On Tuesday, March 19, 78-year-old Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbayev abruptly announced his resignation after 30 years as president of Kazakhstan. It happened exactly during the national celebration of Nauryz, the Persian New Year. Nauryz symbolizes the beauty of spring, fertility, and family. This year, Nauryz comes to me with bittersweet feelings of change and injustice.
Nazarbayev temporarily passed the presidency to politician Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, saying he knows Tokayev and calling him an honest man, as if these are the only necessary credentials to run a country. Meanwhile, Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, is now incumbent Chairwoman of the Senate, which means that if Tokayev resigns, she will become the president. Shrewd Nazarbayev made sure all the power and money of the country are still in his family’s hands.
The next day, Tokayev ratified a proposal to change the name of my country’s capital from Astana to Nursultan (Nazarbayev’s first name), dedicated to a man who has not even died yet. Shortly after, Kazakhstan’s heartfelt cries were heard on Facebook and Instagram. Offline, protests on the streets to call off renaming Astana were fiercely suppressed.
Honestly, I never dared to hope that elections would ever be fair. I expected these role designations. But to take away the name of the capital, so resonant and unrestricted – Astana! – this is just too much. The last drop from Nazarbayev’s spitting on Kazakh faces.
Before that, streets and schools throughout the country, a university, and an international airport were named after Nazarbayev. Now the capital is named after him. It took diplomats a single day and 18.7 million dollars to rename Astana. To me, it feels exactly like the Soviet Union Stalin cult.
I wish I could tell myself this is a bad joke or a nightmare, but I know it is not. I’m angry at myself that there is nothing I can do about it, and that I am not there with my family. But my heart is always there, and these things are slowly tearing it apart.
What can be worse than living in a communist country? Living in a communist country that dares call itself a democracy.
People here say that journalism and media freedom are slowly dying off in the United States. I say that back home, I could never even imagine that journalism and media freedom would exist. As long as people are able to freely voice their concerns, fears, and opinions — which they are — journalism will never die in America, simply because these things are ingrained in American culture. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Kazakhstan.
Nursultan is not my city. Tokayev is not my president. Nazarbayeva is not my speaker of the Senate.
I have my voice. I have my choice.