This is the first in what I plan to be a series of dairies providing overviews of the nations of central asia. I hope to give everyone here some basic knowledge about this little-understood region, which, as along as America has troops in Afghanistan, will be of central importance.
Ah, who could forget Kazakhstan, land of the infamous Borat? Sacha Baron Cohen's antics turned his character's supposed home nation, formally unknown to most Americans, into a household name. In the process, it created an image of Kazakhstan that most Kazakhstanis would rather the world forget (and so disgusted the country's government that it threatened to sue.). So, as a service to this unjustly maligned country, I hearby present the real Kazakhstan.
In fact, Kazakhstan is currently the most well-off country in Central Asia. It lies just to the south of Russia, and north of the other Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The country has a very diverse population-a little over half are ethnic Kazakhs, who speak Kazakh, a Turkic language closely related to Turkish and the languages spoken in the other countries of Central Asia. About a fourth of the population are ethnic Russians, descended from settlers who came during imperial Russian and Soviet rule. The rest of the country is made up of various other groups-Kazakhstan was used by the Soviets as a prison colony/dumping ground for people they deported, and today contains small populations of Germans, Koreans, and even some Poles. Most Kazakhs are Muslim (though of a more moderate brand than prevails in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia), and most of the Russians belong to the Russian Orthodox Chuch. The country has a few other religions due to its diverse population.
The area now called Kazakhstan has been inhabited by nomadic Kazakh tribes since the 15th century. They formed several khanates, which were gradually taken over by the Russians during the 19th century. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Russians began large-scale settlement of the region, a policy continued in the 20th century by the Soviets. Under the Soviets, Kazakhstan became a "Soviet Socialist Republic", roughly equivalent to a US state. The area was a quiet corner of the Soviet Union-the local communist beauracracy was able to stifle most dissent, even as the rest of the USSR experienced Perestroika and Glasnost. The country stayed loyal to Moscow until the Soviet Union dissolved, when Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Soviet-appointed governor of the area, reluctantly declared independence and shortly thereafter had himself "elected" president of the new nation. No opposition candidates ran, and Nazarbayev remains in power to this day, consistently winning elections that much of the international community accuses him of rigging (interestingly, Kazakhstan's original post-independence constitution included presidential term limits, but Nazarbayev's Parliament helpfully removed them in 2007.) Many old communist era restrictions and power structures remain-indeed, the "post-Soviet" government of Kazakhstan bears a rather strong semblance to the system it supposedly replaced.
Economically, Kazakhstan has benefited greatly from its large oil and natural gas reserves-the GDP has shown strong growth (over 10% in 2006 and 9% in 2005-see the article cited above) and the capital city of Astana is now a modern, glittering metropolis. This makes it a rare success story in Central Asia, much of which is still gripped by varying degrees of economic privation.
Kazakhstan is a large country, about twice the size of Alaska. Much of it is flat steppe, which supported the nomadic Kazakh tribes of medieval times, though the Tien Shien mountains in the south provide spectacular scenery. Aside from its natural beauty, the nation possesses a rich cultural heritege, particularly oral poetry and musical traditions-in short, a rich and fascinating country whose reality is far from the unfortunate image that has formed in the West lately.