KAZAKHSTAN AND ITS NAME

NAMES: KAZAKHS AND KAZAKHSTAN

Formal Name: Republic of Kazakhstan (Qazaqstan Respublikasy). Short Form: Kazakhstan (Qazaqstan). Former: Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Term for Citizen(s): Kazakhstani(s). Kazakh technically refers to the Kazakh ethnic group although it can also refer to Kazakhstan citizens, which are officially called Kazakhstanis although the term is not that widely used — at least in the Western press anyway. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006]

Kazakhstan is the transliterated Russian spelling. Kazakhs prefer Kazakstan. In April 1995, the "h" was officially removed from transliterated Russian spelling of its name, leaving “Kazakstan.” Istan is the old Persian word for "place of." Thus Kazakhstan means "place of the Kazakhs."

Stan -stan suffix \stan, stan\[Per.] 1: place, place of 2: land. Adopted into several languages from Persian, the court language employed in antique kingdoms of Central Asia. Thus the place or land of the Afghans is Afghanistan, the place of the Tajiks, Tajikistan. [Source: National Geographic, February 2002]

Kazakhstan is the world's ninth largest nation by area but has a population of just 17 million. It is the largest economy in the post-Soviet Central Asia, which also includes Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan was described by the New York Times as a “flat, barren landscape of tall, yellowish grass punctuated by heaps of coal slag and empty train depots. It is a desolate, half-abandoned place, but one that nonetheless has a harsh, austere beauty. “

Books: “The Kazakhs” by Martha Brill Olcott is among the most complete historical and social analyses of the country. Other books include: “Once in Kazakhstan: The Snow Leopard Emerges” by Keith Rosten

Books: “Central Asia: 120 Years of Russian Rule,” edited by Edward Allworth, offers a comprehensive treatment of the region. A more concise summary of each country’s geopolitical position in the 1990s is found in Charles Undeland and Nicholas Platt's “The Central Asian Republics”. “Central Asia,” edited by Hafeez Malik, offers a collection of articles on the history and geopolitics of the region. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kazakhs Versus Cossacks

Kazakh is an old Turkic words that means "free man", “wanderer” or “secessionist.” The same Turkic word is believed to be the root of the word Cossack, another group of people associated with the steppe. Kazakhs and Cossacks are very different though. The Kazakhs have called themselves “Kazakhs” or “Kazaks” since the 17th century, or possibly the 15th century when they broke away from an Uzbek khan. Neighboring groups began calling them Kazakhs by the 17th or 18th centuries.

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p> Russians initially called referred to the Kazakhs as “Kazakhs” or “Kazatsakaye” but later called them “Kyrgyz.” This was done to distinguish the Kazakhs from the Cossacks. To avoid confusion between Kazakhs and Kyrgyz until the 20th century Russians called Kazakhs ‘Kyrgyz’ and Kyrgyz were called Black Kyrgyz. Only in 1926 when the Kazakhs gained national autonomy did the Kazakhs regain the use of their traditional name.

Kazakh History

Ethnic Kazakhs, a mix of Turkic and Mongol nomadic tribes who migrated to the region by the 13th century, were rarely united as a single nation. The area was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, and Kazakhstan became a Soviet Republic in 1936.

Until the arrival of the Russians in the eighteenth century, the history of Kazakhstan was determined by the movements, conflicts, and alliances of Turkic and Mongol tribes. During centuries of Mongol rule, the territory of Kazakhstan broke up into several major groups known as khanates. The first leader of the Kazakhs was Khan Kasym, who ruled in the early sixteenth century. After having expanded significantly, the Kazakhs split into three groups, called the Great Horde, the Middle Horde, and the Lesser Horde. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

The Kazakhs’ nomadic tribal society suffered increasingly frequent incursions by the Russian Empire, ultimately being included in that empire and the Soviet Union that followed it. In the eighteenth century, Russian traders advanced from the north, catching the hordes between them and Kalmyk invaders from the east. **

During the 1950s and 1960s agricultural "Virgin Lands" program, Soviet citizens were encouraged to help cultivate Kazakhstan's northern pastures. This influx of immigrants (mostly Russians, but also some other deported nationalities) skewed the ethnic mixture and enabled non-ethnic Kazakhs to outnumber natives. Non-Muslim ethnic minorities departed Kazakhstan in large numbers from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s and a national program has repatriated about a million ethnic Kazakhs back to Kazakhstan. These trends have allowed Kazakhs to become the titular majority again. This dramatic demographic shift has also undermined the previous religious diversity and made the country more than 70 percent Muslim. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Kazakhstan's economy is larger than those of all the other Central Asian states largely due to the country's vast natural resources. Current issues include: developing a cohesive national identity; managing Islamic revivalism; expanding the development of the country's vast energy resources and exporting them to world markets; diversifying the economy outside the oil, gas, and mining sectors; enhancing Kazakhstan's economic competitiveness; developing a multiparty parliament and advancing political and social reform; and strengthening relations with neighboring states and other foreign powers. =

Books: “The Kazakhs” by Martha Brill Olcott is among the most complete historical and social analyses of the country.

