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.