The President That Could Not Stand His “Stan”

President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev wants to rename his country Kazak Yeli (Kazakh People), dropping a “stan” suffix synonymous with obscurity, human rights abuses, post-Soviet corruption and Borat. 

According to the “Leader of the Nation”, one of the many titles the 22-year president has had bestowed on him by a pliant political elite, such a shift will change international perceptions of the country and distance it from its poorer, less secure stan-ending neighbors.

During a working visit to Atyrau last week, the president was quoted as saying [ru]: 

В названии нашей страны есть окончание «стан», как и у других государств Центральной Азии. В то же время иностранцы проявляют интерес к Монголии, население которой составляет всего два миллиона человек, при этом в ее названии отсутствует окончание «стан». Возможно, надо рассмотреть со временем вопрос перехода на название нашей страны «Қазақ елі», но прежде следует обязательно обсудить это с народом

In our country's name, there is this ‘stan’ ending which other Central Asian nations have as well. But, for instance, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just two million people, but whose name lacks the ‘stan’ ending. Probably, we ought to consider with time the issue of adopting Kazak Yeli as the name of our country, but before that, we definitely need to discuss this with the people.

But discussing things with the people is not Nazarbayev's speciality. In June Last year Global Voices reported on an innovative online reaction to state attempts to increase the pension age for women, a move that came as a nasty shock to female citizens. Last week the country announced a 19% devaluation in its national currency, the tenge – another unpleasant surprise to the average Kazakhstani. Small protests against the devaluation have resulted in arrests.

Changing to Kazakh Eli on the stamps will certainly cost money.  Moreover, in light of Kazakhstan's recent decision to devalue the national currency, the stamp will be worth less than it was before.

Changing “Kazakhstan” to “Kazakh Eli” on postage stamps will certainly cost public money. Moreover, in light of Kazakhstan's recent decision to devalue the national currency, the stamp will be worth less than it was previously (Wiki Commons).

Territorially Central Asia's largest republic, Kazakhstan is rich in oil. The country has consistently been the subject of human rights organizations’ criticisms, with Human Rights Watch recently accusing president Nursultan Nazarbaev’s regime of torture, censorship, and the persecution of political opponents. (Less serious accusations may now emerge from Mongolia, a country Kazakhstan almost borders, and one whose population is actually closer to 3 million people than 2 million.)

Nazarbayev has spent a sizable cut of the country's oil wealth on improving the country's image, especially in the wake of the 2006 release of British-American mockumentary/comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The movie, which was filmed in Romania, enjoyed massive commercial success in the West, portraying Kazakhstan as a country where people drink horse urine and where national pastimes include rape, incest and shooting dogs. The film also highlighted the republic's sibling rivalry with another notorious stan, Uzbekistan. One of Kazakhstan's most famous image-makers has been former British Prime Minister Tony Blair

A done deal?

To listen to politicians in the country's weak parliament, one might think the “Kazak Yeli” public discussion referenced by Nazarbayev had already taken place. One MP in the Kazakh Majlis, Jumatay Aliev, said [ru] the president and the people's voice were one: 

 Если что-то президент говорит, он опирается уже на сложившееся мнение. Народ этого хочет, и мы должны идти к этому, иначе нельзя. Это желание народа.

If president says something, he bases on the existing opinion of people…People want it, and we need to move to that direction, otherwise it is impossible. This is the will of people.

Commenting under the article quoting Aliev, kzp-astn begged to differ [ru]:

Откуда вы берете это – “Народ этого хочет”? Кого то конкретно спрашивали? Меня, тебя, твоих родителей, братьев, сестер, может кого то из ваших коллег? Может сосед ваш пришел и сказал, мое мнение спросили я ответил что согласен! Лично я против переименования, и все мои знакомые тоже против!

Where do you get this – “People want it”? Did they ask anybody specifically? Me, you, your parents, brothers, sisters, maybe some of your colleagues?  Perhaps, your neighbor came and said he had been asked for an opinion and had agreed! I personally am against renaming, and all my acquaintances are as well!

Another user of popular Russian-language social network VKontakte Artur Pilipets, tried [ru] to get a feel for the suggested name:

-Откуда ты?
-С Казах ели.
-Где это???
-В Казахстане.

- Where are you from?

- From Kazak Yeli.

- Where is it???

- In Kazakhstan.

While regional commentator @randomdijit tweeted mischievously:

@pashab05 went further, offering new names for Uzbekistan, based on the stage name for President Islam Karimov's pop star daughter, and Kyrgyzstan, based on the country's Manas epos:

Humor aside, the re-brand proposal earned a mixed reaction from the person on the street when Radio Free Europe's Kazakh service  began Nazarbayev's promised public discussion on the dictator's behalf. Some people saw the need to dump “stan” but didn't think Kazak Yeli had much of a ring, while a Russian-speaking citizen objected to Kazak Yeli on the grounds that it further emphasized one nationality in this multinational Central Asian state.

Mostly, support for the change has come from patriots who see it as an opportunity to make a clean brake from the Soviet Union. One netizen, Саят (Sayat) led the rallying cry [kz]:

Шет елдіктер Стан дегенін талай естігенім бар. Қашанғы Стан боламыз , ойланайық ағайын . Алға Қазақ елі!

I heard many times foreigners calling us Stan. For how long shall we remain Stan, let us come to our senses, gentlemen. Forward, Kazakh people [Kazak Yeli]!

This post is part of the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.


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