ABOUT KAZAKHSTAN: The History Of Oil-Rich Land

ABOUT KAZAKHSTAN: The History Of Oil-Rich Land

Ranking nine in the world in terms of size, Kazakhstan with its 2.7 million square kilometre occupies a surface larger than all Central-Asian former USSR member states together. With an east-west distance of 2,800 kilometre and an north-south distance stretching over 1,600 kilometre, the territory would be large enough to include Spain, Portugal, France, the BeNeLux states, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the United Kingdom within its territorial boundaries. Kazakhstan borders Russia (6,467km), Uzbekistan (2,300km) China (1,460km), Kyrgyzstan (980km), and Turkmenistan (380km). Its maritime border on the Caspian shelf stretches over 600 kilometre, thereby adding up to a total border length around Kazakhstan of 12,187 kilometre.

Whereas in 1990 nearly 17 million people lived in Kazakhstan, all that was left according to the census in 1999 consisted of hardly more than 15 million, 52 percent of which consisted of Kazakhs, 31 percent Russians, 4 percent Ukrainians, with Tatars and Germans making up for 2 percent each. The remaining 9 percent consisted of the other 121 nationalities. Today, Kazakhstan’s inhabitants amount to 15.7 million souls, the ethnic breakdown of which is roughly equal to that of 1999.

The land Kazakhstan is situated on is very ancient indeed. As long back in time as 1.2 billion years, it formed part of the mega-continent of Rodinia according to the geological time table of the earth’s history. And it was “only” 543 million years ago that most of it drowned in the Panthalassic Ocean. From there, history took a somewhat faster speed, and what remains as the Central Plateau of Kazakhstan became the western outskirt of a new continent, dubbed Pangea. To its west, there was the Paleo-Thetys Ocean, of which today’s Caspian Sea is a remainder. When 180 million years back in time the western ocean retreated, fell dry and later reemerged in the much smaller Thetys Ocean, which was open sea but the outlets of which were much narrower, most of the land of Kazakhstan remained intact.

When at the end of the Devonian era some terrible cataclysm hit the earth, the cause of which remains veiled in mystery up to this day, and most of life under water perished, Kazakhstan was one of the places where living creatures crawled on land in order to survive in the open air. Its solid geological structure allowed Kazakhstan’s soil to harbour both dead and living resources during the burst of life during the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras. The former resulted in today’s immensely rich metal and ceramic natural resources, the latter in today’s commercial and political fever named oil and gas.

Along with China, Africa and India, Kazakhstan is one of the places where traces of Mankind’s first-born have been found in abundance, dating from two- to two-and-a-half million years back in time. The richest finds of human remains, tools and funeral sites from the earliest inhabitants’ times have been spotted by archeologists in the mountains of Karatau in the central south of the country. Archeological sites have delivered axes, spearheads, firestone equipment and other traces of early civilisation in an area believed to have had a warm, wet subtropical climate and abundant vegetation and wildlife, supplying people with hunting and fishing resources and a comfortable natural environment to live in.

At the time the people from whom the remains come lived on the territory, the Tethys Ocean of old was not entirely dead yet, and the Caspian Sea, which included the Aral Sea and the lands between them and still had open waterways to the north and the west, was still “oceanic” enough to allow large areas to its east and its south to sustain subtropical conditions. This pleasant climate and abundant natural resources appears to have dominated a large area stretching over a large part of Kazakhstan and even well into the Tarim Basin to the east.

Newer forms of human civilisation have most of all been dug up in the central parts of Kazakhstan, notably in the area of the upper Irtysh river. Some of them go back to the fifth millennium BC, but others vary in periods up to the Bronze Age, indicating that there was a stable community in the area that survived for a long time, developing handicraft, agriculture, technology including the use of charcoal as fuel, a spiritual life and some level of communal organisation as time advanced. Early cultures in Kazakhstan have been dubbed Andronovo and Afanevskaya by XIXth and XXth Century Russian archaeologists. They are said to be or Indo-Germanic origin, thereby leaving the origin of the earlier human populations of Kazakhstan unknown. Their settlements around Lake Balkash and from there upstream the river Yenisei have been excavated and analysed by Soviet archaeologists.

Around 1800 BC, the first Indogermanic communities moved into present-day Kazakhstan. They are known as Cimmerians, even though they are also referred to as Scyths, which is the proper name for the main wave of migration from the south which was to take place almost a millennium later. How far the Cimmerians’ authority stretched over the territory remains uncertain, and whether their hegemony took the shape of proper statehood remains doubtful. In all, it is likely that they managed to cohabitate in one form or another with the indigenous population of the immense territory of Kazakhstan and southern Siberia.

That balance seems to have been disrupted around 1200 BC, when the populations in the north and the east of Kazakhstan were shaken up by invasions of tribes coming from present-day Mongolia and northwestern China. Apart from organised manslaughter evidence of which has been found in weapons clearly designed for battle rather than hunting and other equipment in the graves of those who apparently belonged to a military elite, the newcomers, usually referred to as the Karasuk Culture, also introduced large-scale stock-breeding in the area. Mining and manufacturing started playing a major role in social development. States on the territory of what was to be the Republic of Kazakhstan appeared.

