Only a week after Kazakhstan celebrated the 23rd anniversary of its national currency by sticking the face of President Nursultan Nazarbayev on banknotes, talk is afoot of renaming the capital after the leader.
Nazarbayev is already object of a vigorous campaign of state-engineered adulation that often tips into a full-on cult of personality, but this is taking things to a new level.
The proposal to rename Astana to somehow reflect the name of Nazarbayev — who is also known by the Sultanate-style honorific of Elbasy, or leader of the nation — was aired in the hyper-loyalist rubber stamp lower house of parliament, the Majlis, on November 23.
“We suggest placing a note in the country’s constitution observing the leading role played in the creation of our state by the first president, the leader of the nation, Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev. And to reflect the name of Elbasy in the name of the capital and other important sites,” said Kuanysh Sultanov, a member of parliament with the ruling Nur Otan party.
Sultanov’s suggestion on how to rename Astana was for either Nursultan or Nazarbayev. Another MP, Pavel Kazantsev, said the decision could be made in just a single month and that “there is no need to drag out the issue.” Kazantsev’s notion was to change the name by independence day, which falls on December 16.
“By the end of the year, we can already choose a new name. It all depends on how discussions go and on what the people say. It just remains for parliament to formalize the decision of the Kazakhstani people,” Kazantsev said.
A referendum could be held to approve the decision, he said.
This is not the first time there has been talks of renaming either the country — one earlier idea was to change Kazakhstan to Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) — or its capital.
In 2012, the Zheltoksan Zhangyrygy movement suggested renaming the capital after Nazarbayev and sent their proposal to parliament. Four years later, it is the member of parliament that have returned to the idea.
Although Kazakhstan is in the grip of an extended spell of economic stagnation, officials are still apparently able to find time to devote to arguably less important name-changing activities. On November 9, Astana’s main street, Orynbor, which is the Kazakh name for the Russian city Orenburg, the home to a significant Kazakh diaspora, was changed to Mangilik El, or eternal nation. Name changes have been taking place to streets all over Astana. This exercise has already set the government back by 18 million tenge ($54,000).
Astana has already been renamed twice since independence in 1991. In the 1830s, the locality on the site was called Akmolinsk. In Soviet times, the same place was called Tselinograd and in 1992, what was still then a dreary, windswept backwater was renamed to Akmola. Later, in the second half of the 1990s, after the capital was moved from Almaty to Akmola, the city earned its current name.
Information and Communications Minister Dauren Abayev, who served as Nazarbayev’s press secretary before taking over this newly created department earlier this year, dismissed talk of a cult of personality in the making.
“The proposal of the MPs will be studied. And the head of state will, as usual, take a very considered decision on this matter,” he told journalists in parliament.
If the MPs truly do tap public opinion for Astana’s new name, they may come to regret their untrammeled fawning. One online poll organized by news website Nur.kz showed the decidedly unserious Nur-Sultangeles taking a strong lead with 41 percent out of around 3,000 votes cast. In second place was Nur-Astana with 29 percent.
The issue has predictably set social media alight and provoked much mirth.
Facebook user Yerbol Medetov quipped that he was a planning a trip for early December to Nur-Sultangeles.
Abilbek Narembayev suggested on Facebook that the capital could be called Nur York: “Where are you from? Nur York!”
With a multitude of things in Astana, such as Nazarbayev University, being named after the president, there is space for confusion.
“Where do you study?” Facebook user Aliya Sharipbayeva asked a future resident of Astana hypothetically. “At Nazarbayev University, in Nursultan,” came her proposed answer.