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The region that is now Kazakhstan was settled by Turkic tribes beginning in about the 8th century ad. In the 13th century the area was incorporated into the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan. Upon Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his empire was divided among his descendants. Most of present-day Kazakhstan became part of the territory ruled by his son Chagadai, but the western and most of the northern parts were included in the far-reaching empire of the Golden Horde established by Batu Khan, Genghis’ grandson.
By the end of the 15th century, the Kazakhs emerged as a distinctive group, created by the intermingling of Mongol and Turkic peoples. In the early 16th century the Kazakh tribes united to form a great nomadic empire under the warlord Kasim Khan. The Kazakhs soon became divided, however, with the tribes fighting among themselves. As a result of these internecine struggles, three major groupings emerged among the Kazakhs—the Great Horde (Ulu Zhuz) in the southeast portion of present-day Kazakhstan, the Middle Horde (Orta Zhuz) in the central steppe region, and the Little Horde (Kishi Zhuz) between the Aral Sea and the Ural River in the west. Each horde was composed of a number of tribes that were collectively ruled by a khan. The khan Haq Nazar succeeded in uniting the Kazakh hordes between 1538 and 1580, but by the 17th century the Kazakhs were again fragmented. In the 1680s the Kazakhs began to fight a series of wars against invaders from the east called Oirots, a group of four Mongol tribes, including Dzungars, that sought to conquer Kazakh lands. Although the Kazakh hordes united again for purposes of war, Dzungar invasions completely devastated the Kazakhs by 1720. This period is remembered in Kazakh history as the “Great Disaster.”
Meanwhile, Cossacks (frontier settlers) from Russia had begun to settle along the Ural River in the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century a formal relationship had developed between the Cossacks and the Russian imperial government, in which the Cossacks protected the Russian frontier in exchange for title to land and local autonomy. In the early 18th century the Cossacks established a line of settlements and fortifications across the Kazakhs’ northern boundary in order to defend the Russian frontier, which had expanded eastward into Siberia. During the Dzungar invasions, the Kazakhs appealed to Russia for protection and military supplies. Although Russia was, at the time, unwilling to become involved, the Kazakh hordes subsequently declared allegiance to Russia in return for Russian protection. In 1731 the Little Horde signed an oath of allegiance, followed by the Middle Horde in 1740 and the Great Horde in 1742, although part of this horde was subject to the Qing dynasty of China between 1757 and 1781. The khans of each horde promised to protect Russian borders adjacent to Kazakh lands, to defend Russian trade caravans in the steppes, to provide troops when needed, and to pay tribute to Russia. Russia gradually came to dominate local affairs, limiting the powers of the Kazakh khans and imposing the Russian administrative system. As Russian domination increased, the power of the khans eroded. In the 1790s the Kazakhs revolted against Russian rule, but their uprisings were ultimately ineffectual and were followed by Russia’s decision to abolish Kazakh autonomy. The Kazakh hordes lost their independence in succession—the Middle Horde in 1822, the Little Horde in 1824, and the Great Horde in 1848—and Kazakh lands were absorbed into the Russian Empire.
In the 1860s Russian forces mounted a large-scale military offensive southward in an attempt to secure free access to Khiva and other trade centers of southern Central Asia. By the 1880s Russian forces had conquered all of Central Asia. In present-day Kazakhstan, Cossack outposts developed into peasant settlements as Russians and other Slavs migrated to the steppes in increasingly large numbers. In the period between 1906 and 1914, the influx of settlers averaged more than 140,000 people per year.
The settlements severely restricted the Kazakhs’ traditional nomadic routes, and friction developed between the Kazakhs and the new settlers. Tensions were exacerbated by a June 1916 governmental decree recruiting Kazakhs and other Central Asians into workers’ battalions. The Central Asian peoples revolted against the decree in what, by August, became a widespread and bloody rebellion. The Kazakhs directed their wrath against Russian settlers, killing thousands, while settlers in some areas formed armed groups that massacred the local population. During the revolt, which continued until the end of the year in some areas, about 300,000 Kazakhs fled to the Xinjiang Province of China.
Russian imperial rule ended with the Russian Revolution of 1917, and Bolsheviks (militant socialists) seized control of the Russian government. A Kazakh nationalist party, Alash Orda, proclaimed the autonomy of the Kazakh people in December 1917. Alash Orda leaders then established a Kazakh government, which was divided into eastern and western administrative zones due to the immensity of the Kazakh lands.
