Non-Sultan? Kazakhstan plans to oust the first president named after the capital

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ALMATY, Kazakhstan — It was the icing on the cake in the already imposing cult of the personality of longtime authoritarian Nursultan Nazarbayev, and, for many citizens of Kazakhstan, it was a bit too much.

Less than four years after the name of Kazakhstan’s capital was changed from Astana to Nur-Sultan to recognize the strongman who cast the city in his image, the chances of the name being changed ahead of an instant presidential vote this fall are quite high.

It’s a marker of the 82-year-old Nazarbaev’s stock fall that the man likely to sign the switch, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, is the same man who in March 2019 offered the honor for the man he was replacing as president.

But things were somewhat different then.

When Toqaev took office after Nazarbaev’s sudden resignation, he did so with his predecessor and boss watching him and other subordinate officials from a seat above them in the parliament building.

Just in case the symbolism was lost on anyone, Toqaev promised that Nazarbayev’s opinions would have “priority importance in the development and adoption of strategic decisions”, although he stepped down as leader. of State.

The renaming of the capital was necessary to “perpetuate the name of our great contemporary”, Toqaev said at the time.

Nazarbaev retained key positions, while parents, in-laws and underlings filled other high-level positions, giving Toqaev limited room to manoeuvre.

Acting President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (L) and former President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Nur-Sultan on May 16, 2019.

All of the protesters who took to the streets to express their disagreement with the new arrangement were quickly stopped.

Officially, the initiative to reverse the name came from lawmakers from Zhana Kazakhstan (New Kazakhstan), a faction of parliament that was particularly enthusiastic about Toqaev’s vaunted reform campaign following a bloody uprising. in January that all but confirmed Nazarbayev’s retirement from official politics. .

“We consider it incorrect for a city to be named after a person during his or her lifetime,” parliamentarian Edil Zhanbyrshin said as he tabled the proposal to change the city’s name on September 2.

“Furthermore, the population did not accept the new name of the capital. For this reason, it will be historically correct to return the old name of the capital – Astana.

The proposal is expected to be considered by Kazakhstan’s lower house, the Mazhlis, a body that largely approves government legislation. Toqaev has yet to publicly comment on the initiative.

‘On top’

That the name Nur-Sultan lacked popular appeal is certainly true.

Writing on Facebook on September 3, well-known filmmaker and blogger Rinat Balgabaev recalled how Nur-Sultan’s change was greeted as “a spat [in the face]which caused “an explosion of activism even among previously apolitical people”.

confirm that were interviews by the Kazakh service of RFE/RL with puzzled residents of the capital on the day of Toqaev’s announcement.

“To be honest, I see it negatively,” one woman said in a typical response. “That seems a bit over the top. Astana is more familiar.

Meanwhile, recent interviews conducted by RFE/RL in the capital suggested general support for the previous name change.

A man wearing a white baseball cap said Nazarbaev got off to a “bad start”, referring to the bloody events in January, in which at least 238 people were killed after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, many demanding the end of the old. the president’s grip on politics.

“His image is ruined now”, the man said.

Another person expressed both a preference for Astana and concerns about the financial cost of the decision. The authorities have never revealed the budgetary burden of the transition to Nur-Sultan. Economy Minister Alibek Kuantyrov admitted to reporters on September 3 that he had no idea “even approximately” what another name change might cost.

“This proposal was literally only delivered yesterday,” Kuantyrov said.

A very political story

Once a steppe city of provincial importance, the names adopted by the city that became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997 were determined from top to bottom by great political changes.

During the days of the Russian Empire, the settlement was first called Aqmola (White Grave in Kazakh) before quickly gaining a Russian-style suffix and becoming Akmolinsk.

It reverted to Aqmola after Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union, but for three decades from 1961 it was known as Tselinograd, a name inspired by the campaign of then-Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev. , to stimulate food production by sowing the “virgin lands” of the USSR.

An aerial view of a snow-capped Nur-Sultan in December 2021.

An aerial view of a snow-capped Nur-Sultan in December 2021.

When Nazarbaev announced in 1994 his intention to move the capital from the country’s largest city, Almaty, to Aqmola, some 1,000 kilometers to the north, it became clear that another name change was in order.

In the film Leader’s Path: Astana, the final part of a six-film propaganda biopic about Nazarbaev, Nazarbaev is depicted as modestly rebuffing a popular request to name the city after him.

