good grades.
Life expectancy 66 years (Kyrgyzstan 68, Japan 82). Diet consists mainly of bread, noodles, rice and meat. No clean drinking water in some areas.
Freedom The Government has not signed the European Convention on Human Rights. Politically sensitive criminal trials are a sham. Most media outlets are owned by holdings loyal to the President. Religious freedom is guaranteed for registered groups.
Position of women Women have equal rights by law but conditions are poor in some Muslim communities. Prostitution is rising and officials turn a blind eye to sex slavery and abuse.
Sexual minorities Although legalized in 1997, homosexuality is still underground. Gay men are often beaten and the police have been known to join in. The young and well educated are more tolerant.
Previously reviewed 1998
New Internationalist assessment Authoritarian presidential rule. Amendments to the constitution adopted in May 2007 granted the Majilis more power but allowed Nazarbaev to be President for life. Flawed elections held later that year saw Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan Party win 88 per cent of the vote and every seat in the Majilis. Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a prominent critic of Nazarbaev ‘committed suicide’ in November 2005 and opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev was murdered in February 2006.

New Internationalist issue 408 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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