All In A Name

by Casey_Michel on 11/3/2012

Courtesy CNTV

Courtesy CNTV

It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Kazakhstan has such lengthy history with the renaming process. As Kazakh nationalism swept two decades ago — as Russified names across the now-defunct USSR began to fall — the nascent nation began to turn its sights on stamping kazakhsha on the country’s commercial centers. Ust-Kamenogorsk became Oskemen. Petropavlovsk became Petropavl. Tselinograd became Akmola, which was then rechristened a half-dozen years later as Astana, a white shrine turned golden.

Not all of these changes have been without trouble, of course. As many are quick to point, Oskemen in a nonsense term, a mere garbling of its former Russian entry meant solely to play to nationalist sentiment. And I encountered a handful of people that still questioned choice of changing the main hub of the North Kazakhstan oblast  — only four letters were lopped off, so what was the point?

But any outward resentment, any palpable sense of division whenever Petropavl’s name would rise in discussion, was muted. ‘Petropavl’ was now a reality, a name slowly ingrained into a populace — and even if people slipped, even if those four former letters were tacked on in conversation, well, there are larger concerns than mere titles and names. Likewise, there didn’t seem to be much complaint nationwide on the previous name swaps. The shift to Kazakh etymology was fading, and the economy was improving, and any dissenters had long past been rounded up or defeated. The population continued to age, and memories and histories attached to specific names went with.

Which is, all things considered, a good thing — fading opportunity for division, and all that. However, the latest round of potential name-change in Kazakhstan isn’t tempting any kind of Russo-Kazakh schism that predominated 20 years ago. This schism’s more recent. This one cuts any sort of ethnic demarcation, any kind of skin-deep differences.

This one’s out in Zhanaozen.

As RFE/RL detailed earlier this week, discussions have begun on the potential renaming of Zhanaozen, the town that, nearly one year ago, broke any sense of stability, any sense of placidity that Astana had worked for years to cultivate:

The Council of Elders in Manghystau Oblast, where Zhanaozen is located, has asked local authorities to rename Zhanaozen after Beket-Ata, an 18th-century Sufi philosopher, scholar, and regional native son.

The request was made during a meeting with provincial Governor Baurzhan Muhamedov during Eid al-Adha religious celebrations on October 27 and, if it passes the bureaucratic hurdles, would officially remove the name Zhanaozen from the map.

Now, it’s worth noting that this seems a remarkably savvy move on the government’s part. For a nation (and populace) that searches consistently for reason to push pre-Soviet Kazakh themes and individuals wherever it can, settling on Beket-Ata is a relatively shrewd twist. After all, who would protest honoring one of the first grand Kazakh religious figures?*

*There’s an additional, somewhat distanced benefit of selecting Beket-Ata. This Muslim leader was Sufi, an obvious rebut and counterweight to the Salafists that, if rumors carry any merit, seem to be seeping north of the Caspian and into Kazakhstan’s western reaches. It may be but coincidence, but it’s a handy one. 

Likewise, Zhanaozen — as far as I can tell — has never faced any quasi-contentious name changes of the past. It’s name is already a Kazakh derivative, meaning “new river,” so there’d seem to be little potential for ethno-lingual concerns arising. Just as residents of Akmola didn’t find much need for resistance when their town transitioned to Astana, residents of Zhanaozen would likely put up distinctly less fight than the towns in the nation’s north and east showed following independence.

But these two factors — the namesake and the homogeneity of the populace — are overshadowed by the reality Kazakhstan will face next month. In six weeks, the country will notch the one-year mark of the massacre at Zhanaozen. As such, it’s remarkably convenient for the Council of Elders to have found this new desire to honor Beket-Ata at this time.

As RFE/RL denotes, this situational coincidence — purely circumstantial, certainly — hasn’t been lost on locals. (The ‘Zhanaozen events,’ said one, would simply be known as the ‘Betek-Ata events’ henceforth.) They, and any observer, can see through the veneer. They can sense this mixture of condescension and clutch-at-straws mentality — these ‘sycophants,’ as a local called them, have scrambled for a way to whitewash what once was, ignoring any kind of acumen or sentiment of the populace. They’ve looked for another reason to shove Zhanaozen into the past, pasting over any veritable reasons the area could find in moving forward. They’ve found a chance to merely close their eyes and cover their ears and shout ‘Betek-Ata!’ ad nauseum. A new name, and a new era, and all those pre-Betek-Ata problems will simply dissolve into the past.

As it is, it seems that this measure has a fine enough chance of being fast-tracked through Astana, and I’d presume the move would be swift in application. (It’s not difficult to imagine a renaming ceremony sometime around the anniversary, heaping further disdain on the affected.) And if the rest of the nation made it through their name-changes — and if everyone is preoccupied with prosperity indexes and elixirs of life, anyway — well, why wouldn’t those in the west? If a tulpan by any other name would smell just as sweet, then Zhanaozen by any other name would still present just as much of a pock on Astana’s image as before, right?

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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