Five things to know about Kazakhstan

With dozens reported dead in the worst unrest in energy-rich Kazakhstan in decades, we look at what had been one of the most stable and tightly controlled of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

– Nazarbayev –

Former Communist Party boss Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 81, ruled the vast steppe land with an iron fist for years from independence in 1991. He was still reportedly pulling the strings after he finally stepped down in 2019 to make way for his anointed successor, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

A key Russian ally, the country has never had a free election.

Nazarbayev used its vast oil wealth to build a gleaming new capital, Astana — later renamed Nur-Sultan in his honour.

Known for its futuristic skyline of skyscrapers and chilly winter temperatures that regularly plunge below minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit), an observation tower at its centre is topped with a viewing platform where visitors can place their hands on a gold imprint of Nazarbayev’s palm.

The old capital Almaty remains the biggest city and commercial hub.

– Cosmodrome – 

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world with an area of more than 2.7 million square kilometres (1.1 million square miles).

The vast Kazakh steppe is home to the Russia-leased Baikonur cosmodrome — still the world’s biggest launch pad nearly 60 years after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off from there to become the first man in space. 

– Mixed population –

Kazakhs may make up nearly 70 percent of the population (2020) but historically the country has had a large Russian minority.

Russians made up more than 40 percent of its people in the 1970s but their numbers have since fallen back to one in five of the population.

Officially home to 130 nationalities, many were deported there in Soviet times as political prisoners, with German, Greek, Tatar, Polish, Korean, Ingush and Georgian Turk communities springing up across the steppe.

Kazakhstan is proud of its nomadic history and marked 550 years since the birth of the first Kazakh state in 2015. 

The celebrations followed controversial remarks by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who said that Kazakhs had never had a state prior to independence from Moscow.

While Kazakhstan and Russia traditionally enjoy strong relations, their shared history sometimes gets in the way. 

Russia criticised a 2019 Kazakh documentary which claimed that the forced collectivisation of the country resulted in genocide, with up to 40 percent of the population either dying in famines or fleeing in the 1930s.

– Heavily dependent on oil –

Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s biggest economy which has in the past seen double-digit growth. But it was hit hard by a 2014 plunge in oil prices on which it is heavily dependent.

It was also affected by the 2008 economic crisis in Russia, which led to a devaluation of the Kazakh currency, the tenge.

Oil accounted for 21 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2020, according to the World Bank, which predicts the economy will grow by 3.7 percent this year.

The country’s main oilfield Tengiz produces a third of Kazakhstan’s annual output and is 50-percent controlled by US firm Chevron.

The world’s biggest producer of uranium, Kazakhstan is also overflowing with manganese, iron, chromium and coal.

Kazakhstan has linked the future of its economy to neighbouring China, investing heavily in its road network, railways and port infrastructure to facilitate trade links.

– Getting past Borat –

For all the petrodollars the resource-rich state has  invested in image promotion, Kazakhstan is still dogged by Borat.

Many beyond its borders continue to associate the country with British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 outrageous hit mockumentary Borat.

He reared his head again in 2017 when Baron Cohen offered to pay fines for Czech tourists detained by Kazakh police after they posed for photos in the capital wearing Borat-style “mankinis”.