What is the name of the capital of Kazakhstan?

It started with a mistake, because Kazakhstan quickly changed the fact that the new capital was called “White Tomb”. Akmola had become the capital of the newly independent country in 1997, but the macabre-sounding name did not seem appropriate for a representative city. The renaming in the following year was all the more sober: Akmola became Astana. Astana simply means capital. And the capital should be beautiful.

Gold-colored office towers emerged that look like coffee pots, Sir Norman Foster built a pyramid in Astana , the “Palace of Peace and Harmony” in which the Pope appeared a few days ago for a world congress . A 150 meter high tent encloses a modern shopping center, mosque domes, high-rise buildings and high up the sphere on the Bajterek Tower, the new landmark, sparkle.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev , who ruled for more than two decades, created the city according to his taste, an exotic, glittering gem in the middle of the Central Asian steppe. Astana was its capital. And when he withdrew from his position as head of state in 2019, but remained “leader of the nation”, it was almost logical in the authoritarian country that the capital was named in his honor: Astana was renamed Nur-Sultan.

Maps, signs and addresses had to be exchanged, and the population, tourists, business people and airlines had to switch to a new name. Now, just three years later, the name of the Kazakh capital is being reversed again: Nur-Sultan will be called Astana again.

Nazarbayev’s handprint triggers a patriotic song

Kazakhstan’s parliament on Friday approved a bill that new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had already approved. “We think it’s wrong for a city to be named after a person during their lifetime,” said one of the deputies, Edil Zhanbyrshin. Also, people just wouldn’t have embraced the new capital city name.

The capital’s name Nur-Sultan was the highest expression of the personality cult, because the international airport and the modern Nazarbayev Center, a cultural institute including a library and a series of portraits of the long-serving president, are named after Nursultan Nazarbayev. Most bizarre is his handprint at the top of the Bajterek Tower, which triggers a patriotic song when someone puts their hand in it.

However, Nazarbayev’s successor, Tokayev, wants to break away from the legacy of the unpopular ex-ruler, whom many Kazakhs blame for the repression. Tokayev is now campaigning for “a new Kazakhstan” in which “judges are highly qualified, honest and free from corruption”, “the government’s pressure on them is ended” and the parliament is strengthened. The parliamentary session on Friday shows how much everything is connected to everything else. In addition to renaming Nur-Sultan Astana, MPs also voted in favor of Tokayev’s reform agenda.

Accordingly, the term of office of the President is increased from five to seven years, but limited to one period. Tokayev is likely to benefit from the amendment and stand again in the early elections in the fall, officially the only time for seven years. However, critics such as political scientist Sofya du Boulay have doubts about rapid change. “Democratization and political competition are not at the core of Tokayev’s agenda,” she told the Eurasianet.org platform. With the early parliamentary elections, the previously marginalized opposition will be taken by surprise. In any case, the center of power is again called Astana.

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