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Kazakhstan: The Spirit of Nomads

kazakh girl on kazakh steppe

Girl on the Kazakh steppe. © centralasian_flickr

It was great fun to work at the U.S. Embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for a few months at a time subsequent to the break-up of the former Soviet Union.   With foreigners still rare, larger-than-life Kazakh hosts served us great offerings of food and drink (fermented mare’s milk) and entertained us for musical evenings.

A huge country

We think of Kazakhstan as a vast “steppe” (plain), which extends more than 300,000 square miles and is the largest dry steppe area in the world; it occupies one-third of the country and is characterized by sandy areas and grasslands, varying between arid and semi-arid conditions.

The country of Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world and is the size of Western Europe, even though it has a population density of less than 15 people per square mile.

Good manners required that a nomad ask first about the health of a man’s livestock when greeting him.

The free spirits of nomads

The word “Kazakh” comes from an ancient Turkic word meaning “independent, a free spirit.”  It was attributed to the historic Kazakh nomad who lived an independent pastoral life on the steppe.

Since the Stone Age, the region was best suited for a nomads who were, in fact, first credited with domesticating the horse for use across its great plains.   Good manners required that a nomad ask first about the health of a man’s livestock when greeting him.  A livestock-based economy dominated  the steppe until the Russian Empire expanded into Central Asia in the 19th century.

Their president-for-life

Zenkov church Almaty Kazakhstan

The Zenkov Church, built in 1903-1906, one of the few buildings in Almaty to survive the 1911 earthquake_Irene2005_flickr

Following his service since 1989 as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev was elected as President of the new independent country after the fall of the Soviet Union.  In 2005, Nazarbayev suspiciously received more than 90 percent of the vote for another seven-year term in office.    The opposition claimed elections were rigged.

Nazarbayev’s power solidified in 2007, when parliament voted to allow him to stay in power for an unlimited number of terms and granted him immunity from criminal prosecution.   Nazarbayev maintains strict control of his country’s politics.

The wealth of Kazakh oil

Kazakhstan owns about four billion tons of proven recoverable oil reserves and 480 cubic miles of gas.  With expansion of production and development of new fields, Kazakhstan could produce as much as three million barrels per day by 2015 and become one of the top ten oil-producing nations of the world.

Due in part to its burgeoning oil industry, many people consider Kazakhstan to be the dominant Central Asian country.  Its international prestige is growing.  Kazakhstan is ethnically diverse, and it allows freedom of religion.

Since its independence, Kazakhstan has made significant progress towards development of a market economy and has seen notable economic growth.  So far Nazarbayev is popular because he is managing to create a peaceful, multi-ethnic country.

The movie about Borat

Borat Sagdiyev is not really a Kazakh.

Kazakh in yurt with food for guests.

Kazakh in yurt with food for guests.© Engle & Smith_flickr