From Perestroika to independence

In December 1986, Gorbachev replaced Dinmukhamed Kunayev, party boss in Kazakhstan throughout the Brezhnev period, with Gennady Kolbin. While Gorbachev was right in viewing him as corrupt, Kunayev was popular among Kazakhs as a Kazakh leader who cautiously promoted Kazakh culture and placed Kazakhs in many important posts. The appointment of Kolbin, an ethnic Russian with no previous connection to Kazakhstan, angered Kazakhs and set off demonstrations and riots in Almaty and other cities. The unrest was suppressed, with at least 200 deaths, and political liberalization in Kazakhstan was halted.

Nursultan Nazarbayev

The situation began to change in 1989. In June, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's Prime Minister since 1984 and a Kazakh replaced Kolbin.

In August, a law was passed making Kazakh the state language. Independent political organizations developed. The largest was the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement for nuclear disarmament, initiated by the Kazakh writer Olzhas Suleimenov. This movement achieved its goal of closing down the Semipalatinsk testing site.

Kazakhstan declares independence

Unlike other Soviet republics, Kazakhstan did not declare independence immediately after the collapse of the hard-line coup in Moscow in August 1991. Nazarbayev hoped that the Soviet Union might still be saved. Only when Gorbachev resigned in December did Kazakhstan declare itself independent. In presidential elections held the same month, Nazarbayev stood unopposed and was elected by an overwhelming majority.