Among the first monarchs ruling over the country was Queen Tomyris (570-520) who has been one of the very few known Scyth leaders to grant their subjects the protection of civil statehood. Culture and literacy were in vogue, and one of the finest examples of artistic craftwork produced at the time, the statue of the Golden Man, in fact the harness the body of a Scyth nobleman was clad in and which was found in a Scyth tomb, has become one of Kazakhstan’s most important national symbols. Her power was threatened by 530 as Persian troops under Cyrus the Great were trying to invade the country. After an initial defeat in which her only son was captured and subsequently executed by the enemy, she swore revenge and after a final victory drank Cyrus’ blood from his own skull.

Only from the VIIth Century AD the Turkic tribes, known as Kypchaks, believed to have been descendants of the pre-Scythian original population of Kazakhstan, returned from their refuge in the Altai mountains and imposed themselves on the country. Among them is the legendary Alash Horde, a tribe believed to have stood at the cradle of the Kazakh ethnic identity. The Turks established one realm after the other in the region for more than 500 years, until they were finally massacred and their remains subdued by the Mongol hordes of Dzhengiz Khan in the XIIIth Century.

In the XVIth Century, a Mongol prince named Zhanibek rose in revolt of the Mongol overlords with the support of remains of the Kazakh population, and thereby went into history as the founder of the Kazakh khanate. However, the new state was not only threatened by China from the east and Persia from the southwest. From the very beginning, the Kazakh khans, who in contrast to their peers of the White Horde and the Golden Horde were elected by tribal chiefs though any candidate by tradition had to be a scion, however remote, of Dzhengiz Khan, were divided by bitter rivalry. This led to a split-up of the khanate into the Senior Horde which ruled over the south of Kazakhstan, the Middle Horde who dominated the northeast and the Junior Horde who controlled the west of the country.

By the end of the XVI Century AD, the situation became pressing as the Zhungars, a Mongolian Kalmuk nation of Buddhist creed, started to invade Kazakhstan from the east and the north, by and large acting as China’s proxy. It almost led to the sheer annihilation of the Kazakh nation and its tripartite leadership. In despair, the Khans turned to Russia for help, which eventually came though most of the time slowly and half-heartedly. Under Peter the Great in the early XVIIIth Century, the construction of a defense line in the north of Kazakhstan took off, resulting in the present-day cities of Petropavlov, Pavlodar, Ust-Kamenogorsk and others. It took until the 1860s, however, to incorporate all of present-day Kazakhstan into the Russian Empire. Revolts, mostly over land control, frequently occurred during the XIXth Century, with the last one breaking out in 1916, in the middle of the First World War, over a government war industry recruitment campaign.

The end of the Russian imperial structure was not the end of Kazakhstan’s integration into its inheritor the Soviet Union. With the Revolution of February 1917, a short-lived independence movement had seen the light. Most of its leaders enhanced the idea of an autonomous republic of Kazakhstan within a democratic Russian Federation. The October Revolution put an end to that outlook and most independence propagators submitted to Stalin’s order. The economic and most of all the agricultural reforms that started in the late 1920s hit Kazakhstan hard and caused widespread famine in which at least a million perished.

The purges of the 1930s only added to the ordeal, and it was only in the run-up of the Second World War, when Stalin replaced the USSR’s heavy industry and mining activity to the north of Central Asia, that jobs were created, agriculture revived and some prosperity came back to Kazakhstan. The overall trend continued through the 1940s, as ethnic Koreans, Germans and other suspected fifth-columnists who had been deported to Kazakhstan stayed on and used their skills for the country’s further development.

The peaceful end of the USSR drove Kazakhstan into the status of a fully sovereign state – even though the Kazakhs were the very last to give up the idea of a revival of the Soviet Union almost half a year after the latter had fallen apart. Complicating factors included a multi-ethnic composition of the population, with Kazakhs proper making up for hardly more than half of it, a thinly populated and at the same time immensely vast territory with an incomplete infrastructure. Major clashes, however, did not take place.

After a laborious process, a new Constitution was adopted and a new head of state and the two Houses of Parliament were elected under it. Kazakhstan by and large survived the severe economic and industrial crisis following its independence thanks to petroleum exports. Metal exportations came next to it as in the late 1990s most of the mines, abandoned in the wake of independence, were reactivated. From 2000 on, agriculture witnessed a modest revival which nevertheless brought Kazakhstan into the world’s top-10 of grain exporters.

As early as the turn of the century, Kazakstan embarked on an industry diversification and innovation strategy, knowing that the oil bonanza would not last forever and future generations’ chances in life should not be abandoned. The process is still unfinished, and together with opportunities, challenges impose themselves on it as well. A period of abstention and hard work is in store to turn Kazakhstan into a full-fledged economy, sometimes helped but also often obstructed by trends in the global economic constellation.

by Charles van der Leeuw

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