Kazakhstan, also spelled Kazakstan or Khazakhstan, (Also: Qazaqstan), officially the Republic of Kazakhstan, is a country that stretches over a vast expanse of northern and central Eurasia. It is the ninth-largest country in the world by area. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, observers have talked about a region called Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It would be more accurate now to refer to Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Except for a few of its southern provinces bordering Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan really is not like its more southern neighbors. It is richer, less provincial, and more progressive.

Part of this marked difference is a function of history. While all five countries in the region were Sovietized, only Kazakhstan was heavily Russified, with the process beginning nearly 300 years ago. About 30% of Kazakhstan's current population is still ethnic Russian, compared to single-figure percentages in the other four countries. The northern third of Kazakhstan's vast territory is still heavily ethnic-Russian, which is one key reason why President Nazarbayev planted his new capital, Astana, firmly on the steppes of southern Siberia in 1998 -- to declare to any possible irridentists, "All of Kazakhstan is ours."

Another part of Kazakhstan's marked difference is a function of national policy. Two early decisions were seminal. Immediately after independence, Kazakhstan made the fundamental decision to become a market economy and undertook serious economic and financial reforms, at the same time it opened its door to major investment by Western international oil companies. Although Kazakhstan is no stranger to post-Soviet corruption that allows senior officials and their favorites to gain vast wealth, Kazakhstan was wise enough to spread the wealth (and had enough available) so that a real economic middle class has begun to develop. Kazakhstan's economy is larger than the combined economies of the other four states in the region.

A second early decision set Kazakhstan apart from the other four. President Nazarbayev established the Bolashak Program to give a new generation of Kazakhstanis full university education, mostly in the West. The nearly 5,000 alumni of this on-going program are now salted throughout the upper mid-levels of the public and private sectors. Their openness to new ideas, sophistication, and self-confidence are clearly in evidence in our daily interactions. While the other four countries have serious "capacity problems," Kazakhstan is confidently moving ahead, with a new generation increasingly prepared to move into power.

The majority of Kazakhstanis are ethnic Kazakh; other ethnic groups include Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, German, and Uyghur. Religions are Sunni Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Protestant, and other. Kazakhstan is a bilingual country. The Kazakh language has the status of the "state" language, while Russian is declared the "official" language. Russian is used routinely in business; 64.4% of the population speaks the Kazakh language. Education is universal and mandatory through the secondary level, and the literacy rate is 98.8%.

Following the August 1991 abortive coup attempt in Moscow and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence on December 16, 1991. The weapons of greatest concern to the world were the 1,350 nuclear warheads that remained in Kazakstan when the Soviet Union disbanded. Although two other new states--Ukraine and Belarus--also possessed "stranded" nuclear weapons, the Kazakstani weapons attracted particular international suspicion, and unsubstantiated rumors reported the sale of warheads to Iran. Subsequent negotiations demonstrated convincingly, however, that operational control of these weapons always had remained with Russian strategic rocket forces (see Foreign Policy, this ch.). All of the warheads were out of Kazakstan by May 1995.

Kazakstan's other military significance was as a test range and missile launch site. The republic was the location of only about 1 percent of all Soviet test ranges, but these included some all Soviet Union's largest and most important, especially in the aerospace and nuclear programs. Test sites included a range at Vladimirovka used to integrate aircraft with their weapons systems; a range at Saryshaghan for flight testing of ballistic missiles and air defense systems; a similar facility at Emba; and the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Weapons Proving Grounds, which was the more important of the two major nuclear testing facilities in the Soviet Union. In the four decades of its existence, there were at least 466 nuclear explosions at Semipalatinsk.

The other major Soviet military facility on Kazakstani soil was the Baykonur space launch facility, the home of the Soviet space exploration program and, until 1994, Russia's premier launch site for military and intelligence satellites. Kazakstan and Russia debated ownership of the facility, while the facility itself suffered acute deterioration from the region's harsh climate and from uncontrolled pilfering. In 1994 Russia formally recognized Kazakstan's ownership of the facility, although a twenty-year lease ratified in 1995 guaranteed Russia continued use of Baykonur.

Kazakhstan is different from the other four countries of Central Asia; it is richer, less provincial, and more progressive. Kazakhstan is a force for stability in the region -- it does not employ territorial, ethnic, economic, or energy threats or claims against its neighbors. Kazakhstan's early decisions to make serious macroeconomic reforms away from a command economy and its commitment to prepare a new generation of leaders through international education are now paying off. Civil society is alive and well in Kazakhstan, although top-down authoritarianism still sets limits.

The years following independence have been marked by significant reforms to the Soviet command-economy and political monopoly on power. Under Nursultan Nazarbayev, who initially came to power in 1989 as the head of the Kazakh Communist Party and was eventually elected President in 1991, Kazakhstan has made significant progress toward developing a market economy, for which it was recognized by the United States in 2002. The country has enjoyed significant economic growth since 2000, partly due to its large oil, gas, and mineral reserves.

While the Kazakhstani government articulates a strategic vision of a democratic society, it has lagged on the implementation front. The government is resistant to fully competitive political processes, and the situation is complicated by the fact that President Nazarbayev is extremely popular, while the opposition is weak, fractured, and comprised principally of former Nazarbayev loyalists. In May 2007, significant amendments were adopted to Kazakhstan's constitution which were touted as strengthening parliament, but also removed terms limits on Nazarbayev. In parliamentary elections held in August 2007, Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party officially received 88 percent of the vote and took all the seats in parliament. An OSCE election observation mission concluded that the elections did not meet OSCE standards.

President Nazarbayev has both old-guard and progressive senior advisers and usually balances their views with a nod, even if sometimes slight, toward the progressive side, although he is cautious as he balances his equities. Constraints toward greater progress include the Committee for National Security (ex-KGB) and elements of the Ministry of Defense, which lean toward the siloviki faction in Moscow.

The Obama Administration focused major foreign-policy attention and resources on Afghanistan/Pakistan and on the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship. Kazakhstan -- oil-rich, stable, and relatively progressive -- is the most reliable US partner between Russia and Afghanistan and is seeking to enhance its relationship with the US, including with more frequent, high-level contacts (cabinet-level and above).

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