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.
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.
Politically, independent Kazakhstan has been dominated by former Communist Party chief Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose authoritarian rule has faced few challenges from weak opposition parties. The country's reputation for stability was rocked in in December 2011 when wage protests in oil-rich Mangystau Region prompted a violent police response in which 15 people died.
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.