The 1980s brought glimmers of political independence, as well as conflict, as the central government's hold progressively weakened. In this period, Kazakhstan was ruled by a succession of three Communist Party officials; the third of those men, Nursultan Nazarbayev, continued as president of the Republic of Kazakhstan when independence was proclaimed. Ironically, Nazarbayev was an advocate of maintaining a union of Soviet republics but with increased autonomy. He became president of an independent Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union split apart in 1991. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

As the Soviet Union began to deteriorate in the 1980s, Kazakh nationalism grew under the Kazakh SSR Communist Party leader Dinmukhamed Kunayev. In December 1986, Soviet premier Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91) forced the resignation of Kunayev, an ethnic Kazakh who had led the republic as first secretary of the CPK from 1959 to 1962, and again starting in 1964. During 1985, Kunayev had been under official attack for cronyism, mismanagement, and malfeasance; thus, his departure was not a surprise. However, his replacement,Gennadiy Kolbin, an ethnic Russian with no previous ties to Kazakhstan, was unexpected. Kolbin was a typical administrator of the early Gorbachev era — enthusiastic about economic and administrative reforms but hardly mindful of their consequences or viability. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kunayev had been ousted largely because the economy was failing. Although Kazakhstan had the third-largest gross domestic product (GDP) in the Soviet Union, trailing only Russia and Ukraine, by 1987 labor productivity had decreased 12 percent, and per capita income had fallen by 24 percent of the national norm. By that time, Kazakhstan was underproducing steel at an annual rate of more than a million tons. Agricultural output also was dropping precipitously. *

While Kolbin was promoting a series of unrealistic, Moscow-directed campaigns of social reform, expressions of Kazakh nationalism were prompting Gorbachev to address some of the non-Russians' complaints about cultural self-determination. One consequence was a new tolerance of bilingualism in the non-Russian regions. Kolbin made a strong commitment to promoting the local language and in 1987 suggested that Kazakh become the republic's official language. However, none of his initiatives went beyond empty public-relations ploys. In fact, the campaign in favor of bilingualism was transformed into a campaign to improve the teaching of Russian. *

While attempting to conciliate the Kazakh population with promises, Kolbin also conducted a wholesale purge of pro-Kunayev members of the CPK, replacing hundreds of republic-level and local officials. Although officially "nationality-blind," Kolbin's policies seemed to be directed mostly against Kazakhs. The downfall of Kolbin, however, was the continued deterioration of the republic's economy during his tenure. Agricultural output had fallen so low by 1989 that Kolbin proposed to fulfill meat quotas by slaughtering the millions of wild ducks that migrate through Kazakhstan. The republic's industrial sector had begun to recover slightly in 1989, but credit for this progress was given largely to Nursultan Nazarbayev, an ethnic Kazakh who had become chairman of Kazakhstan's Council of Ministers in 1984.

Riots in the Kazakh Republic in 1990s

On December 17, 1986, riots broke out in Almaty when a Kazakh party leader (Kunayev) was replaced by a Russian one (Kolbin). Angry Kazakhs took to the streets to protest the appointment and were confronted by pro-Communist workers armed with clubs and metal bars. When fights began breaking out the police opened fire. Several people were killed and more than 8,000 people were arrested and detained. The violence spread to other places. Martial laws had to be declared to restore order. These riots are now regarded as the beginning of the Kazakhstan democracy movement. December 17th is now celebrated as National Democracy Day,

The announcement of Kolbin's appointment provoked spontaneous street demonstrations by Kazakhs, to which Soviet authorities responded with force. Demonstrators, many of them students, rioted. Two days of disorder followed, and at least 200 people died or were summarily executed soon after. Some accounts estimate casualties at more than 1,700. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 1989, there were large scale protests by people living near Semipalatinsk to end the nuclear testing for environmental reasons. The movement was led by a popular Kazakh poet,Olzhas Suleymenov. The test was halted after a petition with over a million signatures was presented.