Alash Orda leaders initially sided against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). Some Kazakh leaders appealed to the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the Whites for weapons to help fight the Bolshevik forces. The leader of the Whites, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, refused the request and ordered the suppression of Alash Orda. The Kazakh nationalists then sought compromise with the Bolsheviks and received assurances from them that Kazakh autonomy would be maintained. In 1920 an area roughly corresponding to present-day Kazakhstan (borders were later redrawn) was designated an autonomous socialist republic. The Kazakh national elite, composed mostly of Alash Orda leaders, participated in local government. In the early 1920s the Kazakh population suffered a devastating famine in which 1 million to 3 million people died from starvation.
In December 1922 the Bolsheviks founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Kazakhstan was incorporated into the USSR as the Kirgiz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). It kept that name until 1925, when it was renamed the Kazakh ASSR. In 1929 the southeastern city of Almaty was designated the capital of the republic. In 1936 the Kazakh ASSR was upgraded to the status of a constituent republic, or Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), of the Soviet Union. In 1937 the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), was established.
In 1928 the Soviet authorities removed all Kazakh leaders from the local government. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin then instituted a rigorous program to collectivize agriculture, in which the state confiscated and combined all arable land into large collective and state farms. Kazakh culture and way of life were virtually destroyed as a result of the Soviet program to forcibly settle Kazakhs on these farms. Kazakh nomads slaughtered their livestock rather than turn it over to the Soviet authorities. More than 1 million Kazakhs died as a result of starvation, and many more fled to China to escape the forced settlement. In the late 1930s, during Stalin’s purges of Soviet society, the Kazakh national elite was brutally and systematically eliminated (see Great Purge). During World War II (1939-1945), Stalin ordered large-scale deportations of ethnic groups he deemed untrustworthy to the more remote regions of Central Asia. Many of those deported were sent to the Kazakh SSR, including Germans from the Volga River area of Russia, Crimean Tatars from the Crimean Peninsula (in present-day Ukraine), and Koreans from the Soviet Far East.
In the 1950s Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched the Virgin Lands program, a scheme to bring extensive tracts of land in southwestern Siberia and the northern part of the Kazakh SSR under cultivation. The program was supervised in the Kazakh republic by Khrushchev’s protégé, Leonid Brezhnev, who in the 1960s succeeded Khrushchev as Soviet leader. Although the program was flawed, it succeeded in rapidly transforming the northern grassy plains of the Kazakh republic into an agricultural area specializing in wheat and other grains. Also during the 1950s the Soviet authorities established a space center called the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the east central part of the Kazakh republic. In addition, the Soviets created nuclear testing sites near Semipalatinsk (now Semey) in the east and huge industrial sites in the north and east. A new wave of Slavic immigrants flooded into the Kazakh republic to provide a skilled labor force for the new industries. Russians surpassed Kazakhs as the republic’s largest ethnic group, a demographic trend that held until the 1980s.
In 1986 the Soviet authorities in Moscow installed a Russian official, Gennady Kolbin, as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. Thousands of Kazakhs rioted in Almaty to protest the ouster of Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a Kazakh official who had held the post since the 1960s. The Soviet leadership had replaced Kunayev in an attempt to eliminate the corruption associated with his government. Exactly how many people died in the riot is still unclear.
Kolbin was a supporter of the extensive political and economic reforms that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had begun to implement in the mid-1980s. In 1989 Kolbin was transferred to Moscow, and Soviet authorities appointed Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, a prominent Kazakh official, in his place. In March 1990 the Supreme Soviet (legislature of the Soviet Union) elected Nazarbayev to the newly established post of president of the Kazakh republic. Nazarbayev ran unopposed in the republic’s first democratic presidential elections, held in December 1991, and won 95 percent of the vote. Kazakhstan declared its independence later that month, shortly before the USSR broke apart.
After Kazakhstan became independent, former Communist officials continued to dominate the government and the legislature, which was renamed the Supreme Kenges. In 1993 Kazakhstan ratified its first post-Soviet constitution, and in March 1994 the republic held its first free multiparty legislative elections since independence. President Nazarbayev’s supporters emerged as the strongest force in the new 177-member legislature. The People’s Unity Party (PUP), a centrist party led by Nazarbayev, won 33 seats, and individual candidates nominated by Nazarbayev won 42 seats. Independent candidates, who were overwhelmingly supporters of Nazarbayev, won 59 seats. International observers monitoring the election reported a number of irregularities, as a number of candidates were allegedly prevented from registering.
