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Kazakhstan

The Kazakh steppeland, north of the Tien Shan Mountains, south of Russian Siberia, west of the Caspian Sea, and east of China, has been inhabited since the Stone Age. It is a land rich in natural resources, with recent oil discoveries putting it among the world leaders in potential oil reserves. The newly independent Republic of Kazakhstan ranks ninth in the world in geographic size (roughly the size of Western Europe) and is the largest country in the world without an ocean port.

The Kazakhs, a Turkic people ethnically tied to the Uighur (We-goor) people of western China and similar in appearance to Mongolians, emerged in 1991 from over sixty years of life behind the Iron Curtain. Kazakhstan, which officially became a full Soviet socialist republic in 1936, was an important but often neglected place during Soviet times. It was to Kazakhstan that Joseph Stalin exiled thousands of prisoners to some of his most brutal gulags. It was also to Kazakhstan that he repatriated millions of people of all different ethnicities, in an effort to "collectivize" the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was also the site of the Soviet nuclear test programs and Nikita Khrushchev's ill-conceived "Virgin Lands" program. These seventy years seem to have had a profound and long-lasting effect on these formerly nomadic people.

The process of shedding the Soviet Union and starting anew as the democratic Republic of Kazakhstan is made difficult by the fact that a large percentage of Kazakhstan is not Kazakh. Russians still make up 34.7 percent of the population, and other non-Kazakhs such as Ukrainians, Koreans, Turks, Chechnians, and Tatars, make up another 17 percent. Many of the non-Kazakh people of Kazakhstan have met attempts by the Kazakh government to make Kazakh the central, dominant culture of Kazakhstan with great disdain and quiet, nonviolent resistance. The picture is further complicated by the fact that many Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs are struggling (out of work and living below the poverty level). Democracy and independence have been hard sells to a people who grew accustomed to the comforts and security of Soviet life.