It is bounded by Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, and also shares a significant portion of the Caspian Sea with these countries. Kazakhstan’s landscape is diverse, including flatlands, steppe, taiga, rock gorges, hills, deltas, snow-capped mountains, and deserts. Kazakhstan’s population was projected to be 18 million in 2014. Given its vast geographical area, Kazakhstan has one of the lowest population densities in the world, at fewer than six people per square kilometer (15 people per sq. mi.). Astana is the capital, having been relocated from Almaty, the country’s biggest city, in 1997.
Kazakhstan’s land has traditionally been populated by nomadic tribes. This began to alter in the 13th century, when Genghis Khan conquered the area and incorporated it into the Mongolian Empire. After internal conflicts among conquerors, authority ultimately returned to the nomads. By the sixteenth century, the Kazakh had established themselves as a separate people, split into three jüz (ancestor branches occupying specific territories). In the 18th century, the Russians advanced into the Kazakh steppe, and by the mid-19th century, they officially controlled all of Kazakhstan as part of the Russian Empire. Kazakhstan’s territory has been restructured many times after the 1917 Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. In 1936, it was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.
Kazakhstan was the last Soviet country to declare independence when the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991. Since then, the nation has been led by the current President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is described as authoritarian, with a history of human rights violations and repression of political dissent. Kazakhstan has made strenuous efforts to improve its economy, particularly its thriving oil sector. According to Human Rights Watch, “Kazakhstan severely limits freedom of assembly, expression, and religion,” and other human rights groups often criticize Kazakhstan’s human rights status.
Among Kazakhstan’s 131 ethnic groups are Kazakhs (who account for 63% of the population), Russians, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars, and Uyghurs. Islam is followed by about 70% of the population, while Christianity is practiced by 26%; Kazakhstan officially recognizes religious freedom, but religious leaders who criticize the government face repression. Kazakh is the state language, but Russian is equally official at all administrative and institutional levels.