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Kazakh Lawmakers Float Hidden Initiative To Name Capital After Nazarbaev

Some see the great deal of attention paid to Nursultan Nazarbaev as a sign of the Kazakh president's popularity, while others believe a personality cult is being developed.

If Kazakh lawmakers get their wish, the country's capital will be renamed to immortalize its first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, and the long-standing leader's name will live on at other worthy sites as well.

The suggestion to rename Astana was buried in a declaration unanimously passed by both chambers of parliament on November 23. On the surface, the declaration approved in the joint session was to mark the upcoming 25th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence.

But reading past the tributes to Nazarbaev's "outstanding service" to the nation, the declaration's very last paragraph called for renaming "the capital and other important facilities across the country" after the first and only president of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Making that call a reality is a decision that rests with the 76-year-old president himself, Interfax quoted Constitutional Council head Igor Rogov as saying on the sidelines of the parliamentary session.

Rogov told reporters that Nazarbaev could either call a referendum to let the people decide, or send the matter to parliament for debate. "I cannot say whether the president will make such a decision or not," Rogov added.

There was no immediate reaction from the office of Nazarbaev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989 -- first as Communist Party boss and after independence in 1991 as president.

But lawmaker Kuanish Sultanov said he expected the president to respond to the initiative within weeks. And another parliament deputy, Pavel Kazantsev, told reporters he expected the capital to have a new name by the end of the year.

Great Respect, Or Personality Cult?

Initiatives intended to cement Nazarbaev's legacy are not uncommon in Kazakhstan.

In 2010, the Kazakh parliament bestowed the title of "elbasy," or leader of the nation, upon Nazarbaev, granting him and his family lifelong immunity from any civic or criminal prosecution.

While Nazarbaev formally opposed the bill, it automatically became law under a legal clause pertaining to the work of the legislature.

Just days before the passage of the declaration, the country introduced a new 10,000-tenge banknote that features Nazarbaev's image.

The banknote will go into circulation on December 1, just two weeks before the country celebrates Independence Day on December 16.

Some see the great deal of attention paid to Nazarbaev as a sign of the president's popularity, while others believe a personality cult is being developed.

Dauren Abaev, a former Nazarbaev spokesman and adviser who currently serves as information and communication minister, disputed the latter notion, and told reporters that the president, "as always, will make a very sensible decision regarding this matter."

It is not clear what names might be considered for the capital. "Nursultan" has become one of the most popular names for baby boys in Kazakhstan in recent years, and according to official statistics, the president as of 2015 had more than 38,000 namesakes across the country. "Nazarbaev" or "Elbasy" would also be possibilities.

Astana has been renamed several times since it was founded in 1830 as the settlement of Akmoly. Two years later it became the town of Akmolinsk. Under communism it was renamed Tselinograd in 1961, then, shortly after Kazakhstan gained independence, to Akmola in 1992.

In December 1997, the Kazakh government made the city the capital of the country, replacing Almaty. In May 1998 the government renamed it Astana, a Kazakh word that means "the capital."

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.