Kazakhstan country brief


Kazakhstan is the largest of the Central Asian Republics and the ninth-largest country in the world, covering some 2.7 million square kilometres. It is bordered by Russia to the north, the Caspian Sea to the south-west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic to the south, and China to the east.

Kazakhstan gained its independence from the former Soviet Union on 16 December 1991. In 1998, the capital was moved from the south eastern city of Almaty to the northern city of Astana.

The current population of Kazakhstan is 17.4 million people, of which 63 per cent are ethnic Kazakhs. There is also a sizeable Russian community (23 per cent of the population) and smaller communities of Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Uighurs, Tartars and Germans. Religious affiliation is split between Islam (70 per cent of the population) and Russian Orthodox (26 per cent) according to a 2009 census.

The national language, Kazakh, is a Turkic language and is thus akin to the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tatar, Turkmen and Uighur languages spoken across Central Asia. Kazakh has a well-established community of speakers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as in Mongolia, China and Iran. It can be written in Cyrillic, Latin or Arabic script. Russian is extensively used for administrative and technical purposes, and is still a first language for a significant proportion of the population.

Kazakhstan is a member of numerous multilateral organisations including the United Nations (UN), Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was the OSCE Chair in 2010, holding the first OSCE Summit for 11 years in Astana that year. Kazakhstan joined the World Trade Organization on 30 November 2015.

Political overview

Kazakhstan is a presidential republic where power rests almost entirely with the President. Kazakhstan has had two constitutions since independence. The first gave the President wide-ranging powers. The second, approved by referendum in 1995, further strengthened the President’s role by abolishing the position of Vice-President. Kazakhstan’s constitution provides for a Prime Minister and a deputy Prime Minister, both appointed by the President.

The President is elected by direct vote for a five year term. He appoints the Prime Minister and the First Deputy Prime Minister. The Parliament consists of a Senate (upper house) and the Majlis (lower house). There are 47 members of the Senate, 15 of whom are appointed by the President. The other members are popularly elected by proportional representation. The Majlis comprises 107 seats. Members are popularly elected to serve four year terms.

President Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev was first elected in December 1991 and has been Kazakhstan’s only President since independence. Prior to his election in 1991, he was Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Kazakh Republic within the Soviet Union. The current Prime Minister is Karim Massimov, who took office on 2 April 2014. In the Presidential election held on 26 April 2015, Nazarbayev gained 97.7 per cent of the vote, an increase on the 95 per cent he gained in the last Presidential election in December 2011. OSCE observers, have stated that the elections failed to meet international standards in transparency and competition in the vote.

Elections in Kazakhstan are held on a national level to elect a President and the Parliament (the upper and lower Houses) every five years. Local elections for local representative bodies (Maslikhats) are also held every five years. Federal Elections are administered by the Central Election Commission of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Politics in Kazakhstan is dominated by the Nur-Otan Party. During the last Majlis (lower house) election in January 2012 , Nur-Otan Party, won 81 per cent of the vote. Two other parties closely aligned with Nur-Otan won seats, making this Kazakhstan’s first multi-party parliament.

Nuclear disarmament and energy

Kazakhstan allowed the destruction of the 1,300 nuclear warheads it inherited following the collapse of the USSR. All of Kazakhstan’s nuclear facilities are now under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Kazakhstan signed the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA in 2004; this entered into force in 2007.

Kazakhstan is currently the world’s biggest uranium exporter. According to Kazatomprom (the state-owned producer), Kazakhstan has about 19 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves. In 2014 Kazakhstan produced 22,452 tonnes of uranium, around 38 per cent of the global total.

Like Australia, Kazakhstan had nuclear weapons tested in its territory (home to the infamous Semipalatinsk Test Site), and takes an active approach to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Kazakhstan is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (CANWFZ). Kazakhstan ratified the International Convention on the suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and is an active partner nation in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. In 2015, Kazakhstan was formally recognised by the Australia Group as adhering to the Australia Group’s guidelines, intended to counter the spread of technologies and materials used for chemical and biological weapons.

