Argument

Stan’d if You Do, Stan’d if You Don’t

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan want to drop the pesky Persian suffix that’s been frustrating Central Asia for generations. Here’s why that’s a bad idea.

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/GettyImages
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/GettyImages

Central Asia has an image problem. From the seemingly endless violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the personality cult surrounding the late dictator of Turkmenistan, the seven countries that comprise "the Stans" are stuck with a lousy brand. But two of these countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are looking for a makeover.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev first proposed a name change for his country in February. Kyrgyzstan’s influential Dignity Party, appropriately enough, proposed a similar move last month. "The -stan ending has Persian origins," Dignity leader and former Prime Minister Felix Kulov complained at a party meeting in September. "And the word ‘Kyrgyzstan’ was created during the Soviet era." In other words, Kulov thinks Kyrgyzstan can do better than a hand-me-down name.

The reasons why these countries would seek to drop the "-stan" from their names are plain enough. When U.S. 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain admitted he couldn’t name the president of a country he called "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan," it was less a gaffe than a reflection of the typical American’s knowledge of — and regard for — Central Asia. Orientalist and disparaging visions of the Stans have recurred in Western pop culture since at least the 1950s, when Lucille Ball spent an episode of I Love Lucy posing as the "Maharincess of Franistan." More recently we have "Berzerkistan" from Doonesbury, "Derkaderkastan" from Team America: World Police, and Gary Shteyngart’s novel Absurdistan, along with dozens of others.

Since 2006, the West’s general ignorance of Central Asia has mixed with the baseless caricature of Kazakhstan portrayed in the film Borat. A full six years after the film’s release, Borat helped turn a moment of Kazakh national pride into one of shame when a confused technician mistakenly played the film’s parody of the Kazakh national anthem as Maria Dmitrienko collected her gold medal at an international shooting competition in Kuwait. The footage of the athlete politely holding her hand over her heart as the song boasts of "Kazakhstan’s prostitutes, cleanest in the region" is excruciating.

Kyrgyzstan, a much smaller country, has all these troubles and more. As Rob Lowe once put it on The West Wing: "Kazakhstan’s a country four times the size of Texas and has a sizable number of former Russian missile silos. Kyrgyzstan’s on the side of a hill near China and has mostly nomads and sheep." I spent two years in Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps volunteer, and found The West Wing’s assessment surprisingly accurate. Nearly a third of the country’s GDP, for instance, is generated through remittances sent from Russia and elsewhere. (Worldwide, only Tajikistan is more dependent on remittances — more than half of its GDP comes from abroad.)

On top of its economic woes, Kyrgyzstan has a particularly tricky name to spell and pronounce. The adjacent z and s seem in desperate need of a vowel or two; the tails hanging off of the y‘s and g are packed too closely together. And when said aloud, "Kyrgyzstan" is easily confused with Kurdistan, the cultural region spanning parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran nearly 3,000 miles away. Kyrgyzstan’s tongue-twisting name even caused what pundits in the United States were eager to call John Kerry’s "first gaffe" as Secretary of State: In February 2013, Kerry mistakenly referred to the country as either "Kyrzakhstan" or "Kyrzygstan," depending on whom you ask. (When it comes to Central Asian pronunciation, there is almost always more than one way to be wrong.)

So "-stan" is a tarnished brand. But what might make a suitable replacement? In 2012, Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev proposed renaming the country "Kazakh Yeli," or "Land of the Kazakhs." Ironically, "Kazakhstan" means the very same thing — its potential replacement just swaps out the archaic Persian "stan" for the modern Kazakh "yeli." In Kyrgyzstan, the new name under consideration is the "Kyrgyz El Republic," or the "Republic of the Kyrgyz People." During a previous name change push in 2012, Arslanbek Maliev, leader of the prominent (and immodestly named) Universe Party, suggested that Kyrgyzstan consider going by the name "Kyrgyz Jeri," or "Land of the Kyrgyz."

Although these proposals have provoked significant debate, neither country is likely to vote on a new name in the immediate future. In Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev backed off the proposal over concerns about the massive cost of creating new currency, passports, and other documents bearing the name "Kazakh Yeli." In Kyrgyzstan, critics have accused the Dignity Party of proposing the name change simply to pave the way for more substantial constitutional reform. Kyrgyzstan’s current constitution was adopted in the wake of a 2010 coup, and amendments to it are barred until 2020 in the hope that the new foundational laws will take root before being tweaked. But legal observers say the constitution could be "clarified" through a national referendum. In this context, even just holding a vote on a national name change — even if the measure fails by a wide margin — would set an important legal precedent.

