Kazakhstan renames capital after retiring leader Nazarbayev as new president Tokayev takes office

Acting President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev takes part in a swearing-in ceremony during a joint session of the houses of parliament in Astana, Kazakhstan March 20, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 20 March 2019

Kazakhstan renames capital after retiring leader Nazarbayev as new president Tokayev takes office

  • Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took office in a pomp-filled ceremony less than 24 hours after Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down
  • Tokayev immediately proposed changing the name of the Central Asian nation’s capital

ALMATY: Kazakhstan’s new president was sworn in Wednesday following the shock resignation of the country’s long-time ruler and in his first official act renamed the capital after his predecessor.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took office in a pomp-filled ceremony less than 24 hours after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader an independent Kazakhstan had ever known, suddenly announced he was stepping down.
Tokayev immediately proposed changing the name of the Central Asian nation’s capital from Astana to Nursultan, or “Sultan of Light” in Kazakh, and parliament approved the change within hours.
The senate also appointed Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva as speaker, setting her up as a potential contender to succeed her father.
Tokayev, 65, will serve out the rest of Nazarbayev’s mandate until elections due in April next year, though the former president retains significant powers in the country he ruled for nearly three decades.
Tokayev told lawmakers that Nazarbayev had “shown wisdom” by deciding to step down, a rare move in ex-Soviet Central Asia where other leaders have hung on to power until death.
“Yesterday the world witnessed a historic event,” Tokayev said, hailing Nazarbayev as a visionary reformer.
“The results of an independent Kazakhstan are there for all to see,” he added.
Nazarbayev changed the capital from Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty to Astana in 1997, transforming it from a minor provincial town into a futuristic city of skyscrapers rising from the steppes.
Its name meant “capital” in Kazakh and there had long been speculation of a renaming after the leader who shaped it.
The city is central to government propaganda highlighting the achievements of Nazarbayev’s reign and his journey to build it was recently the subject of a state-funded film, “Leader’s Path: Astana.”
Nazarbayev, 78, ruled Kazakhstan since before it gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
He steered the country through a major transformation, developing huge energy reserves and boosting its international influence, but was accused of cracking down on dissent and tolerating little opposition.
Nazarbayev will continue to enjoy significant powers thanks to his constitutional status as “Leader of the Nation,” life-time position as chief of the security council and head of the ruling Nur Otan party.
Tokayev appeared to be in pole position to take over in the long term until senators voted shortly after his swearing-in to name Dariga Nazarbayeva, 55, as their new chief.
She is the most politically prominent of Nazarbayev’s three children and has long been mooted as a potential successor.
Kazakhstan’s deputy prime minister from 2015 to 2016, Nazarbayeva has significant influence over the media.
Analysts said it was too early to declare a clear frontrunner to become the next elected president, with the recently named prime minister, 53-year-old Askar Mamin, another possible contender.
Tokayev, the interim president, has a strong diplomatic record dating back to the Soviet period and has twice been foreign minister.
This should go some way to reassuring Kazakhstan’s major partners including China, the European Union, Russia and the United States that the move will not threaten key relationships.
Tokayev “is a safe pair of hands, he is a loyal presidential lieutenant,” said Kate Mallinson, a Russia and Eurasia expert at the London-based Chatham House think-tank.
Kazakhstan-based analyst Dosym Satpayev described Tokayev as a “heavyweight” but said he lacked popular appeal.
As for Kazakh society’s reaction to Dariga Nazarbayeva, it “would be mixed to say the least,” Satpayev said.
“A candidate from the family would be controversial and Dariga does not speak the state language, Kazakh, as well as her father,” he said.
Satpayev also pointed to another Nazarbayev relative — nephew Samat Abish, a high-ranking security official who rarely appears in public — as a potential contender from inside the family circle.
“This would be something like a Putin scenario, wherein a connected figure appears from the shadows at the last moment,” Satpayev said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden emergence following Boris Yeltsin’s sudden retirement in 1999.
The new leader will need to tackle growing discontent over falling living standards after Kazakhstan’s economy was hit by the 2014 drop in oil prices and western sanctions against Russia, a key trading partner.


