Kazakhstan's President Is Tired of His Country's Name Ending in 'Stan'

But his proposed name change won't solve the country's underlying problems.
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Kazakhstan's delegation participates in the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. (Reuters/Phil Noble)

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev doesn't like the name Kazakhstan.

"Kazakhstan has the 'stan' ending like many other nations of Central Asia. At the same time, foreigners take an interest in Mongolia, the population of which makes up only two million, but its name does not end in '-stan,'" he told onlookers while visiting a school in Atyrau, according to his official website. "Perhaps, eventually it is necessary to consider an issue of changing the name of our country into the 'Kazakh Nation', but first of all, it should necessarily be discussed with people." (His proposed name would be rendered as "Kazakh Eli" in English.)

This isn't Nazarbayev's first foray into nomenclature. The president, a septuagenarian autocrat who has led Kazakhstan since the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991, has built up quite a cult of personality after years of one-party rule. In 1997, he moved the nation's capital from Almaty, the country's largest city, to Akmola, a small town deep in the Kazakh steppe, and renamed it Astana—literally "capital" in Kazakh. The generic name is suspected to be a placeholder for Nursultan, his own name, but Nazarbayev has graciously delayed naming the city after him until he dies.

Renaming an entire country is an even bolder move by Nazarbayev, but it isn't uncommon worldwide. Rhodesia was originally named for the British man who colonized it, but became Zimbabwe when white-minority rule ended in the 1980s. The military junta in Burma renamed the country Myanmar in 1989 after seizing power, although many opposition groups, foreign governments, and media outlets do not recognize the name change.

And Nazarbayev does have a point about his country's name. There are seven countries in Central Asia with the suffix "-stan": Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The suffix comes from the Persian root istan, or "land"—hence the "land of the Uzbeks," "land of the Kazakhs," and so forth. Pakistan bucks the trend somewhat: Its name means "land of the pure."

This isn't a Central Asian quirk. English and other Germanic languages frequently use "-land" in a similar manner. The name "England", for example, means "land of the Angles," the Anglo-Saxon tribe that populated the early medieval British Isles. The Scots call their country "Alba" in Scottish Gaelic, but use "Scotland" in English. Germany's name in German is "Deutschland." Europe alone has Finland, Poland, Iceland, Greenland, Ireland, and the Netherlands; Africa has Swaziland; Asia has Thailand; Oceania has New Zealand. There's even the U.S. state of Maryland.

The difference for Kazakhstan and its neighbors is the cultural and geopolitical context. There's a certain stigma associated with the suffix "-stan." Apartheid South Africa's segregated black-majority enclaves, for example, became known as "bantustans," a term that came to connote artificial, ethnically defined statelets. In the U.S., people broadly uses the suffix "-stan" to give a generic Oriental vibe to fictional Middle Eastern countries, as with 24's sinister Islamic Republic of Kamistan or Team America: World Police's Derkaderkastan, or to indicate backwardness and instability, with names like Doonesbury's Berzerkistan or The Onion's Ethniklashistan and Nukehavistan.

Would a name change help Kazakhstan? Geographically, it couldn't hurt. Flubbings of Central Asian nations' names are common, even among those who should probably know better. In 2012, U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain claimed on the campaign trail not to know who "the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" was, to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's amusement. Even John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, once verbally mangled Kazakhstan with neighboring Kyrgyzstan to create "Kyrzakhstan."

But Kazakhstan's name is ultimately the least of its problems. Its bleak human rights record is only getting worse as the regime increasingly relies on harsh crackdowns to suppress dissent. Freedom House ranks the country as "Not Free," with especially low marks on press freedom and civil society. And perhaps most damning for foreign investors, Kazakhstan tied for 140th place with Laos and Uganda on Transparency International's most recent Corruption Perception Index. Mongolia, which Nazarbayev compared to his own country, ranks almost 80 places higher. The idea that changing Kazakhstan's name can close that gap is a questionable proposition at best.

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees social media.

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