Nonetheless, the leaders pushing these proposals do have a genuine interest in how their countries are viewed by the outside world. When Borat was released in 2006, Kazakhstan bought full color, four-page ads in the New York Times and placed commercials on CNN to counter the image of the country portrayed in the film. When President Nazarbayev came to Washington in 2010 for a nuclear summit, a PR agency in Kazakhstan’s employ plastered bus stops all over the city with ads extolling his work on nuclear disarmament.

Kyrgyz leaders have historically been less interested in U.S. attention for its own sake than for the money that came with hosting the U.S. Air Force’s Manas Transit Center, which opened shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and remained the nearest U.S. base to Afghanistan until it closed this summer. In 2009, the base was still valuable enough to U.S. forces that Kyrgyzstan was able to raise the annual rent it charged from $17 million to $60 million, alongside a $177 million aid package. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev campaigned in 2011 on a promise to close the Manas base, and in general U.S.-Kyrgyz relations have grown more distant as Russia flexes its muscle in Ukraine and elsewhere. All the same, when Dignity Party leader Felix Kulov proposed a new name for Kyrgyzstan, his stated goal was globally oriented: He just doesn’t want outsiders to confuse Kyrgyzstan with Kurdistan.

Despite the obvious temptation to drop the "-stan," though, these countries should think twice before they rebrand. First of all, this kind of reboot is unlikely to stick. Officially, Kyrgyzstan already calls itself the Kyrgyz Republic. That name is used in government documents and World Bank reports, but not in many other contexts. Lengthening this name to the Kyrgyz El Republic is unlikely to cause the word "Kyrgyzstan" to drop from the global lexicon.

More importantly, Kazakhstan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s prospective monikers will not win them the respect their leaders seek on the international stage. If "-stan" connotes a certain backwardness to many Western ears, the suffix at least has the virtues of a long history and instant recognition. A novel name like "Kazakh Yeli," on the other hand, is an open invitation to a fresh round of jokes at Kazakhstan’s expense. President Nazarbayev would need only raise his voice once in public before one pundit or another quips that Kazakhstan is getting a bit "yellie." "Kyrgyz Jeri" sounds like a fraternity brother with a fondness for boiled sheep, or perhaps a sitcom in which Kyrgyz Kramer regularly bursts through the door of Kyrgyz Jerry’s yurt, to canned applause. And even though I speak passable Kyrgyz, "Kyrgyz El Republic" still just looks to me like bad Spanish.

The real problem with these names, however, is not what they mean abroad — it’s what they mean at home. Tension between Central Asia’s many ethnic groups is a defining factor in the region’s politics, and small grievances between them can flare up into violence. This is especially true in Kyrgyzstan, which was rocked by clashes between its Kyrgyz majority and the sizeable Uzbek minority in 1990 and again in 2010.

Kazakhstan has managed to avoid such widespread violence, but ethnic tension nonetheless steers civic discourse. After Kyrgyzstan’s most recent ethnic flare-up, Kazakhstan’s Institute of Political Solutions conducted a poll to measure the likelihood of similar riots within its borders. While 56 percent of Kazakhstan’s population saw interethnic relations in the country as "friendly," more than a third felt that ethnic Kazakhs should be considered the "state-forming ethnic group" around which other groups coalesce.

In both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, passports specify their bearer’s ethnicity — a convention cribbed from the Soviet template. Citizens of mixed race are required to choose between their parents’ ethnicities at age 16, and it’s all but impossible to modify this choice once it’s made.

However a name change might play in Brussels or New York, calling Kyrgyzstan the "Republic of the Kyrgyz People" is a fresh provocation to the country’s Uzbeks, as well as its Russians, Tajiks, Tatars, and other minorities that together make up 35 percent of the population. The same goes for the "Land of the Kazakhs," where non-Kazakhs comprise nearly half the country.

Even though most of the Stans’ names are self-evidently tied to ethnicity (Pakistan, whose name is an acronym derived from the five regions of the British Raj it originally comprised, is the one exception), reinforcing that ethnic association today is unnecessary and dangerous. Like colonists elsewhere, the Soviet Union deliberately drew boundaries among the five Central Asian Soviet republics to encourage discord and discourage the formation of a unified Muslim bloc. That legacy is still visible today.

Shortly after Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 riots, a popular song called "Don’t Spit Into the Well That You Drink From" by Kyrgyzstan’s teen heartthrob du jour Aaly Tutkuchev encouraged Uzbeks to "go home" to Uzbekistan, ignoring the fact that many Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks have lived their whole lives in Kyrgyzstan. Alluding to the hundreds of Uzbeks killed in the recent fighting, Tutkuchev menacingly warned that the Kyrgyz "are prepared to purify our country next time." This song might as well be the anthem of the Kyrgyz El Republic.

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