Economic overview

Kazakhstan’s economy performed strongly from 2001 to 2007, powered by booming energy and mineral exports, and facilitated by economic reform, foreign investment and (mostly) good harvests. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kazakhstan sustained an average annual GDP growth of 9.7 per cent per annum from 2001 to 2007. However, this solid growth slowed during the Global Financial Crisis to only 1.2 per cent in 2009. A strong recovery saw the IMF report growth of 7.5 per cent in 2011, 5.1 per cent in 2012 and 5 per cent in 2013. Largely as a result of low oil prices and external pressures caused by the economic situation in Russia and the devaluation of the Russian rouble, growth declined to 2 per cent in the final quarter of 2015 . Kazakhstan’s nominal GDP per capita of US$11,438 for 2014, still far exceeds that of its Central Asian neighbours and is comparable to Russia’s.

For historical and geographic reasons, including its natural resources, Kazakhstan’s economy is closely tied to that of Russia, which remains its largest import partner. Russia continues to lease some 6,000 sq. km of Kazakh territory around the Baikonur Cosmodrome space facility, where Sputnik I was launched in 1957. The cosmodrome is in active use and its lease has been extended to 2050. Kazakhstan, however, is also becoming closely integrated with China, which became its largest export partner in 2011. Together with Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, a customs union intended to facilitate greater economic integration in the region.

Kazakhstan’s application to join the World Trade Organization was accepted by the WTO Governing Council in June 2015 and its formal membership began on 30 November 2015.

Energy and minerals

In addition to uranium, Kazakhstan possesses vast reserves of natural resources and fossil fuels, many of which are untapped. Globally, Kazakhstan has the 12th largest proven oil reserves and 14th largest natural gas reserves, and ranks in the top ten countries for coal, gold, chrome, zinc, lead and bauxite reserves. Kazakhstan possesses eight per cent of the world’s zinc, seven per cent of manganese and four per cent of iron ore. In production terms, however, the Kazakh mining industry remains far from realising its full potential Kazakhstan’s expected daily oil production in 2015 was 1.6 million barrels. . Kazakhstan’s sector of the Caspian Sea is believed to hold several other major oil and gas reserves as yet unexploited.

Steadily rising natural gas production has turned Kazakhstan from a net importer to a net exporter over the past few years. 39.6 billion cubic metres of natural gas were produced in 2013, mostly for export.

Oil exporting capacity was substantially enhanced in 2001 with the opening of a pipeline from Kazakhstan to Novorossiysk, a Russian port city on the Black Sea. Kazakhstan’s oil is also exported across the Caspian Sea to join the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. In late 2005 a pipeline to China was opened. New pipelines are also being planned across the region. Kazakhstan’s industrial sector is heavily reliant upon mining and mineral processing and on related activities such as the production of mining and engineering equipment.


Given its vast steppe lands are able to accommodate both livestock and grain production, agriculture is an important industry for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is a major wheat producer. Its main export markets are its Central Asian neighbours, Iran and Turkey; although in recent years it has begun exporting to China, South Korea and Japan. The US Department of Agriculture estimated that Kazakhstan’s 2015 wheat production total was 12.9 million tonnes.

Services and investment

Foreign direct investment in Kazakhstan exceeded US$129billion in 2014. Attracting further investment is integral to the Kazakhstan Government’s plans to diversify the economy- especially in areas like non-ferrous metals production which complement its energy endowment- and to develop industrial clusters to promote synergies in sectors of comparative advantage.

As the Kazakhstani Government implements its transport development strategy, opportunities may emerge for Australian business in infrastructure development and financing. Valued at over US$30 billion, the strategy involves redevelopment of highways, railroads, airports and port facilities. The China-Europe ’New Silk Road’ railway line is one such example. The rail link means that freight can travel from Germany to South-eastern China in just 15 days. Kazakhstan’s investment promotion agency is Kaznex Invest.