In June 1989, ethic riots involving ,members of 70 ethic group broke out in Novyy Uzen, an impoverished town that produced natural gas on the Mangyshlak Peninsula in western Kazakhstan. Many Caucasus groups had settled there and there had been tensions between them and the Kazakhs and other groups. A series of strikes was held at the mines of Karagandin coal basin. Rioting lasted nearly a week and claimed at least four lives.

Pre-Independence Activity in the Kazakh Republic

As nationalist protests became more violent across the Soviet Union in 1989, Gorbachev began calling for the creation of popularly elected legislatures and for the loosening of central political controls to make such elections possible. These measures made it increasingly plain in Kazakhstan that Kolbin and his associates soon would be replaced by a new generation of Kazakh leaders. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Rather than reinvigorate the Soviet people to meet national tasks, Gorbachev's encouragement of voluntary local organi-zations only stimulated the formation of informal political groups, many of which had overtly nationalist agendas. For the Kazakhs, such agendas were presented forcefully on national television at the first Congress of People's Deputies, which was convened in Moscow in June 1989. By that time, Kolbin was already scheduled for rotation back to Moscow, but his departure probably was hastened by riots in June 1989 in Novyy Uzen. *

In June 1990, Moscow declared formally the sovereignty of the central government over Kazakhstan, forcing Kazakhstan to elaborate its own statement of sovereignty. This exchange greatly exacerbated tensions between the republic's two largest ethnic groups, who at that point were numerically about equal. Beginning in mid-August 1990, Kazakh and Russian nationalists began to demonstrate frequently around Kazakhstan's parliament building, attempting to influence the final statement of sovereignty being developed within. The statement was adopted in October 1990. *

Nazarbayev Before Kazakhstan Independence

Future Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev became the General Secretary of the Kazakh SSR, the First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party, and a member of the Soviet politburo in 1989. In April 1990, he was elected president of the Kazakh SSR by the Kazakhstan Supreme Soviet.

In keeping with practices in other republics at that time, the parliament had named Nazarbayev its chairman, and then, soon afterward, it had converted the chairmanship to the presidency of the republic. In contrast to the presidents of the other republics, especially those in the independence-minded Baltic states, Nazarbayev remained strongly committed to the perpetuation of the Soviet Union throughout the spring and summer of 1991. He took this position largely because he considered the republics too interdependent economically to survive separation. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

At the same time, however, Nazarbayev fought hard to secure republic control of Kazakhstan's enormous mineral wealth and industrial potential. This objective became particularly important after 1990, when it was learned that Gorbachev had negotiated an agreement with Chevron, a United States oil company, to develop Kazakhstan's Tengiz oil fields. Gorbachev did not consult Nazarbayev until talks were nearly complete. At Nazarbayev's insistence, Moscow surrendered control of the republic's mineral resources in June 1991. Gorbachev's authority crumbled rapidly throughout 1991. Nazarbayev, however, continued to support him, persistently urging other republic leaders to sign the revised Union Treaty, which Gorbachev had put forward in a last attempt to hold the Soviet Union together. *

Nazarbayev Prepares Kazakhstan for Independence

Because of the coup attempted by Moscow hard-liners against the Gorbachev government in August 1991, the Union Treaty never was signed. Ambivalent about the removal of Gorbachev, Nazarbayev did not condemn the coup attempt until its second day. However, once the incompetence of the plotters became clear, Nazarbayev threw his weight solidly behind Gorbachev and continuation of some form of union, largely because of his conviction that independence would be economic suicide. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

At the same time, however, Nazarbayev pragmatically began preparing his republic for much greater freedom, if not for actual independence. He appointed professional economists and managers to high posts, and he began to seek the advice of foreign development and business experts. The outlawing of the CPK, which followed the attempted coup, also permitted Nazarbayev to take virtually complete control of the republic's economy, more than 90 percent of which had been under the partial or complete direction of the central Soviet government until late 1991. Nazarbayev solidified his position by winning an uncontested election for president in December 1991. *

