Monday, August 10, 2020

All About Kazakhstan's 2019 Capital Name Change

At PolGeoNow, our goal is to inform you whenever a country changes its name, capital, or flag. So even though we sometimes fall behind, we want to make sure you don't miss out completely on stories like this one from last year.

Map of Kazakhstan and the location of its capital city, Nur-Sultan (Nursultan), formerly Astana, as well as largest city Almaty
Contact us for permission to use this map.

Astana is Now Nur-Sultan

In March of last year, the Republic of Kazakhstan in central Asia announced that it was changing the name of its capital city. The day after President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation, the incoming interim president declared that the city, Astana, would be renamed "Nur-Sultan" in honor of the previous president.

Nazerbayev, who had held the office for almost 30 years, regularly claimed to win elections with over 90% support, was the only leader the country had ever had since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The same day as the announcement, the country's parliament passed a bill to enact the change.

This wasn't a complete surprise for Kazakhs - the parliament had already called for the name change back in 2016. It didn't go through at that time, maybe because the president thought it would look bad for him to preside over naming the city in his own honor.

But just because it was no surprise doesn't mean everyone approved of the change. Some Kazakh citizens opposed it, or at least wanted to be consulted, though its hard to say how popular or unpopular the move was overall. The fact that parents have reportedly named 45,000 children "Nursultan" in the past three decades suggests that naming things after the president might have a good amount of public support.

"Nursultan" or "Nur-Sultan"?

Flag of Kazakhstan Short Name:  
• Kazakhstan (English, Russian)
Qazaqstan (Kazakh)
Official Long Name:  
• Republic of Kazakhstan (English)
• Qazaqstan Respýblıkasy (Kazakh)
• Respublika Kazakhstan (Russian)
President Nazarbayev's first name is normally written "Nursultan", without a hyphen, so English-language media at first assumed the city's new name would be spelled that way too. But it soon became clear that official sources from the Kazakh government were actually spelling it with a hyphen in the middle, not only in the country's official languages of Kazakh and Russian, but also in English publications.

Because of this, the correct spelling is now considered to be "Nur-Sultan", with the hyphen (and capital S). This difference from the former president's name might be a way of playing down the fact that the city is named after a living person, instead separating the name into its original roots, two Arabic words that together mean something like "King of Light".

Did the Name Change Take Effect Right Away?

The change from Astana to Nur-Sultan wasn't yet official law when the new president first announced it on March 20, but after the same-day parliamentary approval and presidential endorsement, it formally took effect just three days later, on March 23, 2019.

Previous Name Changes 

Not only were many residents of Kazakhstan's capital unsurprised by the change - you might say they're used to it. The city has already been through several name changes in the past. In chronological order, they are:
  1. Akmoly (1830-1832) - possibly meaning "white grave" in Kazakh
  2. Akmolinsk (1830-1961) - "(town) of Akmoly" in Russian
  3. Tselinograd (1961-1992) - "Virgin Lands City" in Russian
  4. Akmola (1992-1998) - variation of "Akmoly", sometimes translated as "holy city"
  5. Astana (1998-2019) - "capital city" in Kazakh
  6. Nur-Sultan (2019-present) - "light-king" in Arabic, in honor of ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev
Note that Kazakhstan only became independent in 1992, so the city's first three names came about while under Russian control - first the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union (USSR). Its name was changed to "Astana" after replacing the larger city of Almaty as Kazakhstan's capital in 1997.

Changing the Nur-Sultan Airport Code

Interestingly, changing the name of the city was the easy part - although the city's airport had already been named after president Nursultan Nazarbayev back in 2017, it took until just this June before the country was able to change the airport's three-letter code away from the soviet era "TSE" (for "Tselinograd").

That's because airport codes are set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an international club of major airline companies, which almost never allows an airport's three-letter designation to be changed, even when the airport itself changes its name. Kazakhstan had to negotiate with the IATA for years to get the group to start using a different code.

The airport's new code is NQZ, intended to be short for either "Nur-Sultan, Qazaqstan" (using the country's Kazakh-language name) or "Nursultan Nazarbayev Airport, Qazaqstan".

"Nur-Sultan" in Other Languages

As the capital of a United Nations member country, Astana/Nur-Sultan also gets its officially-translated name listed in the UN World Geographical Names database in all six UN official languages, plus Kazakh:

Capital Name Registered With UN
Language Before After
Kazakh Астана Нұр-Сұлтан
Arabic آستانا نور سلطان
Chinese 阿斯塔纳 努尔苏丹
English Astana Nur-Sultan
French Astana Nour-Soultan
Russian Астана Нур-Султан
Spanish Astaná Nursultán

Has the new name caught on?

As we've discussed before in articles on changes to country names, official renamings don't always catch on with the general public. But in this case, the name change seems to have been widely accepted, at least by the media. Major news outlets are now calling the city Nur-Sultan, and the English Wikipedia, which favors commonly-used names over official names, decided it was time to change the city's article name just over a month after the announcement.

The Wikipedia editions in the other UN official languages have also adopted the new name, except for the Spanish one, which notes that the old name is still used in the Royal Spanish Academy's official standards for the Spanish language (the French Wikipedia also disagrees with the UN on whether there should be a hyphen in the name).

Why has this name change been adopted so smoothly? It might be partly because "Astana" was not quite a world-famous place name to begin with, so people so people don't really have any old ways to be stuck in, and news media don't have to worry too much about confusing people who are used to the old name.

Also, it probably helps that a completely new name completely replaced the old name - unlike many country or city "name changes" that are actually just requests for people to start using the place's native name in English, which tends to be a hard sell.

Graphic of the Kazakh flag is in the public domain (source).