Tensions between Nazarbayev and the legislature flared in early 1995. The legislature refused to adopt a new draft budget prepared by the executive branch of government, although Nazarbayev expressed his support for the budget proposals. In February the Constitutional Court proclaimed the previous legislative elections illegitimate, and in March Nazarbayev used this ruling to dissolve the legislature. More than 100 legislators refused to disband and asked for an international inquiry. Nazarbayev effectively began ruling the country by decree until new elections could be held. In a referendum held in April, voters approved the extension of Nazarbayev’s term, which was set to expire in 1996, until 2000. Meanwhile, Nazarbayev ordered the drafting of a new constitution. In a referendum held in August, voters approved the new constitution, which reconfigured the legislature into two chambers with fewer members. Elections to the new legislature were held in December, with runoff elections in early 1996. Nazarbayev’s supporters again won the dominant share of seats.
Kazakhstan’s new constitution also granted extensive powers to the president, including the right to rule by decree and to dissolve the legislature. As Nazarbayev solidified his hold on power, his style of rule became increasingly authoritarian. At first his decrees focused on stifling the activities of more radical opposition groups, specifically Russian and Kazakh nationalists and fundamentalist Muslims. For example, he outlawed activities that might foment ethnic tensions, such as demonstrations organized by Kazakh nationalists who called for the expulsion of all non-Muslims from Kazakhstan. His supporters credited him with maintaining order in the country during the difficult economic and social transitions following the breakup of the USSR.
However, the government soon began to extend restrictions on free speech and free assembly to other groups. Following a number of strikes in the mid-1990s by employees of public-sector firms, which were chronically late in paying wages, the legislature passed a law in 1996 considerably restricting workers’ right to strike. In addition, Nazarbayev became increasingly intolerant of criticism of his programs in the popular press. Independent journalists have faced prosecution, including imprisonment, and the government routinely censors the media. Nazarbayev has also used intimidation and slander campaigns to silence his political rivals within the government. In addition, a law passed in 2002 severely limits the ability of political opposition parties to participate in legislative elections.
Nazarbayev overwhelmingly won a second term as president of Kazakhstan in January 1999. The election, originally scheduled for 2000, was moved up by more than a year, giving opposition candidates little time to prepare. International observers criticized the election for failing to meet democratic standards. In 2000 the legislature passed a law granting Nazarbayev extraordinary powers and privileges, which are to remain in force even after he ceases to be president.
In December 2005 Nazarbayev easily won reelection to a third term in office. International election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, said the election failed to meet democratic standards due to pro-government bias in the media, restrictions on freedom of the press and assembly, voter intimidation, and irregularities in election-day balloting. Official election results showed Nazarbayev winning 91 percent of the vote. In 2007 the legislature passed a bill allowing the president to remain in office for an unlimited number of terms.
Nazarbayev again won parliamentary elections in August 2007. The Nur Otan Party, headed by Nazarbayev, won all contested seats of the lower house of parliament with 88 percent of the vote. The OSCE again cited failures to meet international standards, including a lack of transparency and procedural problems with vote counting.
In April 1995 Kazakhstan, which had held a portion of the nuclear arsenal of the former USSR, completed the transfer of its nuclear weapons to Russia. The transfer was part of Kazakhstan’s commitment to becoming a nonnuclear state, and it fulfilled its obligations under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which the country ratified in 1992.
In 1997 the capital of Kazakhstan officially changed from Almaty, in southeastern Kazakhstan, to Aqmola (now Astana), a small city in the north. Almaty’s vulnerability to earthquakes and Astana’s better transportation links were cited as reasons for the move, although international observers speculated that the move also was designed to allow for more government influence in the Russian-dominated north.
As president, Nazarbayev promoted close economic and political ties between Kazakhstan and Russia, despite opposition by Kazakh nationalists. In 1996 Nazarbayev and Russian officials agreed to cooperate in the fields of energy and railroad transportation. That same year the Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) ratified a 20-year Russian lease of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in south central Kazakhstan. In 1998 the facility began to serve as the main launch site for components of the International Space Station (ISS), an international venture involving primarily Russia and the United States, and scheduled for completion in 2006.
After nearly a decade of economic decline and hardship, Kazakhstan’s economic outlook had significantly improved by 2001, ten years after the collapse of the USSR. The country’s vast mineral resources had drawn massive foreign investment in the mining and energy sectors. In just a few years, Kazakhstan doubled its oil production. However, exports were hindered by the country’s landlocked location, requiring it to form joint ventures with other countries and international corporations. One of these ventures, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, opened a new pipeline in 2001 from Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. The government of Kazakhstan has created a national fund to set aside some of its oil wealth for future generations. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the flow of oil will soon benefit the general population, which is desperately in need of improved education, healthcare, and other social services.
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