As country rebranding goes it’s quite radical: President Nursultan Nazarbayev has suggested changing the name of Kazakhstan and calling it Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) instead.
Offering a clue to his thinking, Nazarbayev singled out the ‘stan’ part of the name – and held up neighboring Mongolia as an example of a country without the Persian suffix, which means “land of.”
“The name of our country has the ending ‘stan,’ as do the other states of Central Asia,” he said in remarks quoted by his press service on February 6.
“At the same time, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just two million people, and its name lacks the suffix ‘stan.’ Perhaps with time the question of changing the name of our country to Kazak Yeli should be examined, but first this should definitely be discussed with the people.”
The people were quick to react, taking to Twitter to vent—some firmly for and others as staunchly against.
“I support Kazak Yeli!” tweeted one user named Ruslan Zhangazy, in Kazakh. “And you?”
“Perhaps now the Twitterati will think how to stand up for the name of our country together,” remarked another, Nikita Shabayev, in Russian.
Nazarbayev was speaking at a meeting with intellectuals during a trip to the western oil town of Atyrau on February 6. The nature of the venue suggests that these may have been off-the-cuff remarks rather than a firm policy statement, but the proposal does suggest that a country name change is on the president’s mind.
Some people in Kazakhstan dislike the ‘stan’ association – which they believe has connotations of volatility in other countries with the suffix.
Adopting a purely Kazakh-language name is something that many Kazakh nationalists who feel that not enough has been done to shed the country’s Russian and Soviet colonial legacy would welcome. But members of ethnic minorities (who make up a third of the population, mostly ethnic Russians) may be wary.
In remarks designed to reassure them, Nazarbayev told the Atyrau meeting that Kazakhstan’s “advantage is in the diversity of its multi-ethnic people.”
Changing the country’s name would be a costly exercise, and would to a degree undermine previous efforts to establish Kazakhstan as an international brand, on which Astana has spent millions.
The suggestion is sure to spark a hot debate in Kazakhstan, where it remains to be seen whether it is a trial balloon to test public opinion or a firm intention of Nazarbayev’s as he moves to secure his legacy.