Yes, Kazakhstan should change its name. This map shows why.

February 7

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Grigoriy Sisoev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)

Life-long Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev has suggested changing his country's name to to "Kazak Yeli" to make it friendlier to investors and tourists.

“The name of our country has the ending ‘stan,’ as do the other states of Central Asia,” he said Thursday. “At the same time, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just 2 million people, and its name lacks the suffix ‘stan.’ Perhaps with time the question of changing the name of our country to Kazak Yeli should be examined, but first this should definitely be discussed with the people.”

This is going to sound like an absurdly contrarian position, partly because it is, but president-for-life Nazarbayev is on to something here. Not so much in terms of the short-term financial value in rebranding his country with a new name – if he wants to better compete with Mongolia for resource development contracts, he needs to go discover some vast and untapped Kazakh coal resource, or else find a way to move his country closer to China's eastern coast. But there are compelling cases for changing the country's name.

I might suggest going even further, though. Kazakhstan means "land of the Kazakhs," which is the country's largest ethnic group. Nazarbayev's suggestion, "Kazak Yeli," means "country of the Kazakhs," and would be designed to drop the "stan" suffix that is also attached to investor-unfriendly Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's obviously a little silly to change your country's name for marketing purposes. But there may be more meaningful reasons for the country to change its name, and this map of Central Asia's ethnographic breakdown helps to show why:


Click to enlarge.

Those different colors represent different ethnic groups. The purple areas are predominantly Kazakh. The green areas are predominantly ethnic Russian – it's a huge part of the country! To be clear, the circle chart overstates the presence of ethnic Russians: The map is from 1992, and as of 2009, the national census found 24 percent of the country to be Russian and 63 percent to be Kazakh. The last 13 percent of the population is divided between lots of Central Asian ethnic groups, as well as some European groups such as Poles and even Germans whom the Soviet Union forcibly relocated there after World War Two.

The point is that Kazakhstan is far from an ethnically homogenous, Kazakh-dominated country. Russian is the "official" language used predominantly in government and business, owing to the country's history as a Soviet republic. Most citizens are Muslim, but there's a big Orthodox Christian community as well. It's wonderfully diverse, and there is a case to be made for a name that more fully reflects that.

There is some precedent here. In 1989, the military government of Burma decided to change the country's name to Myanmar, which they said was meant to include ethnic minorities in the country's national identity. Like Kazakhstan, Burma is very ethnically and religiously diverse. Even though its national identity is closely tied to the country's predominant ethnic group, the Burmese, there's something to be said for forging a more inclusive national identity.

In execution, the Myanmar government was just as unsuccessful at accomplishing this as it was at everything else it set out to do. The name Myanmar turns out to derive from a literary word for the Burmese ethnic group. And many activists and Western media outlets still refuse to recognize the new name because they see the country's government as illegitimate. So it was not a successful name change, but the point is that there is precedent for dropping a country name that is based on the country's largest ethnic group.

A better example might be Thailand, which has changed its name to and from "Siam" a couple of time. Historically, the country was named Siam, the name used to identify a series of southeast Asian empires going back to the 14th century. In 1939, though, Siam's fascist military leader changed the country's name from Siam to Thailand, after the country's largest ethnic group, the Thai. He was backed by fascist-era Japan, his ally, which was expanding across Asia and shared his obsession with racial purity. He hated Thailand's Chinese minority and shut down Chinese-language schools and newspapers.

When Thailand and Japan lost World War Two and the Thai military government stepped down, the country's name was changed back to Siam. But then, in 1948, the same Thai military fascist who had declared war on the United States a few years earlier returned to power, with Western backing as an anti-Communist bulwark. He changed the country's name again, in 1948, to drive home his antagonism toward Communist China. If it were not for the Cold War, this probably would not have been allowed and Thailand would still be called Siam today.

Kazakhstan is in sort of a similar position. The region we call Kazakhstan today has long been dominated by ethnic-Kazakh tribal groups, which over several centuries consolidated into a vast Khanate that also controlled areas where Kazakhs were an ethnic minority. In that way, it was a lot like Thai-dominated Siam. Where things get even more complicated is the Imperial Russian conquests of Central Asia in the 19th century, which brought a steady influx of ethnic Russians and lots of Russian linguistic and cultural influence. That was accelerated under Soviet rule, which did not end until 1991. The reality is that Kazakhstan today is much more than the Kazakh ethnicity and its history.

This also happened in Ukraine, a country previously dominated by the Ukrainian ethnicity and language before it became heavily Russified. This has left the country with a serious identity crisis over what it means to be Ukrainian, and which has dramatically exacerbated the current political crisis. There's no indication that Kazakhstan is on the verge of a similar national identity crisis over what it means to be a Kazakhstan citizen, and having a confused national identity does not in itself create crises. But the country has partly resisted these problems by being a dictatorship with little political competition and vast natural resources. At some point, it will democratize and/or those resources will dwindle, at which point having a unifying national identity could become really important in a way that isn't today.

One thing's for sure: Nazarbayev is right that, for a name change to work, it would have to come with broad popular support. But the third of the population that is not ethnic Kazakh might welcome a new country name and national identity that they, too, can make their own. What that new name might be is not for me to suggest, but there is a lot of shared heritage across the country's groups. Take, for example, the ancient Botai culture, which lived in northern Kazakhstan over 5,000 years ago and was one of the progenitors of the spread of Indo-European languages across Eurasia and the domestication of horses, which has played such a major role in Kazakhstan's history, and that of the world. It's a heritage to be proud of.

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