Kazakh Leader Considers Dropping the 'Stan' in Kazakhstan

in February 2104, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced he was considering dropping the 'stan' from Kazakhstan to distinguish his oil-rich nation from the rest of Central Asia, where the other so-called stans are mostly mired in poverty, and make Kazakhstan more open to investors and tourists.. Kazakh officials complain the vast country is still little known in the world — or associated with too much with the film “Borat” — despite the fact that foreign companies have invested billions of dollars in the nation's mineral wealth. [Source: Reuters, February 7, 2014 <>]

Reuters reported: “Nazarbayev, who visited the nation's oil capital Atyrau in western Kazakhstan said a new name like Kazakh Eli (or Kazakh Yeli), which stands for "The Land of Kazakhs", would be more eye-catching for a foreigner studying the region's map. Nazarbayev said: “The name of our country has the ending ‘stan,’ as do the other states of Central Asia. At the same time, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just 2 million people, and its name lacks the suffix ‘stan.’ Perhaps with time the question of changing the name of our country to Kazakh Yeli should be examined, but first this should definitely be discussed with the people.” [Source: Max Fisher, Washington Post, February 7, 2014]

“Few doubt that Kazakhstan will receive a new name, should the veteran leader decide so. In 1997, he moved the capital from the leafy city of Almaty in southeastern Kazakhstan to the windswept steppe town of Akmola in the north. A year later, he said the new capital should be called Astana - which literally means "capital" in the local Turkic language - to end speculation about Akmola's name which stood for both "white shrine" and "white plenty" in Kazakh.” <>

Why Kazakhstan Should Change its Name

Max Fisher wrote in the Washington Post, “ It's obviously a little silly to change your country's name for marketing purposes. But there may be more meaningful reasons for the country to change its name.” The 2009 “the national census found 24 percent of the country to be Russian and 63 percent to be Kazakh. The last 13 percent of the population is divided between lots of Central Asian ethnic groups, as well as some European groups such as Poles and even Germans whom the Soviet Union forcibly relocated there after World War Two. [Source: Max Fisher, Washington Post, February 7, 2014 |:|]

“The point is that Kazakhstan is far from an ethnically homogenous, Kazakh-dominated country. Russian is the "official" language used predominantly in government and business, owing to the country's history as a Soviet republic. Most citizens are Muslim, but there's a big Orthodox Christian community as well. It's wonderfully diverse, and there is a case to be made for a name that more fully reflects that. |:|

“There is some precedent here. In 1989, the military government of Burma decided to change the country's name to Myanmar, which they said was meant to include ethnic minorities in the country's national identity. Like Kazakhstan, Burma is very ethnically and religiously diverse. Even though its national identity is closely tied to the country's predominant ethnic group, the Burmese, there's something to be said for forging a more inclusive national identity. |:|

“A better example might be Thailand, which has changed its name to and from "Siam" a couple of time. Historically, the country was named Siam, the name used to identify a series of southeast Asian empires going back to the 14th century. In 1939, though, Siam's fascist military leader changed the country's name from Siam to Thailand, after the country's largest ethnic group, the Thai. He was backed by fascist-era Japan, his ally, which was expanding across Asia and shared his obsession with racial purity. He hated Thailand's Chinese minority and shut down Chinese-language schools and newspapers. |:|

“When Thailand and Japan lost World War Two and the Thai military government stepped down, the country's name was changed back to Siam. But then, in 1948, the same Thai military fascist who had declared war on the United States a few years earlier returned to power, with Western backing as an anti-Communist bulwark. He changed the country's name again, in 1948, to drive home his antagonism toward Communist China. If it were not for the Cold War, this probably would not have been allowed and Thailand would still be called Siam today. |:|

“Kazakhstan is in sort of a similar position. The region we call Kazakhstan today has long been dominated by ethnic-Kazakh tribal groups, which over several centuries consolidated into a vast Khanate that also controlled areas where Kazakhs were an ethnic minority. In that way, it was a lot like Thai-dominated Siam. Where things get even more complicated is the Imperial Russian conquests of Central Asia in the 19th century, which brought a steady influx of ethnic Russians and lots of Russian linguistic and cultural influence. That was accelerated under Soviet rule, which did not end until 1991. The reality is that Kazakhstan today is much more than the Kazakh ethnicity and its history. |:|

