Kazakhstan, also spelled Kazakstan (Kazakh: Қазақстан, Qazaqstan, IPA: [qɑzɑqˈstɑn]; Russian: Казахстан, Kazakhstán, Russian pronunciation: [kazəxˈstan]), officially the Republic of Kazakhstan, is a country in Central Asia and Europe. Ranked as the ninth largest country in the world as well as the world's largest landlocked country, it has a territory of 2,727,300 km² (greater than Western Europe). It is bordered by Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China. The country also borders on a significant part of the Caspian Sea.
Vast in size, the land in Kazakhstan is very diverse in types of terrain: flatlands, steppes, taigas, rock-canyons, hills, deltas, mountains, snow-capped mountains, and deserts. Kazakhstan has the 62nd largest population in the world, with a population density of less than 6 people per square kilometre (15 per sq. mi.).
For most of its history the territory of modern-day Kazakhstan has been inhabited by nomadic tribes. By the 16th century the Kazakhs emerged as a distinct group, divided into three hordes. The Russians began advancing into the Kazakh steppe in the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century all of Kazakhstan was part of the Russian Empire. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, and subsequent civil war, the territory of Kazakhstan was reorganized several times before becoming the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936, a part of the USSR. During the 20th century, Kazakhstan was the site of major Soviet projects, including Khrushchev's Virgin Lands campaign, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the Semipalatinsk "Polygon", the USSR's primary nuclear weapon testing site.
Kazakhstan declared itself an independent country on December 16, 1991, the last Soviet republic to do so. Its communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, became the country's new president. Since independence, Kazakhstan has pursued a balanced foreign policy and worked to develop its economy, especially its hydrocarbon industry. While the country's economic outlook is improving, President Nazarbayev maintains strict control over the country's politics. Several opposition leaders and journalists have been killed in recent years, and Western observers generally do not consider Kazakhstan's elections to be free and fair. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan's international prestige is building. It is now considered to be the dominant state in Central Asia. The country belongs to many international organizations, including the United Nations, NATO's Partnership for Peace, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In 2010, Kazakhstan will chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In 2011, it will form a customs union with Russia and Belarus.
Kazakhstan is ethnically and culturally diverse, in part due to mass deportations of many ethnic groups to the country during Stalin's rule. Kazakhs are the largest group, followed by Russians. Kazakhstan allows freedom of religion, and many different beliefs are represented in the country. Islam is the primary religion, followed by Orthodox Christianity. The official language is Kazakh, though Russian is still commonly used for everyday communication.