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In old Kazakh society, from the sixteenth century, those descended from Genghis Khan formed an aristocracy known as Tore, the White Bone, and bore the title Sultan from birth. They were beyond the law and immune from corporal punishment. A second tier of aristocrats, greatly respected by the people but with fewer rights and privileges, were descended from the original Muslim teachers, the khoja. But the most important figure in any Kazakh group was the bei - a judge renowned for his wisdom and knowledge. Beis were democratically elected, and only the most respected men versed in the law were chosen. They tended to be men of natural authority and their importance in Kazakh society was enormous. Next in importance were the batyrs, or warriors. The most numerous middle caste, the Black Bone, were answerable to both bei and batyr. A lower caste was made up of slaves taken in battle.

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins

In a country with so few people and so much land, the balance between people and resources will always favour the country's inhabitants. Kazakhstan has supposedly the greatest array of exploitable minerals of any country in the world - virtually the entire periodic table. It is said to possess mineral deposits of more than 1.225 formulae, 70 of which have already been prospected and 60 actively exploited. These include iron, coal, oil, gas, lead, aluminium, copper, zinc, nickel, uranium, silver, gold, bismuth, cadmium and thallium. Perhaps even more important for the immediate welfare of the people of Kazakhstan is the country's supply of agricultural land. United Nations experts have estimated that the people of Kazakhstan are amongst the best endowed with farming land in the world. Although much of the country is mountain, Steppe and desert, at least 350,000 square kilometres, or one seventh of Kazakhstan, is classified as arable land. This amounts to about 2.5 hectares of arable land to every man, woman and child in the country. Such providence is superseded only by Australia, and is 25 times the amount of farming land available to the average Briton.

Kazakhstan entered the third millenium with a population of 14.8 million and rising. This approximates to million), Cote d'Ivoire (14 million) and Syria (15 million). And yet Kazakhstan is a country vastly greater in area. With its 2.7 million square kilometres, it is ninth largest country in the world. Western Europe and over combined area of its four Central Asian neighbours, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. One single Kazakh province, Karagandy oblast with little more than a million inhabitants, is larger in area than the Kingdom of Sweden and spans 1,000 kilometres east to west. The country's huge  area combined with scattered population makes it one of the world's least densely populated nations, with an average of about five persons per square kilometre. Only countries like Australia or Canada have similarly sparse populations.

Although Kazakhs now form the majority of Kazakhstan’s population, it is a multiethnic country where economic progress is encouraging other groups to think of themselves as Kazakhstanis as well as ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Koreans, Uzbeks, etc.

More than 100 ethnic groups live in Kazakhstan - precisely 126 according to some written sources. To explain this, look to the migratory movements and campaigns of conquest in which the history of Central Asia is so rich, as well as the wheeling and dealing along the Silk Road which led to a situation, even before the establishment of Soviet power, in which the Kazakh territory was already home to a kaleidoscopic range of peoples: Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Persian, Chinese, Uygur, Dungan, Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar and many others already dwelt here long before Stalin started his deportation campaign. Forced migration following the outbreak of World War II resulted in an influx of over a million Koreans, Germans, Chechens, Ingush, Poles, Crimean Tatars, Turks, Greeks and other nationalities. For a long time after the war's end, these people were prohibited from returning to their places of origin. Their final rehabilitation had to wait until perestroika.

A stroll around central Almaty will give you a clear sense of Kazakhstan's ethnic diversity, as a broad mix of European and Asiatic faces greets you. The most recent census data, from 2009, recorded that ethnic Kazakhs comprised 63.1% of the population, with ethnic Russians comprising 23.7%. Other minority groups are much smaller: Uzbeks were in 2009 the next most numerous, at 2.9% of the population, followed by Ukrainians (2.1%) and Germans (also 2.1%). There are a large number of other groups with smaller but significant populations, including Koreans, Chechens, Uighurs, Tatars and Greeks.

The history of Kazakhstan during the Tsarist and Soviet periods as a place in which colonists and dissidents were sent from Slavonic areas, and in the Stalinist period as one to which whole ethnic groups were deported, does much to explain this complex mix. President Nazarbaev makes frequent reference in his speeches to Kazakhstan's qualities as a country in which a diverse range of ethnic groups are able to coexist peacefully, and he has been careful to ensure that the rights of minority ethnic groups are preserved, for example in retaining an official status for the Russian language, as the 'language of interethnic communication'. The Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan, which has branches in all regional capitals in Kazakhstan, was a body set up by Nazarbaev to represent the interests of the different ethnic groups.

But the ethnic composition of the country is changing. The proportion of the population comprising ethnic Kazakhs, for example, stood at around 74% at the turn of the 20th century. By 1989, mainly through the in-migration of settlers and deportees, it had slumped to around 40%. But following the break-up of the Soviet Union, there was a strong out-migration by a number of mainly European groups, perceiving opportunities to be greater in their ethnic homelands. A large proportion of Kazakhstan's ethnic German and Greek populations departed, as well as smaller percentages, but considerable numbers, of Russians and Ukrainians.

The overall population of Kazakhstan dropped in the first few years following independence. The numbers of Kazakhs, in contrast, increased. Birth rates among the ethnic Kazakh population are higher than those of the Slavonic groups. The latest figures show a fertility rate for ethnic Russians of just under 1.4, compared with 1.9 for Russian- speaking ethnic Kazakhs, and 2.9 for Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs. The in-migration since independence of oralmans, ethnic Kazakhs from outside Kazakhstan, has also contributed to the rise in the ethnic Kazakh population. Thus today, ethnic Kazakhs form a clear majority of the population. The percentage of the population from other parts of central Asia, especially Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks, is also rising, with inflows, especially of seasonal and other temporary migrants, related to the better employment opportunities and salaries available in Kazakhstan.

There are strong variations in ethnic composition between regions. Ethnic Russians form the large majority of the population of the North Kazakhstan Region, while around 96% of the population of Kyzylorda Region in the south is ethnically Kazakh.

Kazakh culture, rooted in oral tradition, survives at its strongest in the countryside, although urban Kazakhs are showing a growing interest in their roots too, now that there is no Soviet regime to tell them that nomadic culture and the Kazakh language are symbols of a backward past.

City-dwellers enjoy hanging out in the yurts and kymyzkhanas (kymyz stalls) that spring up all round the country in summer, and they often still decorate their homes with colourful, yurt-style carpets and tapestries. Family, respect for elders and traditions of hospitality remain very important to Kazakhs. Ancestry determines both a person’s zhuz (horde) and clan. The best ancestor of all is Chinggis Khan, and right up to the 20th century the Kazakh nobility consisted of those who could trace their lineage back to him.

Traditionally, Kazakhs may not marry anyone descended from males going back seven generations on the father’s side of their family. Kazakh tradition is most on display during the spring festival Nauryz (Navrus; 22 March), when families gather, wear traditional dress, eat special food, and enjoy traditional music and games rooted in their equestrian traditions such as kokpar, audaryspak (horseback wrestling) and kyz kuu (a boy–girl horse chase – if he wins he gets to kiss her; if she wins she gets to beat him with her riding whip). Falconry (hunting with birds of prey) is another still-beloved Kazakh tradition.