The emptiness of Kazakhstan’s vast territory is deceptive. Set in the heart of Central Asia, a myriad of complexities are interwoven with its past and present.
By far the largest of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan is the least densely populated. Kazaks as an ethnic group constitute a minority in their own country, the only Central Asian republic where this is the case.
Kazakhstan’s fledgling democracy is dominated by the powerful figure of President Nazarbaev. He first took the post in 1990. In 1995 he dissolved Parliament and held a referendum in which he claimed a 95-per-cent endorsement for the extension of his presidency until the year 2000.
He heads a territory stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the south-east. This vast expanse of grassy steppe was home to the nomadic, horse-riding peoples who eventually emerged in the fifteenth century as the Kazaks. They used a Turkic language and adopted Islam, but since they were nomads they left few buildings or monuments behind. The traditional Kazak lifestyle is not much in evidence today, except as a tourist attraction. During the terrifying regime of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, those who refused to join agricultural collectives or live in cities were persecuted and sent to labour camps. Famine soon followed. Hundreds of thousands died. Many Kazaks fled to neighbouring China and the population plunged by more than two million from 1926 to 1933.
The Kazaks divide themselves according to geography into what they call ‘Hordes’. These internal divisions include the Great Horde which is mostly in the south, the Middle Horde in the centre and the Little Horde in the east. President Nazarbaev’s allegiance is to the Great Horde but he has taken steps to redress the exclusion from power of the Middle and Little Hordes.
Shifting the capital from Almaty in the South – which is Great Horde territory – to Aqmola in the North is an attempt to placate the Middle Horde. The transfer took place at the end of 1997 and Parliament held its first session there in January 1998. But the new capital is not popular. Almaty has the largest concentration of people, industries and tourism, while the infrastructure of Aqmola has yet to be properly developed. The President is frequently sighted in his old haunts and enjoys skiing at Chymbulak, a playground for the affluent.
Since independence Kazakhstan has been exploiting its rich natural resources, particularly oil and gas. Foreign companies have sent in staff and deals have also been brokered with neighbouring China. The influx has made Almaty the second-most-expensive city in the world after Tokyo.
Frequent power cuts in the cities add to anxiety about the country’s development. Unemployment is rising and organized crime is spreading – wide gaps in wealth between foreigners and local people are obvious.
Meanwhile, the Government tries to nurture a sense of national identity. This has led to less tolerance of non-Kazaks, particularly Russians and Slavs. Kazak will be written in Roman script rather than Russian Cyrillic though many Kazaks speak Russian as their first language and around 40 per cent are unable to speak Kazak.
The country is looking both East and West for assistance and markets, but ultimate loyalties lie within its own boundaries.
AT A GLANCE
Leader: Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Economy: GNP per capita $1,160 (Australia $18,000).
Monetary unit: tenge, 100 tein = 1 tenge.
People: 17.2 million.
Health: Infant mortality 27 per 1,000 live births (Canada 6 per 1,000). Healthcare is good relative to other former Soviet republics, but there is concern about the long-term effects of Soviet nuclear tests in the region.
Culture: Kazak 40 per cent, Russian 37 per cent, German 6 per cent, Ukrainian 5 per cent. The remainder are mainly Uzbeks, Tatars and Uyghurs.
Sources: Encarta 97 World Atlas CD Rom; World Development Report 1997; information from local sources.
Never previously profiled
Increasing gaps in income and wealth with reductions in state subsidies and public services and higher levels of unemployment.
Most people receive basic education with near 100-per-cent literacy rates for men and women.
Rich in natural resources. But this wealth is not reflected in the balance of payments where there is a significant excess of imports over exports.
Universal voting rights for over-18s. The media is tightly controlled and outright criticism of the current regime is restricted.
POSITION OF WOMEN
Women in theory had equal rights under communism but this is changing. Kazak women are still the least restricted in Central Asia. Prostitution is on the rise.
For males 65 years, for females 74. Not far behind more developed countries (US 76 years).
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