The importance of not being a 'stan'

What’s in a name? President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan was apparently in earnest when he recently suggested changing the name of ‘his’ country. If he gets his way, the domestic and international implications are very real.

Luca Anceschi
25 February 2014

Tashkent, early 1993. The leaders of the newly independent states of post-Soviet Central Asia have just concluded yet another regional summit. Amongst the many deliberations made on the occasion, the presidents singled out one that came to be presented as an historical step in the development of an integrated Central Asia. From then on, the region was to be known as a unifying community of independent states, defined by the Russian name of Tsentral’naya Aziya, in departure from the Soviet praxis that distinguished between the four southern republics (Srednyaya Aziya) and the Kazakh SSR. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh president, praised the initiative and warmly welcomed Kazakhstan’s formal reincorporation into the Central Asian fold.

President Nazarbayev stands next to Dmitri Medvedev and Barack Obama at Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

Nazarbayev has based his foreign policy on reaching out to Russia and the US, not the other 'stans.' Photo via kremlin.ru

Qazaq Eli

Fast-forward 21 years. A cold winter’s day in Atyrau, a city in western Kazakhstan. While delivering what was expected to be a routine speech, Nazarbayev, now an elderly ‘statesman’ in his fourth term in office, advocated a change of name for his republic. He suggested that Kazakhstan come to be known as Qazaq Eli (Nation of the Kazakhs), with the deliberate intention of setting ‘his’ republic apart from the other ‘stans.’ The implication being that the ‘stan’ suffix has become so associated with the socio-economic instability that, in Nazarbayev’s view, has characterised the recent history of the (other) Central Asian republics, that it is to be dropped like a hot potato.

The ‘stan’ suffix is to be dropped like a hot potato.

For the record, this is not the first occasion in which authoritarian regimes have tampered with the name of the country they rule. While Mobutu’s Zaire now seems like an echo from a distant past, the junta’s Myanmar is a current reminder of the lengths to which authoritarian leaderships are ready to go in order to modify the political geography of their states. Mobutu Sese Koko officially introduced the name Zaire six years after his accession to power; the country’s new name signalled in this sense the dawn of a new era, carrying out the (illusory) promises of change of the emerging regime. Plans to rename Kazakhstan have been in turn deployed at a time in which the Nazarbayev regime is experiencing a slow, yet inexorable, decline. Burma’s renaming, in a parallel with the Kazakh situation, was sealed almost 30 years after the establishment of the regime. The junta’s collective structure ensured policy continuity as well as regime longevity, while the personalistic nature of Kazakh authoritarianism raises many questions on the relevance that current policies – including the recently auspicated name change – will hold in the post-Nazarbayev era. 

Rather than merely representing another idiosyncratic declaration issued by one of Central Asia’s eccentric leaders, the Qazaq Eli rhetoric carries very substantive implications for Kazakhstan’s domestic politics and, equally, its international outlook. 

PR and the discourse of danger

Domestically, Nazarbayev is trying to sell the citizens of Kazakhstan the image of a country that, due to the regime’s major politico-economic achievements, represents a unique success story in Central Asia, and is therefore to be dis-associated from those very states that, not even a decade ago, were presented as Kazakhstan’s sister republics. More than one shadow, however, has been recently cast on the narratives that portray Kazakhstan as a successful example of socio-economic development.

Only a few short days after Nazarbayev’s speech in Atyrau, the National Bank of Kazakhstan devaluated the tenge by 19%, dealing a serious hit to the savings of virtually every Kazakh family. As prices of domestically produced goods spiked overnight, the authority of the National Bank came to be questioned by a growing segment of the population. Popular discontent became more vocal, and anti-devaluation demonstrations were organised in both Almaty and Astana on 15-16 February. The regime quickly went into damage control, and suppressed public dissent through mass arrests. In a significant move, Nazarbayev committed to draw resources from Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund to mitigate the negative effects of the devaluation. A failing economic landscape, incidentally, might complicate the regime’s commitment to renaming, which will inevitably shape up as a very expensive endeavour. 

