Kazakhstan is rich with oil, gas and coal but Nursultan Nazarbayev, its president for life, has committed the country to a dramatic shift from fossil fuels to green energy. Is this huge nation, which is beset by rural poverty, major infrastructure challenges and environmental crises, able to realise his vision?
For much of its known history, present-day Kazakhstan was home to nomadic pastoral tribes who roamed its vast steppes (arid, grassland plains) according to seasonal migration patterns. The Kazakhs, for whom the region is named, emerged in the area in the 15th century. Of mixed Mongol and Turkic descent, they developed a sweeping nomadic empire based on a pastoral economy. Beginning in the 17th century, Russia gradually colonized the region, a process that resulted in the total annexation of Kazakh lands by the mid-19th century. During this time, large numbers of Russians and other ethnic groups began to settle in the region; these influxes continued into the 20th century. The corresponding introduction of sedentary agriculture and industry led to the deterioration of the Kazakhs’ traditional nomadic pastoral lifestyle. This process culminated in the Soviet era, when communism and Russian culture shaped the development of an ethnically diverse, industrialized society.
Since gaining its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has grappled with the enduring legacies of Kazakh tribalism and Russian colonialism. Fashioning a new identity in which Kazakh, a language without a strong literary tradition, replaced Russian as the language of government has been a challenge. The country’s political transformation from a Soviet republic to an independent, Kazakh-dominated state has highlighted ethnic differences. Kazakhstan remains home to more than 100 ethnicities of varied religious affiliation, some of whom were involuntarily resettled there during the Soviet era and even earlier. Yet many non-Kazakh ethnic groups, particularly Russians, have left the country in large numbers. This outmigration has occurred during the resurgence of Kazakh cultural identity and political power—the latter of which has been consolidated by Nursultan Nazarbayev, an ethnic Kazakh who has served as the country’s president for the entire independent era. Under his leadership, the exploitation of the country’s immense energy and mineral deposits has made Kazakhstan the richest nation in Central Asia.