Kazakhstan is one of those countries that seems to be on the edge of the world, despite being so large and so prominent in many ways. Few Americans have even heard of it, and when they have it is probably in the terribly misrepresented context of the Borat movie. Though I thought the film was a thought-provoking social commentary on the U.S., it did quite a number for Kazakhstan PR (while definitely not including a single second of footage from Kazakhstan). And even as someone who did post-Soviet studies in college, I learned surprisingly little about Kazakhstan or Central Asia as a whole — so much of the academic, political and current events discussion on the Former Soviet Union is incredibly Russia-centric. With these thoughts in mind, here are some basic facts about Kazakhstan for those that are unfamiliar with the region (and those too lazy to Wikipedia;):
- Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, and the largest landlocked country. It is about 4 times the size of Texas, and larger than the entirety of Western Europe.
- Population: ~16 million (which is literally less than the population of metro+municipal Beijing!).
- Bordered by Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan contains many different terrains and climates. Much of the country is steppe (flatlands), with cold Siberian winters in the north and sweltering summers in the south.
- Russian is the “official” language (that almost all business/govt is conducted in), while Kazakh maintains its status as the “state” language. About 60% of people speak Kazakh, whereas 95% speak Russian.
- About 60% of the population is ethnically Kazakh, and over 20% are ethnically Russian. The proportions vary significantly as you move around the country though, of course (higher Russian pop. in the cities and in the north).
- About 70% of Kazakhstanis are Muslim (though it seems like not too many adhere fully to traditional practices of Islam). Around 17% are Russian Orthodox.
- Kazakhstan is historically nomadic, but has been under the influence of the Russian empire since the 18th century. In the 20th century it was, of course, a republic of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was the last Soviet Socialist Republic to achieve independence in 1991 after the collapse.
- Kazakhstan is a presidential republic. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been President since independence in 1991.
- Kazakhstan has the largest and most developed economy of the Central Asian countries. GDP growth in the last five years has been over 9%, with energy being the largest sector. Its combined oil, gas, coal and uranium reserves are among the 10 largest in the world. 1 U.S. Dollar currently trades at 150 Kazakh tenge.