Nazarbayev was not happy about the break up of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was the last Soviet republic to declare independence. A week after the election for the Kazakh Republic presidency, Nazarbayev became the president of an independent state when the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed documents dissolving the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev quickly convened a meeting of the leaders of the five Central Asian states, thus effectively raising the specter of a "Turkic" confederation of former republics as a counterweight to the "Slavic" states (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) in whatever federation might succeed the Soviet Union. This move persuaded the three Slavic presidents to include Kazakhstan among the signatories to a recast document of dissolution. Thus, the capital of Kazakhstan lent its name to the Alma-Ata Declaration, in which eleven of the fifteen Soviet republics announced the expansion of the thirteen-day-old CIS. On December 16, 1991, just five days before that declaration, Kazakhstan had become the last of the republics to proclaim its independence. *

Kazakhstan Independence

Kazakhstan declared independence on December 16, 1991 and became independent when the Soviet Union broke up on December 26, 1991. None of the nations of Central Asia had ever existed as a true nation-states before 1991. Although many Kazakhs welcomed liberation from Moscow’s control an independence movement didn’t exist and Kazakhstan was almost totally unprepared for nationhood.

In a 1991 referendum, majority of people in Kazakhstan voted to remain in the Soviet Union. After independent Lenin statues remained standing and Lenin portraits continued to hang in offices. Russians who live in Kazakhstan accused Yeltsin and Gorbachev as being traitors who betrayed Kazakhstan by separating it from Russia.

Kazakhstan has followed the same general political pattern as the other four Central Asian states. After declaring independence from the Soviet political structure completely dominated by Moscow and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) until 1991, Kazakhstan retained the basic governmental structure and, in fact, most of the same leadership that had occupied the top levels of power in 1990. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kazakhstan entered the 1990s with vast natural resources, an underdeveloped industrial infrastructure, a stable but rigid political structure, a small and ethnically divided population, and a commercially disadvantageous geographic position. In the mid-1990s, the balance of those qualities remained quite uncertain. Laws were passed to protect and develop Kazakhs culture and language. Kazakh was made the state language while Russian was named as the language of international relations and commerce. Laws were also passed to protect the languages of other nationalities in places where they lived in large numbers.

Nazarbayev, who became first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (CPK) in beginning in 1989 and was elected president of the republic in 1991, became the President of Kazakhstan when it became independent. He remains in undisputed power even today. Nazarbayev took several effective steps to ensure his position. The constitution of 1993 made the prime minister and the Council of Ministers responsible solely to the president, and in 1995 a new constitution reinforced that relationship. Furthermore, opposition parties were severely limited by legal restrictions on their activities. Within that rigid framework, Nazarbayev gained substantial popularity by limiting the economic shock of separation from the security of the Soviet Union and by maintaining ethnic harmony, despite some discontent among Kazakh nationalists and the huge Russian minority. *

See Political Parties, See Break Up of the Soviet Union Under Russia.

Kazakhstan After Independence

Independence was supposed to give way to democracy and unleash economic reforms, privatization and prosperity. Since the country was rich in resources and had a relatively small population everyone was supposed to prosper. This has not happened. Instead economic reforms have not taken place and only the well connected have gotten rich while the general population has gotten poorer. Soviet Communist has given way one man rule.

In the post-Soviet era, Kazakhstan remained closely tied to Russia by energy supply lines, national defense, and the importance of Russian technologists in Kazakhstan’s economy, but Nazarbayev also sought closer relations with the West. Beginning in the 1990s, the discovery of major new oil fields and subsequent international investment enabled Kazakhstan’s economy to pull far ahead of its Central Asian neighbors. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

Kazakhstan’s international diplomatic and economic positions continued to advance despite domestic oppression, as the oil and natural gas extraction of Western oil companies in Kazakhstan increased substantially and Kazakhstan continued to support antiterrorism campaigns in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In the mid-1990s, Russia remained the most important sponsor of Kazakhstan in economic and national security matters, but in such matters Nazarbayev also backed the strengthening of the multinational structures of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose confederation that succeeded the Soviet Union. As sensitive ethnic, national security, and economic issues cooled relations with Russia in the 1990s, Nazarbayev cultivated relations with China, the other Central Asian nations, and the West. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan remains principally dependent on Russia. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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