Prayers at fire-bombed mosques as India’s riot toll grows

Updated 28 February 2020

Prayers at fire-bombed mosques as India’s riot toll grows

  • 180 men prayed on the rooftop of a mosque that was set on fire in the Tuesday unrest
  • The 72-hour clash between Hindus and Muslims left at least 38 dead and hundreds injured

NEW DELHI: Muslims in a northeastern neighborhood of India’s capital returned for weekly prayers at fire-bombed mosques on Friday, two days after a 72-hour clash between Hindus and Muslims that left at least 38 dead and hundreds injured.
Five days after they started, it was still unclear exactly what sparked the riots — the worst communal violence in New Delhi in decades — and the death toll at hospitals was continuing to rise.
“If they burn our mosques, we will rebuild them again and pray. It’s our religious right and nobody can stop us from practicing our religion,” said Mohammad Sulaiman, who was among about 180 men who prayed on the rooftop of a mosque that was set on fire in the unrest.
Tensions between Hindu hard-liners and Muslims protesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s Hindu-first policies had been building for months when they exploded Sunday night, on the eve of US President Donald Trump’s first state visit to India.
Kapil Mishra, a local leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party who lost his Delhi state assembly seat in recent elections, demanded at a rally Sunday that police shut down a Muslim-led protest in the city or else he and his followers would do it themselves.
And it appears they did.
Hindus and Muslims who had lived side by side for centuries attacked each other with guns and swords, metal rods and axes, leaving the streets where the rioting occurred resembling a war zone.
There was a heavy police presence in the neighborhood on Friday. On one riot-torn street, Hindus shouted “Jai Shri Ram,” or Long Live Ram, the Hindu god, as Muslims attempted to reach a mosque damaged in the riots.
Several Muslim residents told The Associated Press that most Muslim families had locked up their homes and fled the area.
The passage of a citizenship law in December that fast-tracks naturalization for some religious minorities from neighboring countries but not Muslims earlier spurred massive protests across India that left 23 dead.
The protest violence is the latest in a long line of periodic communal clashes that date to the British partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, when the country was split into secular, Hindu-majority India and the Islamic state of Pakistan.
The protection of India’s religious, cultural and linguistic diversity is enshrined in its constitution. But communal tensions have occasionally flared into deadly riots, beginning with partition itself, when Hindus living in what is now Pakistan migrated to India, and Muslims in modern India to Pakistan.
Clashes claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and people of other religions.
This week’s death toll marked the worst religiously motivated violence in New Delhi since 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards, triggering a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 Sikhs in the capital and more than 8,000 nationwide.
In 1992, tens of thousands of Hindu extremists razed a 16th-century mosque in northern India, claiming that it stood on Ram’s birthplace. Nearly 2,000 people were killed across the country in the riots that followed.
The religious polarization that followed saw Modi’s right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party emerge as the single largest party in India’s Parliament.
In 2002, the western Indian state of Gujarat erupted in violence when a train filled with Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob. A fire erupted — it remains unclear whether it was arson — and 60 Hindus burned to death. In retaliation, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the state.
Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time. He was accused of tacit support for the rampage against Muslims, but a court ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing.
Violent large-scale clashes between Hindus and Muslims last took place in New Delhi in 2014, months after Modi’s party came to power, in a largely poor neighborhood close to where this week’s rioting occurred. That violence left three dozen people injured.
Ashutosh Varshney, a professor at Brown University who wrote a book about Indian riots, said the worst has been averted — at least for now.
“If it had reached the scale of Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002, it would have doomed Indian politics for many years to come and brought India closer to the kind of Hindu-Muslim polarization that the current ruling party would ideally want, but is finding it hard to manufacture,” Varshney said.
BJP leaders, who have sought to demonize Muslim protesters as a threat to India, may see some gain from the violence, Varshney said.
But it comes at a cost, the international perception that India under Modi has become ungovernable, he said.
Government spokesman Raveesh Kumar denied the Modi government had inflamed religious tensions in India and failed to protect minority Muslims.
“These are factually inaccurate and misleading, and appear to be aimed at politicizing the issue,” he said. “Our law enforcement agencies are working on the ground to prevent violence and ensure restoration of confidence and normalcy.”
He added that Modi had “publicly appealed for peace and brotherhood.”
“We would urge that irresponsible comments are not made at this sensitive time,” he said.