Police arrest a woman at an unsanctioned protest of Kazakhstan's currency devaluation. 15

Police arrest a woman at an unsanctioned protest of Kazakhstan's currency devaluation. 15 February. Photo via YouTube

Qazaq Eli, in this sense, appears as a fantasy that is ultimately based on a discourse of danger: within Kazakhstan’s borders there is a stable, affluent and safe society, which, ultimately, cannot live in a ‘stan’, because ‘stans’ are by definition unstable, poor and dangerous. In a perhaps even more surprising twist, Nazarbayev’s Atyrau speech identified Mongolia as the archetypically stable Central Asian state which Qazaq Eli is to emulate. Unveiling the fundamental incongruence of the Qazaq Eli rhetoric, Mongolia’s stability, and its attractiveness to foreign investors, are explained on the basis of the country’s name (Mongolia is not a ‘stan’, hence it must be a stable place to invest) and not as the function of the quality of local governance, which is, in fact, considerably higher than the regional average. The association with Mongolia is indeed a dangerous narrative for a future Qazaq Eli, which perhaps will not be a ‘stan’ but is certainly not designed to be a democratic state.

The association with Mongolia is indeed a dangerous narrative for a future Qazaq Eli.

Renaming might also impact on the country’s ethnic ‘harmony,’ which the regime often lists amongst its most significant achievements. Using a Turkic term (el) to express an idea so far channelled through an Iranic suffix (-stan) might bring back to the surface a series of discourses on the attempted ‘Orientalisation’ of Kazakhstan. It is not clear how Kazakhstan’s non-Kazakh population – and particularly the members of the Russian minority – will respond to the idea of Qazaq Eli. The country’s deteriorating economy, as confirmed by recent unrest in Kazakhstan’s major cities, seems to hold more destabilising potential, yet economic grievances might also trigger discontent in those sectors of the population sharing no ethno-national association with a newly baptised Qazaq Eli. 

Snubbing the ‘stans’

At foreign policy level, the implications of the prospected renaming are somewhat clearer. Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is mostly defined by the regime’s Eurasian strategy, which does not list relations with the Central Asian states amongst its top priorities. In this strategy, the newly independent Kazakhstan at first opted for stronger relations with Russia, and more recently with Western partners and organisations. Kazakhstan has been progressively loosening its ties with the Central Asian republics, and ceased to act as a regional integrator in 2005, when the Organisation of Central Asian Cooperation merged with the EvrAzEs, one of Nazarbayev’s pet projects. 

Kazakhstan’s Eurasian strategy is designed to propagate the image of a state (and indirectly of a regime) that is well integrated within the international community, and enjoys such global respectability that it can be trusted with positions of international leadership. It is through this lens that we have to analyse Kazakhstan’s 2010 OSCE Chairmanship or the bid for a UN Security Council seat, for which the regime is currently preparing. This narrative has been used to shape the regime’s image-making strategies at home and abroad.

There are no image-making points to be scored by forging closer ties with the Central Asian states

There are no image-making points to be scored by forging closer ties with the Central Asian states, which Astana regards as potentially damaging (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) or, at best, inconsequential (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) partners. Qazaq Eli will drop Central Asia from its priority list and re-orientate its foreign policy beyond its immediate neighbourhood, to acquire what the regime will certainly label a more ‘Eurasian’ outlook. Renaming will reset the region’s current alignments, while obliterating the idea of a community of Central Asian states envisaged in Tashkent in 1993. The clock of regional politics will be ultimately brought back to the pre-independence era. Nazarbayev, as leader of a hypothetical Qazaq Eli, has enough clout to face this challenging scenario with confidence. The same cannot be said for his eventual successor, who will have to deal with an uneasy, if not altogether hostile, neighbourhood, while facing the numerous domestic challenges that leadership change and a faltering economy will inevitably bring to the fore.

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