Australia’s relationship with Kazakhstan

Australia opened an embassy in Almaty in 1995, but it closed in 1999 due to resource constraints. Kazakhstan opened a Consulate-General in Sydney in 2015.

Australia’s Ambassador to Kazakhstan is resident in Moscow, and makes regular visits to Kazakhstan. In January 2005, Australia established an Honorary Consulate in Almaty (the position is currently vacant). Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Australia, is resident in Singapore. Kazakhstan has a Consulate-General in Sydney and has Honorary Consuls in Perth and Melbourne.

At the 2011 census, 1,106 Australian residents declared they were born in Kazakhstan.

A number of high-level visits have taken place between Australia and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s then Prime Minister, Sergey Tereshchenko, visited Australia in 1993; then Governor General of Australia, Bill Hayden, visited Kazakhstan in 1994; President Nazarbayev visited Australia in 1996. Zhanar Aitzhanova, then Vice-Minister of Industry and Trade, led a trade and agriculture delegation to Australia in 2008. Ms Aitzhanova is now Minister for Economic Integration.

Former Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, visited Astana in December 2010 to attend the OSCE Summit held whilst Kazakhstan was Chair of the organisation. He returned in June 2011 for the OIC Foreign Minister’s meeting in Astana. Australia sent a parliamentary delegation, led by then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, to Kazakhstan in April 2012. Senior Officials Talks were also held in Canberra in 2015. Then Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, the Hon Steven Ciobo MP, visited Astana to attend the 47th Asian Development Bank Annual meeting in May 2014.

The two Governments signed an Agreement on Economic and Commercial Cooperation, which came into force on 2 June 2004. The agreement aims to facilitate trade, investment and economic cooperation between the two countries. As part of Kazakhstan’s WTO accession process, Australia concluded a bilateral market access agreement on goods and services with Kazakhstan in 2008.

Commercial relationship

Kazakhstan is Australia’s leading trading partner in Central Asia, however, the level of trade between Australia and Kazakhstan remains modest. Two-way merchandise trade in 2014 was worth A$22million. Australia’s exports to Kazakhstan, worth A$19million, consisted principally of manufactured goods.. Imports from Kazakhstan, worth A$2.3 million, consisted mostly of pig iron. Some trade is handled through intermediate markets such as Russia, China and the Netherlands.

Australian investment in Kazakhstan totalled A$106 million in 2014. Several Australian companies are active in Kazakhstan, including Worley Parsons, Iluka Resources, Orica, Ausenco, Jupiter Energy, Gloria Jean’s Coffees, Rio Tinto and the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC). In addition Macquarie Group has an interest in Kazakhstan through its $630 million Macquarie Russia & CIS Infrastructure Fund (MRIF).

In October 2015 Austmine (the peak industry body in Australia for the mining equipment, technology and services sector) and Kazakhstan’s Association of Mining and Metallurgical Enterprises (AAME), signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will provide a framework for industry to industry collaboration in future.

Agriculture is an area of considerable potential for cooperation. The Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics in Adelaide have signed a memorandum of understanding, which has witnessed greater collaboration between Australian and Kazakh scientists working on drought, salinity and nutrient deficiencies and toxicity affecting cereal crops in both countries.

Opportunities exist for Australia to increase its share of the education market in Kazakhstan.. The Kazakh Government’s ‘Bolashak’ International Scholarship Program has seen approximately 75 scholarship recipients study in Australia each year since 2007. In 2015 there were 108 Kazakh nationals enrolled to study in Australia. In Kazakhstan the Melbourne School of Engineering (University of Melbourne) has been involved in course development at Nazarbayev University in Astana, and academics from other Australian universities have undertaken short-term teaching placements.. Kazakhstan will host Expo 2017 in Astana, with the theme of “Future Energy”. The event is set to have a strong focus on innovative ways to assist the growth of green energy and green economy industries.

Austrade’s Moscow and Vladivostok offices provide support for trade and two-way investment with Kazakhstan.

Last Updated: 23 June 2014