“Everyone is discussing it. There are suggestions for naming it,” says an actor playing Adilbek Zhaksybekov, a top Nazarbaev ally who served as the city’s mayor from 1997 to 2003 and co-wrote the 2018 film.

“I’m grateful, but I have a different point of view,” replies Murat Akhmanov, who plays Nazarbaev. “During the flight here, I had an idea. Astana maybe?

Even before taking its name, the new capital emerged as a central part of a thriving cult of self-made leadership that portrayed Nazarbaev as a modernizing visionary.

Atop Bayterek, the observation tower serving as the centerpiece of a city dotted with lavish and surprising architecture, visitors are invited to place their hand in a golden handprint of Nazarbaev while looking out over the city.

In a museum honoring him in Temirtau, the industrial town where Nazarbaev worked as a steelworker before embarking on a career in the Communist Party, the strongman appears at the center of a painting that depicts a transition from a past grueling industrial (in Temirtau) into a glorious post-industrial future (in Astana).

The final decision for the city to take the name of Nazarbaev reflected “a growing tendency of the entourage to give gifts to the national leader”, Kazakh political commentator and rights defender Sergei Duvanov told RFE/RL.

Although Kazakh officials at the time tried to justify the change with comparisons to US President George Washington, who saw a capital city named after him during his lifetime, such explanations were not widely accepted by the public. , Duvanov added.

“Washington was a person of great accomplishments. In my opinion, Nazarbaev brought this country to a terrible state,” Duvanov said.

Turning points

At some point during his three decades in power, Nazarbaev seemed to enjoy genuine and widespread popularity.

But the successive economic crises in the middle growing evidence of enormous wealth enjoyed by him and his extended family in the second half of his reign reduced this.

The fatal shot The oil workers’ strike in the western city of Zhanaozen in 2011 marked another turning point.

And it was popular demonstrations in that same economically depressed city earlier this year that marked the beginning of the end of his official political career.

Before the unrest spread across the country, Toqaev had ended a shackled presence, with Nazarbaev still ‘for life’ president of the Security Council, leader of the ruling party and enjoying the privileged constitutional role of ‘Elbasy’. . or “head of the nation”.

Kazakh soldiers stand guard outside the municipal administration headquarters, which was set on fire during protests sparked by a rise in fuel prices, in Almaty on January 12.

Kazakh soldiers stand guard outside the municipal administration headquarters, which was set on fire during protests sparked by a rise in fuel prices, in Almaty on January 12.

As Almaty and several other cities into which the protests had spread turned into armed clashes and looting, Nazarbaev made no public appearances.

On January 5, Toqaev told a stunned public that he had replaced his predecessor as President of the Security Council.

Rumors of a power struggle between supporters of the two men have never been confirmed but seemed to be founded.

Nazarbaev announced his retirement from all positions and his support for Toqaev in a heavily edited video appearance on January 18 and later said he would vote in a referendum in favor of constitutional changes that would remove his unique rights under the basic law.

Toqaev’s emergence as president in more than one name was backed by the Russian ally, which agreed to intervention in the crisis by the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Toqaev was criticized for calling for the intervention, but it undoubtedly helped him consolidate control, even when evidence emerged that government troops engaged in indiscriminate firing, arbitrary detentions and torture .

Later came news of the arrest for treason of a key Nazarbaev ally who headed the National Security Committee, while at least two members of the president’s extended family are being investigated for corruption.

Meanwhile, state media, which for years showered Nazarbaev with praise, now rarely mentions him.

Political scientist Akbota Karibayeva told RFE/RL that the January crisis revealed “the importance of national socio-economic issues and that people are ready to take to the streets to make their voices heard”.

For the Toqaev administration, the takeaway should be that “real reforms are in order and people need to see those reforms as credible,” Karibayeva said, calling Toqaev’s call for early elections an attempt to cement his new power before the opposition can build.

With all of this in mind, there are plenty of powerful incentives for Toqaev to further disassociate himself from Kazakhstan’s first president.

But what about the awkwardness of potentially reversing a momentous name change that he himself championed?

For now, it’s a problem for other officials – like Deputy Prime Minister Roman Sklyar – to deal with.

Cornered by reporters after a government meeting, Sklyar could not answer a question from RFE/RL’s Kazakh service whether Zhana Kazakhstan’s move meant Toqaev’s initial proposal was a mistake.

“Let’s wait a bit. Some time will pass and then we will see how society reacts,” he said.

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