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A huge country covering a territory equivalent to the whole of Western Europe, Kazakhstan has vast mineral resources and considerable economic potential.
However, more than a decade after independence, and despite generous foreign investments, its people continue to suffer serious hardship.
Kazakhstan has a most varied landscape, stretching from the mountainous, heavily populated regions of the east to the sparsely populated, energy-rich lowlands in the west, and from the industrialised north, with its Siberian climate and terrain, through the arid, empty steppes of the centre, to the fertile south.
Ethnically, the country is as diverse, with the Kazakhs making up over half the population, the Russians comprising just over a quarter, and smaller minorities of Ukrainians, Germans, Chechens, Kurds, Koreans and Central Asian ethnic groups accounting for the rest. These groups generally live in harmony, though ethnic Russians resent the lack of dual citizenship and having to pass a Kazakh language test in order to work for government or state bodies.
Kazakhstan has been largely unable to benefit from its huge energy reserves due to the lack of adequate export pipelines. However, while the opening in March 2001 of a pipeline linking the Tengiz oil field in the west to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk has the potential to help transform the economy, Kazakhstan faces other daunting challenges.
These include a dilapidated infrastructure, high unemployment, inflation, poverty, prostitution, drug addiction and Aids. Contamination caused by Soviet-era nuclear tests in Semipalatinsk is also a problem, as are the dumping of toxic waste and the jettisoning of rocket fuel by Russian space vehicles launched from Baykonur, and the drying up of the Aral Sea.
Population: 15.4 million (UN, 2003)
Major languages: Kazakh, Russian
Major religions: Islam, Christianity
Life expectancy: 61 years (men), 72 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Kazakh tenge = 100 tiyn
Main exports: Oil, ferrous and nonferrous metals, machinery, chemicals, grain, wool, meat, coal
GNI per capita: US $1,520 (World Bank, 2002)
Internet domain: .kz
International dialling code: +7
Although press freedom is enshrined in Kazakhstan's constitution, media rights monitors report that privately-owned and opposition media are subject to harassment and censorship.
In 2002 the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists accused the authorities of waging "a war on independent journalism".
Insulting the president and officials is a criminal offence; the private life, health and financial affairs of the president are classified as state secrets.
The government controls the printing presses and most radio and TV transmission facilities. It operates the country's national radio and TV networks.
The president's close associates, including his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, and son-in-law, have benefitted from the privatisation of the former state media. Dariga heads the influential Khabar Agency which runs several TV channels.
The couple also control the radio stations Europa Plus, Russkoye Radio, Hit FM and Radio Karavan, along with the newspapers Karavan and Novoye Pokolenie.