Monday, February 10, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Could ‘Kazakhstan’ Disappear from the Map?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 10 – President Nursultan Nazarbyev says that he doesn’t exclude that Kazakhstan might be called “Kazakh eli” -- which means the same thing in Kazakh  -- a step that reflects his interest in rebranding his country as distinct from the other “stans” of the region but that also raises questions about the future of Russian nomenclature and language there.

            Last week, Nazabayev who is in the midst of a drive to boost the use of Kazakh in his country indicated that a translation of the name of the country into Kazakh could help Astana attract more interest.  “Foreigners,” he said, “are showing interest in Mongolia” which unlike the other Central Asian states isn’t a “stan” (

            The Kazakh leader said that any such change would have to be discussed “with the people,” but almost certainly it would have to be discussed as well with Kazakhstan’s Turkic allies and with Turkey in whose language Nazarbayev’s country is Kazakhstan and part of the Turkic world.

            But in the first instance, any such change would affect the status of the Russian language, which is still commonly used by older elites of the various nationalities living there and of the 3.7 million ethnic Russians who now form 22 percent of the population, down from a plurality there only a generation ago.

            Consequently, Nazarbayev’s suggestion has already sparked a discussion in Moscow. Aleksey Vlasov, a Russian political scientist, said that Nazarbayev’s “far from uncontroversial” proposal was part of the launch of a new social movement, Kazakhstan-2050, which like the Russian Popular Front, looks far into the future (

            Vlasov added that the Kazakh elite is divided with some of its elements far more nationalist than others.  Which one will come out on top is a big question, especially if one considers the direction that Kazakhstan may go after Nazarbayev who has been in power since before the end of the USSR leaves the scene.

            The incumbent Kazakhstan president is committed to stability and thus opposes the Islamists, Vlasov continued.  China is also interested in stability there: it is the chief consumer of Kazakh oil.  “The Americans may play their games,” he said, but China doesn’t want any changes.

            Despite Kazakhstan’s membership in the Customs Union, the future of the ethnic Russian minority there is problematic. Nazarbayev had been supportive of it in the past and had kept the “national patriots” out of key positions. But “recently,” the latter have assumed a more prominent role, and one can see “the mixing of anti-Eurasian with anti-Russian rhetoric.”

             Pyotr Svoik, deputy chairman of Kazakhstan’s Azat Social Democratic Party, said that renaming the country appears to be an effort by Nazarbayev to do something that will serve as a continuing reminder of his role “in the construction of the state over the last 20 years” rather than a broader national aspiration.

            The Azat Party leader acknowledged that “[ethnic] Russians are leaving” Kazakhstan, but he said ethnic Kazakhs were also trying to leave no less frequently because they have doubts about the future of their country.  Many in the elites and even the middle class are buying property in Russia, Europe or elsewhere where they believe their prospects would be better.

            Sergey Komov, an ethnic Russian resident of Kazakhstan, said he and his friens were very much against renaming the republic just as they were against renaming towns like Novo-Timofeyevka. That village, originally established as part of the Russian Cossack line, is now called Sarybel.

            Many Russians are trying to leave or at least to send their children to Russian higher educational institutions, but he said that Russian diplomats in Kazakhstan had been anything but helpful to those Russians seeking Russian Federation citizenship. Instead of welcoming them, Komov continued, the diplomats made the Russians stand in the street.

            What is happening in Kazakhstan is happening elsewhere in the region. Kyrgyzstan, for instance, is working on a program to go over to the use of Kyrgyz in all official documents ( And in Tajikistan, the authorities are pressing people to de-russify their names by dropping the –ov ending (

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