NUR-SULTAN — In recent months, in a bid to rebrand and distance itself from its often turbulent neighbours, the perennial question of whether Kazakhstan should change its name has raised its head once more. First mooted by Nursultan Nazarbayev back in February 2014, the former president argued that the ending ‘Stan’ led many people to lump Kazakhstan in not only with the other nations of Central Asia but also with hotspots such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the words of the Director of the Kazakhstan Risk Assessment Group and member of the presidium of the Kazakhstan Council on International Relations, Dosym Satpayev, “in the outside world there has long been the stereotype of Central Asia as the region of the five ‘Stans,’ although in general political terms Kazakhstan and its neighbours still greatly differ from one another.” So, how much should be read into a name, and what are the potential benefits and drawbacks of a change?
To begin with, it should be noted that there is a plethora of examples of countries which are known by one name internally and another externally. A prime example of this is Georgia, which locals call ‘Sakartvelo,’ derived from the Georgian region of Kartli, which was also known as Iberia in Byzantine and Classical sources. Though there are multiple theories as to why foreign designations for Georgia came to be, it is widely held that the Russian name ‘Gruzya’ and the Western name came from the Persian moniker for the area, ‘Gurğān,’ meaning ‘land of the wolves.’ Staying with this region, the external name for the breakaway Republic of Artsakh is even more convoluted, with the name ‘Nagorno-Karabakh,’ meaning ‘Black Mountain Garden,’ coming from an amalgam of three languages: Turkish, Persian, and Russian.
A country choosing to change its name is not without precedent, and happens more frequently than one might initially think, and for a variety of reasons. Recent examples would be Macedonia becoming North Macedonia, and the Czech Republic rebranding as Czechia. In the case of North Macedonia, this change was made to end a long-standing dispute with Greece which had been a source of instability in the Western Balkans and effectively stymied Macedonia’s attempts to join NATO and the European Union, but with Czechia, the change came to pass for more aesthetic reasons.
When Czechoslovakia broke apart in 1993, the Czech part of the name was slated to serve as the name of the new Czech state, but many felt that ‘Česko’ sounded harsh and was too reminiscent of ‘Československo.’ Statesman and playwright Václav Havel stated that ‘slugs crawl on me a little whenever I read or hear the word ‘Česko,’ whilst the explorer Miroslav Zikmund associated it with Hitler's Nuremberg rallies. According to Petr Pavlínek, a member of the Civic Initiative Czechia which was launched in 1997 and campaigned for a change in the country’s name: ‘People were concerned that the name Bohemia (which translates as Čechy) was increasingly used for the entire country even though Bohemia only covers the western half of Czechia. Bohemia does not include Moravia or Silesia. [Now] both Czechia and the Czech Republic are correct. Countries usually have two official names: a formal name and a short name. Short names are much more practical than formal names. Eventually, many Czechs will realise that Czechia makes a lot of sense in a similar way that Austria, Slovakia, Croatia, Indonesia, Australia and other short country names do. It’s only a matter of getting used to it.’
Other factors to consider include the cost of a change, and whether the new name will take root. An example of the latter would be Kyrgyzstan, which may officially be called the ‘Kyrgyz Republic,’ but few people refer to it as such. In terms of the cost, meanwhile, in 2018 one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchs, His Royal Highness, King Mswati III told a crowd gathered at a small sports stadium that Swaziland was no more, and henceforth the ‘country will be officially known as the Kingdom of eSwatini,’ meaning ‘Home of the Swazi people.’ According to the intellectual property lawyer, Darren Olivier, although ‘there’s intrinsic value in that identity and what it means for the people, at the same time there’s a cost – a physical cost in changing the identity.’ Olivier estimated it would set the country back $6 million to change its name, a figure which is ‘not insignificant’ for a minnow nation.
Of course, budgetary issues are not such a pressing concern for natural resource rich Kazakhstan. However, whilst arguing in favour of a change, Dosym Satpayev stated that ‘from which sources the state will take the resources for rebranding is not known,’ before concluding that the burden would be considerable and would likely come from the National Fund and tapping into taxpayers.
Kazakhstan is no stranger to name changes, or change in general. In 2021, the government long-mooted announced plans to switch from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, and this on top of an earlier transition from Arabic to Latin, and then to Cyrillic. Between 1991 and 2005, three oblasts, twelve cities, 53 districts, and 957 smaller settlements were renamed, Alma-Ata becoming Almaty, Guriyev becoming Atyrau, etc., though in many cases this was done to replace Soviet-era names with Kazakh names. More recently, following eleven years of lobbying, in 2019, the capital, Astana, formerly known as Akmolinsk, and then as Tselinograd, was rebranded Nur-Sultan in honour of former president Nazarbayev, though given his fall from grace following the uprising in January, this should perhaps serve as a cautionary tale.
Unsurprisingly, talk of a change of name has met with a hostile reception in Russia, with the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda opining that: ‘It is exactly with this sort of talk that many interethnic conflicts began in the post-Soviet lands. When Moldavia became Moldova, when Tajikistan became Tojikiston, when Chechnya became Ichkeria and Yugoslavia became a cluster of warring microstates.’ Putting this revanchist imperialism to one side, however, aside from the obvious rebranding and distancing the country from its arguably less stable neighbours, what are the arguments for a change, and what alternatives are on the table?
The option favoured by MP and Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security, Aidos Sarym, and leader of the ‘constructive opposition’ party, Ak Zhol, Azat Peruashev, is ‘Kazakh Republic.’ This name would ‘restore historic justice and boost unity and amity among all ethnicities,’ argues Peruashev. Another possible moniker is ‘Kazakhia,’ which would chime with the former president’s praise for the name ‘Mongolia.’ This option may not fare well with nationalists, however, as it would bear distinct similarities to names in Russian, such as Rossiya (Russia) and Turtsiya (Turkey).
Former president Nazarbayev’s suggestion was ‘Kazakh Yeli,’ which means ‘country of the Kazakhs,’ whereas Kazakhstan means ‘land of the Kazakhs.’ As ethnic Kazakhs account for 63.1% of the population, ethnic Russians 23.7%, and a veritable smorgasbord including Ukrainians, Uyghurs, Germans and Koreans in a land which was home to some of the largest Soviet-era gulags, there is an argument that Kazakh Yeli would be more inclusive. Kazakhstan is predominantly Muslim, but also has a sizeable Orthodox Christian community, and a change to Kazakh Yeli may be welcomed by citizens who are not ethnically Kazakh as a path to forming a national identity they can embrace. Despite the spectacular downfall of Nazarbayev, therefore, there may be a case for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.