“This also happened in Ukraine, a country previously dominated by the Ukrainian ethnicity and language before it became heavily Russified. This has left the country with a serious identity crisis over what it means to be Ukrainian, and which has dramatically exacerbated the current political crisis. There's no indication that Kazakhstan is on the verge of a similar national identity crisis over what it means to be a Kazakhstan citizen, and having a confused national identity does not in itself create crises. But the country has partly resisted these problems by being a dictatorship with little political competition and vast natural resources. At some point, it will democratize and/or those resources will dwindle, at which point having a unifying national identity could become really important in a way that isn't today. |:|

“One thing's for sure: Nazarbayev is right that, for a name change to work, it would have to come with broad popular support. But the third of the population that is not ethnic Kazakh might welcome a new country name and national identity that they, too, can make their own. What that new name might be is not for me to suggest, but there is a lot of shared heritage across the country's groups. Take, for example, the ancient Botai culture, which lived in northern Kazakhstan over 5,000 years ago and was one of the progenitors of the spread of Indo-European languages across Eurasia and the domestication of horses, which has played such a major role in Kazakhstan's history, and that of the world. It's a heritage to be proud of.” |:|

Kazakhstan Stands Out Among the Stans

Kazakhstan is regarded as the wealthiest of “The Stans” and the one with the brightest future. Mike Edwards wrote in National Geographic, “The largest of the five ex-Soviet Stans (think Texas x 4), Kazakhstan seems likely to also be the wealthiest. The Soviet Union scarcely explored Kazakhstan's oil deposits; now these deposits seem to never stop growing. A newly tested field in the Caspian Sea raises estimates of the country's total proven reserves to as high as 17.6 billion barrels. That approaches the total U.S. reserves, 22 billion barrels. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, February 2002 ><]

“Even China's national petroleum corporation has joined the multinational companies rushing to Kazakhstan with investment cash. Pipelines already carry oil to the West via Russia, and more pipelines are on the way. Plenty of natural gas will be flowing too, once a transport system is in place.The average Kazakh hasn't seen much of the wealth that swells government coffers. To be sure, there are more jobs; thousands of workers have been building the new capital, Astana, in the arid steppe. (It replaces Almaty, once a fortress of Russian Cossacks.) But critics describe a developing "enclave economy" in which money pours into the oil-and-gas industry or benefits a coterie of officials and allies of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The national unemployment rate is 14 percent; in cities away from the oil fields it's as high as 50 percent. ><

“Inevitably, perhaps — since corruption is a fact of life in the Stans — millions of dollars paid in 1997 by U.S. companies seeking oil concessions ended up in Swiss banks, in accounts that investigators say were controlled by Kazakh officials, including Nazarbayev. In the West that's called a scandal; in Kazakhstan's intimidated press it hardly got a mention. Personal information about the president is by law a state secret. Publications that have dared criticize him on other matters have been sued or their print runs and equipment have been confiscated. ><

“Nazarbayev was the last Kazakh Communist Party boss, before the Soviet Union's collapse, and has been the new nation's only leader, easily winning reelection in 1999. Critics called the election flawed; for one thing Nazarbayev's strongest opponent was barred from running by Nazarbayev's courts. He controls the parliament as well as the courts — the old Soviet way. Still, his regime is less repressive than those of neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Kazakhs — Turkic tribes whose forebears included the Mongols of Genghis Khan — are the most Russified major group in Central Asia. Russia began to expand into their territory in the 1700s; other Central Asian peoples had little contact with Russians until a century later. Land-hungry peasants poured into the steppe in the late 19th century. In the 1930s and '40s trains brought thousands of people that the dictator Joseph Stalin didn't trust, such as Germans from the Volga region-along with Koreans from the Soviet Far East. Yet another wave of settlers arrived in the 1950s to plow the steppe in the Virgin Lands program, an ill-fated attempt to grow wheat in semidesert conditions. ><

“As they did in other Stans, the Soviets set out to eradicate the local culture. They burned Kazakh books, executed leaders or sent them to the gulag, and collectivized the farmfolk. Small wonder that many Kazakhs lost touch with their culture and today speak Russian better than their own Turkic language.Now there's a new culture, of wealth from oil and gas. Perhaps some day there will be a culture of democracy; the government boasts of Kazakhstan's "thriving nascent democracy." Nascent is the operative word, indeed.” ><

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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