ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- It was the cherry on the cake in long-ruling authoritarian Nursultan Nazarbaev's already towering cult of personality and, for many citizens of Kazakhstan, it was a topping too far.
Less than four years after the name of Kazakhstan's capital was changed from Astana to Nur-Sultan to recognize the strongman who cast the city in his image, the chances the name will be changed back before a snap presidential vote this fall are rather high.
It is a marker of how far the 82-year-old Nazarbaev's stock has fallen that the man likely to sign off on the change, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, is the same man who in March 2019 proposed the honor for the man he was replacing as president.
But things were somewhat different then.
When Toqaev took office after Nazarbaev's sudden resignation, he did so with his predecessor and patron observing him and other subservient officials from a seat above them in the parliament building.
Just in case the symbolism was lost on anyone, Toqaev pledged that Nazarbaev's views would have "priority importance in the development and adoption of strategic decisions," despite him stepping aside as head of state.
The rechristening of the capital city was necessary to "perpetuate the name of our great contemporary," Toqaev said at the time.
Nazarbaev retained key positions, while relatives, in-laws and underlings occupied other top posts, giving Toqaev a limited space to maneuver.
Any protesters who took to the streets to express disagreement with the new arrangement were promptly arrested.
Formally, the name reversal initiative has come from lawmakers in Zhana Kazakhstan (New Kazakhstan), a faction in the parliament that has been particularly enthusiastic about Toqaev's much-vaunted reform drive following a bloody uprising in January that all but confirmed Nazarbaev's retirement from formal politics.
"We consider it incorrect that a city is named after a person during his lifetime," said parliamentarian Edil Zhanbyrshin as he presented the proposal to change the city's name on September 2.
"Moreover, the people did not accept the new name of the capital. For this reason, it will be historically just to return the old name of the capital -- Astana."
The proposal is expected to be reviewed in Kazakhstan's lower house, the Mazhlis, a body which largely rubber-stamps government legislation. Toqaev has yet to publicly comment on the initiative.
'Over The Top'
That the name Nur-Sultan lacked popular appeal is certainly true.
Writing on Facebook on September 3, well-known filmmaker and blogger Rinat Balgabaev recalled how the Nur-Sultan switch was greeted as "a spit [in the face]" that caused "a burst of activism even among previously apolitical people."
Bearing that out were interviews by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service with bemused residents of the capital on the day of Toqaev's announcement.
"To be honest, I view it negatively," said one woman in a typical response. "It seems a bit over the top. Astana is more familiar."
Meanwhile, recent interviews conducted by RFE/RL in the capital suggested general support for the change to the previous name.
A man wearing a white baseball cap said Nazarbaev had "left badly," referring to the bloody events of January, in which at least 238 people were killed after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, with many demanding an end to the former president's hold over politics.
"His image is ruined now," the man said.
Another person expressed both a preference for Astana and concern about the financial cost of the decision. Authorities never disclosed the budget burden of the transition to Nur-Sultan. Economy minister Alibek Kuantyrov admitted to journalists on September 3 that he had no idea "even roughly" how much another name change might cost.
"This proposal was literally only delivered yesterday," Kuantyrov said.
A Very Political History
Once a steppe town of mere provincial significance, the names adopted by the city that became Kazakhstan's capital in 1997 were determined from the top down by grand political shifts.
During the age of the Russian Empire, the settlement was referred to first as Aqmola (white grave in Kazakh) before quickly earning a Russian-style suffix and becoming Akmolinsk.
It became Aqmola again after Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union, but for three decades from 1961 it was known as Tselinograd, a name inspired by then-Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev's campaign to boost food production by seeding the U.S.S.R.'s "virgin lands."
When Nazarbaev announced plans in 1994 to transfer the capital from the country's largest city, Almaty, to Aqmola, some 1,000 kilometers north, it became clear that another name change was in order.
In the movie Leader's Path: Astana, the final part of a propagandistic six-film Nazarbaev biopic, Nazarbaev is depicted as modestly pushing back against a popular demand to name the city in his honor.
