ASTANA – At a meeting at a school in Atyrau on Feb. 6, President Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested what has been in the air in Kazakhstan for years now – that the country drop the “stan” from its name.
“The name of our country has the ending ‘stan,’ as do the other states of Central Asia,” he said, as reported by his official website, Akorda.kz. “At the same time, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just 2 million people, and its name lacks the suffix ‘stan.’ Perhaps, in time, the question of changing the name of our country to Kazak Eli should be examined, but first this should definitely be discussed with the people.” (“Kazak Eli” means “the land of the Kazakhs” or “Kazakh nation” in Kazakh.)
People in Kazakhstan have been discussing a name change for some time. In March 2013, an online petition on the Onlinepetition.kz website suggested changing the English version of the country’s name to the Kazakh Republic. The petition explained that the ‘stan’ links Kazakhstan with troubled states like Afghanistan and said the new name would help increase tourism and bolster public pride, among other benefits. The petition generated fewer than 400 responses, not all positive.
Nazarbayev’s recent statement, however, has drawn international attention. Articles in The Atlantic and the Washington Post have reported or taken a position on the issue.
“[Kazakhstan is] wonderfully diverse, and there is a case to be made for a name that more fully reflects that,” wrote the Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, Max Fisher, on Feb. 7. Fisher wrote in support of a name change, though not necessarily to “Kazak Eli” but to something more reflective of Kazakhstan’s diversity. When suggesting the possible change on Feb. 6, Nazarbayev himself restated that he thinks Kazakhstan’s ethnic diversity is one of its great strengths.
‘Stan’ does indeed affect Kazakhstan’s image in the West, said Russian political scientist and Director of International Programmes at the National Strategy Institute Yuri Solozobov, as quoted by Interfax.by. Western media and even major political figures tend to refer to the five Central Asian states as a unit, despite their differences, he said. “Nursultan Nazarbayev noticed that this … greatly hinders the inflow of economic investment and blurs Kazakhstan’s brand as a successful country in the world,” he said.
“There’s a certain stigma associated with the suffix ‘stan,’” wrote Matt Ford on The Atlantic’s website on Feb. 7. “Would a name change help Kazakhstan? Geographically, it couldn’t hurt. Flubbings of Central Asian nations’ names are common, even among those who should probably know better.”
There is also support for the change within the country. “I fully support the president’s proposal to rename our country Kazak Eli,” Mukhtar Taizhan, president of the Bolatkhan Taizhan Foundation, as quoted by Total.kz. He said the new name would be simpler and more appropriate, as it comes from a Turkic rather than Persian root and Kazakh is a Turkic language. (“Stan” is an ancient Persian suffix meaning “place of” or “country.”) Taizhan also said anyone of any ethnic group living in the renamed country should be considered fully “Kazakh.”
Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor and leading brand strategist for regions, told the BBC in an interview on Feb. 7 that a name change would be “an incredibly irritating thing to do to the planet,” given the changes it would necessitate to communications services, postal services, visas and more. He said costs would run to billions of dollars. “People don’t judge countries by their names or by the way they present themselves,” he said, but by what they do. “Changing the wrapper doesn’t change the sweet.”
Kazakhstan, with the biggest economy in the post-Soviet space, is currently one of seven Central Asian ‘stans.’ Though it has received more than $180 billion in foreign investment since independence, the country still isn’t well known outside of energy circles, despite having an active multilateral foreign policy and taking part in many regional and international organisations. Hosting the international exhibition EXPO 2017 in the capital, Astana, is one way the nation is working to get on the global map. The country is also campaigning for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2017-2018.
The country’s capital city got a new name in 1998, shortly after it was moved from Almaty to the Akmola region. The names of a number of other cities and towns have been changed since independence, sometimes reverting from Russian names to older Kazakh names.
‘Stan’ can have a way of sticking, however. Kyrgyzstan became the Kyrgyz Republic in 1993, but is rarely referred to that way both inside and outside of the region.