Nazarbaev and Kazakh Yeli

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 2/10/2014 · 9 comments

-Біздің еліміздің атауында Орталық Азияның басқа да елдеріндегі сияқты “стан” деген жалғау бар. Сонымен бір мезгілде, шетелдіктер халқының саны небәрі екі миллионды құрайтын Моңғолияға қызығушылық танытады, бірақ оның атауында “стан” жалғауы жоқ. Сірә, еліміздің атауын уақыт өте келе “Қазақ елі” деп өзгерту мәселесін қарастыру керек шығар, бірақ алдымен міндетті түрде халықтың талқысына салған жөн, – деді Президент. [Link]

-В названии нашей страны есть окончание «стан», как и у других государств Центральной Азии. В то же время иностранцы проявляют интерес к Монголии, население которой составляет всего два миллиона человек, при этом в ее названии отсутствует окончание «стан». Возможно, надо рассмотреть со временем вопрос перехода на название нашей страны «Қазақ елі», но прежде следует обязательно обсудить это с народом, – сказал Президент. [Link]

Official Translation:
“The name of our country ends in “stan” as other states of the 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”. 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,” the President said.

Not every speech given by Nazarbaev ends up in my Google news feed, but this one did, with the help of Reuters, the BBC, and The Washington Post. For some, coverage in the Washington Post may be sign enough that one can safely ignore this speech. However, the news cycle more broadly has carried this news far and wide, perhaps because of the Olympic Games in Sochi. In any event, coverage of this possibility might be of interest to Registan’s readers.

I would open this opinion piece by stating frankly that the people of Kazakhstan of course may name their country in any way they like, may change their minds and rename their country, and do it all again three times next week, without explaining themselves to anyone. However, if someone asks me what I think about the matter, I suppose I have some small rights to express my opinions as well, as uninformed by my absence from Nazarbaev’s initial audience as I may be.

Let us consider first the issue of semantics of the name change, then the reasons given by Nazarbaev, and then the coverage in our delightful US media.


First, the idea that елі is more appropriate than стан is, to me, a matter of opinion, not fact. The transcriber of Nazarbaev’s speech is correct, however, in that it would effectively change Kazakhstan (one word) into Kazakh Nation (two words), if only because -stan is a suffix, while el is a stand-alone noun in modern Kazakh.

El has changed meaning over time and certainly is, like -stan, a word that existed long, long before there were any Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, at least by that name. El occurs in the Orkhon inscriptions — the translation of that word has received scholarly attention and the consensus, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam, is a meaning closest to modern English “empire,” signifying people unified under the rule of a leader, in that case a kagan. Mahmud Kashgar-i’s definition would be closer to English “district,” or “territory,” so again, it works quite nicely as a stand-in for -stan. However, there is also the sticky point that the same word or a homophone meant also “peace,” from which comes the word ilchi, or elshi in Kazakh — ambassador, in the sense of “bringer of peace,” “peace-maker.”

It should be clear, then, that because the word has such a long history, its meaning has morphed and changed through the ages. Consider that in Turkish, el by itself does signify people, but more specifically “other people.” One imagines folks in Turkey finding it rather fitting that a foreign country be renamed “Kazakhs, those other people.”

One can paint a larger issue here of the struggles in unifying terms that are arguably ineffable already in English; nation, state, people, folk, country, ethnicity, race. My own (admittedly amateur) attempts to render those as questionably one-to-one translations in Kazakh would fail, in part because there is a serious amount of history fighting through these terms. Kazakh has words for an administration system that was slowly wiped out in the nineteenth century, an act continually resisted. This administration, as ineffective as it may have been for creating a military force capable of stopping the Cossacks, preserved a certain way of life and also allowed a vast territory without roads, canals, or meaningfully navigable rivers to claim a political unity. That sense was replaced by one imposed from above by Russia, one which had relatively straightforward ideas about the existence of nations and states, tribes and races. Perhaps even without this history, one would still struggle to differentiate Kazakh khalk/khalyk from ult, el from ulys/ulus. Certainly in southern Kazakhstan, unless I misunderstood what I heard, the question asked among Kazakhs one hears at introductions is “Which el are you from?” The answer to this is identification along those pre-Russian lines: Horde, Taipa/Taifa, Ru, i.e. Orta Zhuz, Naiman, Sadyr.

Nazarbaev’s Stated Reasons

Nazarbaev discussed this name change in the context of how Kazakhstan can better attract visitors from abroad, unless I misinterpret his meaning in saying, “foreigners take an interest in Mongolia” because it doesn’t end in -stan. Without overdoing it, this strikes me as an expression of the villification of -stan. This is hardly new — I remember an Onion article describing the area of Central Asia as “Nuke-have-istan.” There are too many examples of this joke to bother citing examples — most likely this joke is understandable to Registan’s readers. It is also deeply unfortunate and communicates the sad fact that we are comfortable with associating those countries ending in -stan with some form of violent, extremist politics, and lest we forget, Islam. For people in Kazakhstan, they might point out, “not all Islam, just the bad kind.” I wish that this was true of everyone – – it seems more likely some in the US might consider -stan countries as having too many Muslims to be salvageable.

To wax poetic, perhaps another unintended victim of the War on Terror will be the name of this country I love so much and have spent so much time researching and studying. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it seems inappropriate somehow.

Kazakhstan should remain Kazakhstan. It is one of many -stan countries that illustrate the foolishness of our generalizing the characteristics of all -stan, and all Muslim, countries. I respect many of Nazarbaev’s decisions over his long career, but I really think he should leave well enough alone. Is anyone really in danger of confusing Kazakhstan with Pakistan or Turkmenistan? Perhaps some are. Are those confused “foreigners” in control of interests Nazarbaev would like to court? I do not know. Perhaps they are.

