Staunton, December 15 – Twenty-five years ago, the Kazakhstan authorities renamed the former capital of the republic, Alma-Ata, as Almaty. Now, as a result of the efforts of poet and anti-nuclear activist Olzhas Suleymanov, there is likely to be a referendum to change it back; and this referendum already has the backing of President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev.
As he did in his famous Az i Ya (1975), Suleymanov has argued that Turkic linguistic rules should drive such decisions. Had they been followed in the 1990s, Alma-Ata might have become Almaly, but it wouldn’t have become Almaty (zakon.kz/4999080-tokaev-podderzhal-pereimenovanie-almaty.html).
But the poet and activist has also invoked two other arguments. Alma-Ata was internationally known as a symbol of Kazakhstan. Few see Almaty as a worthy replacement. And because that is the case, a referendum which he argues is needed to show the will of the people would reflect that fact and return the traditional name.
Suleymanov has picked up support for a referendum to restore the former name not only from the Kazakhstan president but from the governor of the region, Bakytzhan Sagintayev. There is opposition, of course, mostly from those who say that changing the name would be expensive.
But after the recent decision to rename Kazakhstan’s capital Astana Nur-Sultan in honor of former president and continuing national leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, many Kazakhs are likely to want to restore the traditional name of their former capital especially because, as Suleymanov says, it has international resonance.