A huge country the size of Western Europe, Kazakhstan has vast mineral resources and enormous economic potential.
The varied landscape stretches from the mountainous, heavily populated regions of the east to the sparsely populated, energy-rich lowlands in the west, and from the industrialised north, with its Siberian climate and terrain, through the arid, empty steppes of the centre, to the fertile south.
Ethnically the country is as diverse, with the Kazakhs making up over half the population, the Russians comprising just over a quarter, and smaller minorities of Uzbeks, Koreans, Chechens and others accounting for the rest.
These groups generally live in harmony, though Russians resent the lack of dual citizenship and having to pass a Kazakh-language test in order to work for state agencies. Since independence many ethnic Russians have emigrated to Russia.
Astana: Oil money is driving the new capital's development
The main religion, Islam, was suppressed like all others under Communist rule, but has enjoyed a revival since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There has been major foreign investment in the Caspian oil sector, bringing rapid economic growth, averaging about 8% in the decade since 2000. By 2010, per capita gross domestic product was estimated to have grown more than tenfold since the mid-nineties.
An oil pipeline linking the Tengiz oil field in western Kazakhstan to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk opened in 2001. In 2008, Kazakhstan began pumping some oil exports through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, as part of a drive to lessen its dependence on Russia as a transit country. A pipeline to China opened in late 2005.
Kazakhstan is also the world's largest producer of uranium.
In the 1990s, a small minority of Kazakhs grew very rich after independence through privatization and other business deals which opposition politicians alleged to have been corrupt, while many Kazakhs suffered from the initial negative impact of economic reform.
However, as a result of the growth since 2010, inequality is now less pronounced than in other Central Asian countries, and unemployment is low by regional standards. Some economic challenges remain, though, including persistently high inflation.
The people of Kazakhstan also have to live with the aftermath of Soviet-era nuclear testing and toxic waste dumping, as well as with growing drug addiction levels and a growing incidence of HIV/Aids. Inefficient Soviet irrigation projects led to severe shrinkage of the heavily polluted Aral Sea.
- Full name: Republic of Kazakhstan
- Population: 15.7 million (UN, 2010)
- Capital: Astana
- Largest city: Almaty
- Area: 2.7 million sq km (1 million sq miles)
- Major languages: Kazakh, Russian
- Major religions: Islam, Christianity
- Life expectancy: 62 years (men), 73 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 Kazakh tenge = 100 tiyn
- Main exports: Oil, uranium, ferrous and nonferrous metals, machinery, chemicals, grain, wool, meat, coal
- GNI per capita: US $7,440 (World Bank, 2010)
- Internet domain: .kz
- International dialling code: +7
President: Nursultan Nazarbayev
In power virtually unchallenged since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Nursultan Nazarbayev has focused on economic reform while resisting moves to democratise the political system.
President Nazarbayev: Kazakhstan's leader for more than two decades
He remains popular among ordinary Kazakhs. His supporters say he preserved inter-ethnic accord and stability during the reform in the 1990s, and is widely credited for the country's impressive economic growth in first decade of the new millennium.
Mr Nazarbayev has concentrated extensive powers in his own hands and is accused by the opposition of suppressing dissent. Although he says he advocates democracy as a long-term goal, he warns that stability could be at risk if change is too swift.
Born in 1940, Mr Nazarbayev came to power in 1989 as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and was elected president the following year. He was re-elected after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In 2005, he won a further seven-year term with more than 90% of the vote in elections that Kazakhstan's weak opposition decried as rigged, and which European observers declared seriously flawed.
In 2007, parliament, in which the ruling party held all seats, voted to allow the president to stay in office for an unlimited number of terms. In 2010, MPs granted Mr Nazarbayev the lifelong title of "leader of the nation".
But judges in 2011 ruled unconstitutional a plan to hold a referendum on whether to let Mr Nazarbayev to stay in power until 2020 without facing election.
The president thereupon said he rejected the changes, which had been strongly backed by MPs and by many voters. Instead, Mr Nazarbauev called early presidential elections for 3 April 2011, which he won. The polls were criticized by international observers.
Observers expected the president to use his new term to groom a successor.
When Mr Nazarbayev does step down from the president, he will have a permanent seat on the defence council and a role as head of the people's assembly, which unites members of different ethnic groups, according to a law approved in a 2007 referendum.
The president merged his Otan ("Fatherland") party with his daughter Dariga's party, Asar, in July 2006, in a move seen as consolidating the president's power. The united party was named Nur Otan ("Ray of light of the fatherland") in honour of Mr Nazarbayev.