"Everyone is discussing it. There are suggestions to name it for you," says an actor playing Adilbek Zhaksybekov, a top Nazarbaev ally who served as the city's mayor from 1997 to 2003 and who co-wrote the 2018 film.
"I'm grateful, but I have a different view," responds Murat Akhmanov, who plays the role of Nazarbaev. "On the flight here, I had an idea. Perhaps Astana?"
Even before it took his name, the new capital emerged as a core component of a self-made blossoming leadership cult that portrayed Nazarbaev as a modernizing visionary.
At the top of Bayterek, the observation tower serving as a centerpiece for a city dotted with lavish, eyebrow-raising architecture, visitors are invited to place their hand in a golden Nazarbaev handprint as they look out over the city.
At a museum in his honor in Temirtau, the industrial town where Nazarbaev worked as a steelworker before embarking on a career in the Communist Party, the strongman appears in the center of a painting that depicts a transition from a grueling industrial past (in Temirtau) into a glorious postindustrial future (in Astana).
The eventual decision for the city to take Nazarbaev's name reflected "a growing tendency among the entourage to bestow gifts on the national leader," Kazakh political commentator and rights defender Sergei Duvanov told RFE/RL.
Although Kazakh officials at the time tried to justify the change with comparisons to American President George Washington, who saw a capital named for him in his lifetime, such explanations weren't widely accepted by the public, Duvanov added.
"Washington was a person of great achievements. In my opinion, Nazarbaev brought this country to an awful condition," Duvanov said.
At one point during his three decades in power, Nazarbaev appeared to enjoy genuine and widespread popularity.
But successive economic crises amid growing evidence of the enormous wealth enjoyed by him and his extended family in the second half of his reign chipped away at that.
The fatal shooting of striking oil workers in the western town of Zhanaozen in 2011 marked another turning point.
And it was popular protests in that same economically depressed town at the beginning of this year that signaled the beginning of the end of his formal political career.
Prior to the spread of the unrest across the country, Toqaev had cut a shackled presence, with Nazarbaev still "lifelong" chairman of the Security Council, head of the ruling party, and benefiting from the privilege-laden constitutional role of "Elbasy," or "leader of the nation."
As Almaty and several other cities that the protests had spread to descended into armed clashes and looting, Nazarbaev made no public appearances.
On January 5, Toqaev told a stunned population that he had replaced his predecessor as Security Council chairman.
Rumors of a power struggle between supporters of both men were never confirmed but appeared well-founded.
Nazarbaev announced his retirement from all positions and support for Toqaev in a heavily edited video appearance on January 18 and later said he would vote at a referendum in favor of constitutional changes that removed his unique rights under the basic law.
Toqaev's emergence as president in more than just name was bolstered by ally Russia, which agreed to an intervention into the crisis by the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Toqaev faced criticism for requesting the intervention, but it undoubtedly helped him consolidate control, even as evidence emerged of government troops engaging in indiscriminate fire, arbitrary detentions, and torture.
Later came the announcement of arrest on treason charges of a key ally of Nazarbaev's who headed the National Security Committee, while at least two members of the president's extended family are under investigation for corruption.
Meanwhile state media, which for years showered Nazarbaev with praise, rarely mentions him now.
Political scientist Akbota Karibayeva told RFE/RL that January's crisis revealed "the salience of domestic socioeconomic problems and that people are willing to take to the streets to make their voices heard."
For the Toqaev administration, the takeaway should be that "real reforms are in order and that people must perceive those reforms as credible," Karibayeva said, calling Toqaev's snap election call a bid to consolidate his newfound power before opposition can build.
With all that in mind, there are plenty of powerful incentives for Toqaev to disassociate himself further from Kazakhstan's first president.
But what of the awkwardness of potentially reversing a capital name change that he himself once championed?
For the moment, that is a problem for other officials -- such as Deputy Prime Minister Roman Sklyar -- to deal with.
Cornered by journalists after a government meeting, Sklyar was unable to answer a question from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service about whether Zhana Kazakhstan's initiative meant that Toqaev's original proposal constituted a mistake.
"Let's wait a little. Some time will pass, and then we will see how society reacts," he said.