Accessibility links

Breaking News

Is Kazakhstan's Zhanaozen To Be Wiped Off The Map?

On December 16, 2011, antigovernment protests by striking oil workers turned violent, leading to the deaths of at least 17 people.
On December 16, 2011, antigovernment protests by striking oil workers turned violent, leading to the deaths of at least 17 people.
Mention Zhanaozen and those who are aware of the remote Kazakh town's existence will likely recall the bloodshed that took place there in 2011.

It was an ugly scene, as antigovernment protests staged by striking oil workers turned violent, leading to the deaths of at least 17 people.

Now, as the first anniversary of the December 16 unrest approaches, Zhanaozen is again making headlines and spurring heated debate.

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.

Nurbol Telegenov, the head of the province's internal policies department, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the final decision would be made in Astana.

Hot Topic

Telegenov noted, however, that the proposal had already become a hot topic of discussion. "It's up to the people whether to rename the city," Telegenov said. "After people come to a certain decision, then the regional governor's office will submit the request to the central government."

Telegenov said Zhanaozen's administration had already staged public discussions with town residents, and a live debate was broadcast on October 29 on the regional state television station Kazakhstan-Aqtau.

click on map to expand
click on map to expand
Social media have also proved to be a popular avenue for Kazakhs to weigh in on the proposed name change.

Some Kazakh Facebook users support the proposal, pointing out Beket-Ata's prominence as a Sufi religious leader and scholar.

Manghystau locals credit Beket-Ata with building several prominent mosques in the region, including the underground Orlandy Mosque where the Council of Elders met with the governor last week.

"Beket-Ata was a great personality," writes a Facebook user registered as "Almatinetc." "He was a great leader, scientist, and a great thinker."

Wiping Town Off The Map

Others sense a conspiracy, suggesting that the proposal is aimed at removing an embarrassing black mark from the pages of Kazakh history.

Facebook user Ergenekon writes that "Zhanaozen has to be forgotten as soon as possible, because if someone asks about it we can say: 'Where is it exactly? We don't have such a town in Kazakhstan.'"

Another Facebook user, Qonaq, suggests that "it reminds me of a child who gets a bad mark at school and then tries to destroy his gradebook so he can start afresh with a new gradebook."

Kazakh authorities have come under international criticism for shooting at the protesters and for the arrests of activists and opposition leaders that followed.

Saiyn Nazarbek-uly, a member of the Manghystau Council of Elders, dismisses criticism surrounding the council's proposal.

"You cannot shut everyone's mouths. Any move sparks gossip. If somebody is against any decision they spread gossip," Nazarbek-uly says. "With any kind of decision, it is very hard to keep every single person happy."

Is History So Easily Rewritten?

The council insists the initiative has no connection to the upcoming anniversary of the Zhanaozen protests. The elders maintain they merely want to immortalize a prominent person from the area by naming a town after him.

With the memory of December's bloodshed and the subsequent information blackout still fresh in minds of Zhanaozen residents, many are reluctant to express their opinion openly to media.

One college student, who spoke on condition his name not be revealed, says he sees no reason to change his hometown's name, which means "new river."

"I am against [renaming the city.] Many other young people have the same opinion as me," the student says. "This proposal is made by the authorities' sycophants."

But echoing numerous comments on social media, Zhanaozen residents appear to believe it is only a matter of time before officials in Astana approve the local council's initiative.

The Council of Elders is seen by many as a rubber-stamp group that operates in coordination with officials.

Even if the name were changed, however, it could not rewrite history, according to Facebook user Takeshi.

"You can give a different name to a city, but problems will stay the same. Now we call them 'Zhanaozen events' and in the future they will be called 'Beket-Ata events,'" Takeshi wrote.

"I am afraid our Beket-Ata would be turning in his grave now. May he rest in peace."

With additional reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Makpal Mukankyzy
  • 16x9 Image

    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.