Kazakhstan's parliament has unanimously voted to rename its capital, Astana, for autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led the country since 1989.
It remains unclear whether Nazarbayev will approve the decision — he refused a similar proposal in 2008 — though the Reuters news agency notes that over the past few years the 76-year-old leader has appeared more amenable to moves designed to honor him. Several monuments to him have recently been installed, and Kazakhstan's central bank said last week that a portrait of Nazarbayev would appear on a bank note for the first time on Dec. 1, a national holiday also known as the “day of the first president.”
Astana's name has changed a number of times already; in the 20th century alone, it has been named Akmolinsk, Tselinograd and Akmola, which was commonly translated as “White Grave,” though government historians said it meant “Abundance of White.”
In 1998, a year after Nazarbayev had declared the city the new capital of Kazakhstan — replacing Almaty, which remains a larger city — it was renamed Astana, which means “capital.” The rapid buildup of Astana in the past 20 years has created a city that many say is out of place with its surroundings in the vast steppes of northern Kazakhstan. In 2012, CNN dubbed it “the world's weirdest capital city.”
Even the name “Kazakhstan” isn't totally safe. Nazarbayev suggested renaming the country to “Kazakh Yeli,” or “Land of the Kazakhs.” The problem, the president reasoned, was that oil-rich Kazakhstan was lumped in with its less economically successful neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, simply because of its name.
Despite widespread discussion, that proposal did not move forward.
The potential change in Astana's name was suggested by Quanysh Sultanov, a deputy in the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, to reflect the “outstanding contribution” that Kazakhstan's first and so far only president has made to the nation. Both Nazarbayev and Nursultan were put forward as potential names. Reuters reports that Sultanov expects the president to respond within weeks.
Although international human rights groups have widely criticized Nazarbayev, he appears to remain popular in Kazakhstan — at least in part because there's no real opposition to speak of. In 2015, he was reelected with almost 98 percent of the vote, though critics note that declining oil revenue and growing civil unrest may cause problems for him in the future.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Nazarbayev indicated that plans to stay in office for four more years, until the end of his current term. “Until 2020, I’m going to work. And we’ll meet again in 2020,” he said, adding that he did not plan to give power to his children and that he wanted to shift slowly toward a “more liberal” political system. Since 2010, Nazarbayev has also held the title of “leader of the nation,” a position that makes him immune from prosecution and grants him the right to shape policy after retirement.
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