Kazakhstan’s capital Astana renamed in honour of leader after he ‘steps down’

Kazakhstan’s capital Astana has been renamed Nursultan in honour of long-time leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down as president on Tuesday but has retained his influence over the state. 

Mr Nazarbayev’s ally Kassym Jomart-Tokayev proposed the change in his first act as president after being sworn in on Wednesday, and parliament unanimously approved it.

He also awarded his predecessor the titles of people’s hero and hero of labour, pinning a golden star to Mr Nazarbayev’s chest in front of politicians. 

Beginning with the third most populous metropolis Shymkent, cities have begun renaming central streets in honour of Mr Nazarbayev at the new president’s suggestion. 

Mr Tokayev’s nomination of the leader’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to take his place as speaker of parliament was quickly approved.

Mr Nazarbayev, 78, has been in power since 1989, when he became first secretary of the communist party and de facto leader of Kazakhstan, a hydrocarbon-rich nation of 18 million wedged between Russia and China. He was elected to a fifth term as president with 97.7 per cent of the vote in 2015. 

The seemingly eternal leader spoke with Russian president Vladimir Putin before he stepped down in a televised announcement on Tuesday, agreeing to remain in regular contact.

Mr Nazarbayev’s resignation appeared to be part of a carefully managed transition of power, as he will continue to hold the title of “leader of the nation” and head the security council as well as the ruling party. He is known to admire pioneering Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, who kept a hand on the levers of power even after he gave up the prime minister’s seat. 

Mr Tokayev and Dariga Nazarbayeva are considered top potential candidates in the presidential election scheduled for 2020. 

“This is a person who wants to go down in history. He won’t allow a format that could result in a negative scenario,” political analyst Aidos Sarym said of Mr Nazarbayev. “He monitors society and understands that there is fatigue (with his rule).”

The Kazakh leader previously hired Tony Blair to manage his image, including in the aftermath of state security forces shooting at least 14 striking oil workers dead in 2011.

Astana airport was renamed for Mr Nazarbayev in 2017, but the city’s new moniker has left a cloud over the name of national carrier Air Astana. The word Astana also figures in the lyrics of patriotic songs and the names of dozens of enterprises in both Kazakhstan and Russia.

While Kazakhstan’s personality cult is not as extreme as that in neighbouring Turkmenistan, its leader is already widely celebrated in film, music and art, including with a golden sculpture of him in the national museum eerily similar to the Lincoln memorial statue in Washington DC. 

A museum in the capital is dedicated to his life, and the country’s main university, national library and a mountain peak are named after him.

This is not the first time Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh, has been renamed for propaganda purposes. Originally established as the Russian Cossack fort of Akmolinsk in 1830, it was rechristened Tselinograd in 1961 to reflect the Russian phrase for Nikita Khrushchev’s virgin lands campaign to increase agricultural output. 

In a video by Russian state outlet Sputnik, most of the Astana residents questioned criticised the renaming of the city. 

The change has quickly become the subject of jokes and Internet memes, such as a picture of “Nursultan (Nazarbayev) in Nursultan library in the city of Nursultan”.

While Mr Putin, who is barred by the constitution for running for another term, will be keenly watching how Mr Nazarbayev handles this transition, Twitter users have noted that Russia already has a city named Vladimir.