Staunton, August 18 – In the 1990s, Kazakhstan restored Kazakh toponyms throughout the country, but it did not change the Russian names of two Russian-majority cities in the northern part of the country, Petropavlovsk and Pavlodar. Now, some Kazakhs are pressing for that; but if they succeed, there would be an explosive Russian reaction.
That is the conclusion of Alimana Zhanmukanova, an independent political scientist in Nur-Sultan, who says the Russian names give comfort to ethnic Russians there and changing these names would have potentially dangerous consequences (cabar.asia/ru/zamorozhennaya-dekolonizatsiya-kazahstana-budet-li-pereimenovanie-petropavlovska-i-pavlodara).
While the two Russian names have roots in tsarist times, there have always been “Kazakh alternatives,” she says, Kyzyl-Zhar for Petropavlovsk and Sayarka or Kereku for Pavlodar. Earlier efforts to change the names generated a backlash among ethnic Russians and some Kazakhs as well (rus.azattyq.org/a/petropavlovsk_kyzylzhar/2172908.html).
But two things have changed since those were made more than a decade ago, Zhanmukanova says. On the one hand, the Kazakh share of the population relative to the Russian one has increased not only in the country as a whole but even in what used to be the overwhelmingly Russian North. As a result, there is new interest in having Kazakh names there.
And on the other, the Kazakhstan government has shown itself more willing to impose name changes without consulting the population. When it decided to rename Nur-Sultan in 2019, the government did not bother to consult with the people; and so many feel the authorities should just go ahead and restore the Kazakh names in these two places.
But ethnic Russians still form a majority or at least a plurality in these two cities as well as in many others in the north. That “poses a threat to the national security” of Kazakhstan if Moscow “decides to exercise its imperial ambitions and attacks, physically or verbally, the territorial integrity” of the country.
Kazakh nationalists concede that Russians and Russia won’t like any name change but argue that it is long past time to keep the old names. They only encourage Moscow and Russians in the Kazakh north to think that the borders could be changed to benefit Russia and harm Kazakhstan (rus.azattyq-ruhy.kz/analytics/19205-pereimenovanie-pavlodara-i-petropavlovska-popytka-derusifikatsii-ili-vozvrashchenie-k-istokam).
But even if Moscow does not get involved, changing the names will upset many ethnic Russians in these cities and create new problems within the country. However that may be, the Kazakh political scientist says, demands for a change are growing, and “the renaming of the cities will like take place within the next five to ten years.”
Kazakh officials in the north are increasingly warming to the idea. If a few years ago, they said it was “too early” to change the names. Now the same ones are saying that the step simply has to be made with care. (tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/akim-sko-pereimenovanii-petropavlovska-idut-kuluarnyie-439525/).
But no matter how much “care” is taken, Zhanmukanova says, when the names are changed, that will cause “unprecedented discontent among the ethnic Russian community in Kazakhstan” and no one can exclude that it could be the occasion for a Moscow move like the ones against Georgia and Ukraine.