Sunday, January 27, 2019

Push to Rename Kazakhstan Kazakh Republic Sparks Intense Debate, Highlights Problem in Russia as Well

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 25 – A call by Kazakh deputy Azat Peruashev to change the name of his country from Kazakhstan back to the Kazakh Republic not only has sparked debate about ethnicity and national identity there but highlights the problems inherent in Moscow’s efforts to introduce a civic national identity as the primary one in the Russian Federation.

            Peruashev, leader of the Ak Zhol parliamentary party, bases his argument on the fact that 2020 will be the centenary of the formation of the Kazakh Republic during the Russian Civil War and urges that the prime minister restore this historic name in place of Kazakhstan (

            Renaming streets, towns and even major cities and regions in Kazakhstan has been accelerating in the last few years; and consequently, it is no surprise that someone would push for restoring the older name of the republic. But Daniyar Ashimbayev, a Kazakh political scientist, suggests there are real risks in doing so.

            Those risks would arise because as a result “the people of Kazakhstan would be renamed the Kazakh people, thus unifying national and state identity.” But it is far from clear that the quarter of the population which is not ethnically Kazakh would be pleased – and that could spark ethnic conflicts and additional ethnic outmigration.

            Another Kazakh political scientist, Talgat Isamgambetov observes that any decision about renaming the country is beyond the competence of the prime minister. It would require a change in the constitution, discussion in parliament, and a decision by the president.  In his view, Peruashev is simply testing the waters for all that by his proposal.

            “This discussion,” Isamgambetov continues, is about “who is the Kazakh nation?”  The first draft of the current constitution called itself “the Constitution of the Kazakh Republic.’ But disagreements arose, and the final draft, which the people voted for in the referendum on August 30, 2995, called itself ‘the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan.’”

            The fact that the debate is continuing now, 24 years later, he says, suggests that “something in our history contradicts the adoption of this decision.”

            A name change by itself might not mean a lot, Isamgambetov argues. Kyrgyzstan has become the Kyrgyz Republic and that has not had the negative consequences many predicted, but perhaps only because Russian has remained an official language and because the attitudes of the Kyrgyz and the others in Kyrgyzstan are different than in Kazakhstan.

            The other ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, the political analyst says, “are not burning with a desire to be part of the Kazakh nation, and the striving of national patriots of the second wave (since 2005) to call all some citizens of the Kazakh nation and others diasporas has also generated a negative reaction.”

            A third Kazakh political scientist, Aydos Sarym, supports the proposal to rename the country. The reason is simple: there is no such nation as the Kazakhstantsy. “’A stan’ is not a nation;” and that ending comes from the Persian rather than the Turkic roots of the country as currently constituted.

            The reason for making this change now is obvious: the country has changed radically in demographic terms: in 1989, only 39 percent of its residents were Kazakhs. Now, approximately 70 percent are. “Kazakhstan is becoming ever more a Turkic-Muslim state” – and that requires the restoration of the old name.

            The current effort to rename the country has its roots in Nursultan Nazarbayev’s suggestion in 2016 that Kazakhs needed to escape from the opprobrium that sometimes comes from their being lumped together with “the stans” of Central Asia. That sparked a great deal of discussion but no decision.

            Now, things may be different, although Russian commentators like Eduard Poletayev of the Eurasian World Foundation, continue to argue that there is no agreement on how residents of Kazakhstan, and especially non-Kazakhs should identify themselves, as Kazakhstantsy or as Kazakhs.

            The one is a political term; the second is loaded with ethnic content. And as such the debate in Kazakhstan is both an echo of the civic versus ethnic Russian debate in the Russian Federation – and even a kind of distant mirror that will allow participants in the debate there to see themselves and their opponents in new ways.

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