I would also offer a small caveat or correction to Nazarbaev — Mongolia has born the suffix -stan for much of its history, especially in the languages of its neighbors, as have other countries in Asia. The -stan prefix is practically synonymous with English -land, i.e. England, Ireland, Greenland, Swaziland, Thailand, etc.

Awful Coverage

This is really barely worth mentioning, other than showcasing how journalism has descended into click-baiting and the barest of Wikipedia researching. Let us consider probably the most misleading piece, that in the Washington Post, with the click-bait title, “Yes, Kazakhstan should change its name. This map shows why.” I have reservations about any argument in the social sciences that can be made solely with an infographic, especially if that infographic is an “ethnic map” from the early 1990s. Ethnicity, and this must be obvious to most folks, is more complicated than a binary statement. It is more than a “choose one thing on this list and only one, because the definition of ethnicity is a homogenous, non-mixing population” kind of statement.

In any event, the unfortunate fact is that the journalist here–Max Fischer (other click-bait stories include one of those delightful “Sochi, what a joke!” type lists)–believes that Kazakhstan is a problematic name because it implies a homogenous Kazakh population. If that were the case, truly, then Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, et al should also become Uzbek eli, Turkmen eli, etc. However, Kazakh Eli is hardly an improvement and no, “Kazakh Nation” is not a good translation of that term.

This brings up the only action item I can suggest: can we make some sort of concerted effort to teach English users that “Nation” and “State” are not actually synonyms? This is getting embarrassing.

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This post was written by...

– author of 20 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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Reid Standish February 11, 2014 at 9:54 pm

“Let us consider probably the most misleading piece, that in the Washington Post, with the click-bait title, “Yes, Kazakhstan should change its name. This map shows why.” I have reservations about any argument in the social sciences that can be made solely with an infographic, especially if that infographic is an “ethnic map” from the early 1990s.”

This part was great.

Good piece. I was asked a lot about this after it got so much attention and reading that Fischer article made me hold my hold and sigh…but I was pleased to see this.

Alexander Morrison February 14, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Word here is that it is simply to distract attention from gas shortages in the South – as the Uzbeks are refusing to export any and, astonishingly, Kazakhstan still doesn’t have an internal infrastructure that would allow it to ship its own gas from the Caspian to Chimkent (or to Astana, for that matter). The power and gas grids are still as they were in the Soviet period: Northern Kazakhstan’s is integrated with Siberia, Southern Kazakhstan with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

All of which is to say that I don’t think this is a serious proposal.

For what it’s worth, the Persianate suffix ‘stan’ also has long history in the steppe (e.g. ‘Turkestan’ for the Syr-Darya Valley, since at least the 16th century). One of the advantages of ‘Kazakhstan’ as its usage has evolved is that it has become a more or less ethnically neutral term – you can refer to ‘Kazakhstanis’ (or ‘Kazakhstantsy’) and include all the diverse population of modern Kazakhstan. I don’t think ‘Kazakh Eli’ would carry the same neutrality.

Michael Hancock-Parmer February 14, 2014 at 6:46 pm

Pleased to see your comment, and glad to hear how things look from the inside. Looking forward to maybe meeting up in Astana at the conference in May, when I start my Fulbright in KZ.

Alexander Morrison February 17, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Likewise – it should be fun – and congratulations on the Fulbright scholarship!

Fabio February 17, 2014 at 7:40 am

Totally agree, very good point indeed.

Maybe we should check if this new idea is not a first step towards a more pronouced nationalist discourse. Which would be worrying.

upyernoz February 17, 2014 at 10:19 am

Is anyone really in danger of confusing Kazakhstan with Pakistan or Turkmenistan?

Yes, as to Pakistan. When my wife and I were in Kaz, several relatives and friends thought we were in Pakistan (and one thought Afghanistan). When I came back, a friend actually asked me what Pakistan is like. In their defense, the last time they had a geography class, those two were the only -stans on the map.

And yes, I would not be surprised if the rich blowhards in a boardroom of some multinational firm might think of troubled places like Afghanistan or Pakistan when presented with an investment opportunity in Kazakhstan. Those are presumably the interests that NN wants to court.

(I’m not saying that KZ should definitely change their name. But I do understand that it could possibly be beneficial in terms of attracting investment)

James February 18, 2014 at 8:25 am

I remember the day after 9-11-2001 here in New York State there was a painted bed sheet stretched across a front porch reading “Nuke the Stans!” It was a sad commentary on the world view of many Americans. Unfortunately a lot of folks in the USA do not make a distinction between the various countries of central Asia. A change in name may help to attract some US tourism someday if that is the president’s goal.

Chris Atwood February 28, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Hi, Michael, just a correction and a comment: “Mongolia has born the suffix -stan for much of its history, especially in the languages of its neighbors, as have other countries in Asia.” Actually Mongolia has been called Moghulistan only in non-Mongolian languages, so the “especially” here should actually be “albeit only”.

My main object to the new name is, I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be Kazakh Eli or Kazakh Yeli. As usual, the Cyrillic e seems to be etymologically e (to judge from the other Turkic examples you cite), but actually pronounced ye. Is that the case?

Nathan Barrick March 4, 2014 at 6:32 am

Nice article, Michael!
I too hope Kazakhstan doesn’t change its name as an “unintended consequence” of the war on terror…but maybe we should be sure to not explain it as a bad thing if it does happen (i.e. the self-identification process the Kazakh elite would be attempting…). I would think Nursultan might not be so autocratic in this decision, but is likely to socialize it broadly among generational peers (and hopefully not all sycophants). Also glad to hear from Alexander that there’s already a local narrative that the idea is to generate discussion away from other topics. It’ll be interesting to see what floats up to the top in terms of public opinion. Please — nobody forward this article to Sascha Baron Cohen…

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