President Nazerbayev: the man proposing a name change for Kazakhstan. Photo:Getty.
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The President of Kazakhstan suggests his country should be renamed

President Nazerbayev doesn't want to rule a "stan" any more. So he's suggesting it become Kazakh Yeli or Kazakhiya.

What’s in a name? When it comes to geographical place names, quite a lot actually, as anyone who’s found themselves stuck talking to someone who insists on telling you about their fabulous holiday to Ceylon or Siam, will tell you. Naming a country or a city is a powerful act, and an opportunity to impose your ideology – which is why so many former colonies have been keen to shake off their colonial place names.

Take the central square in Tripoli, the focal point for Libya's 2011 revolution. Under Italian rule it was Rome Square, but after Muammar Gaddafi took power in 1969 it became Green Square – as the colour green was seen to represent his “Al Fatah” revolution. When Gaddafi fell, it became Martyrs Square, to commemorate the protesters who lost their lives there. Ask a taxi driver now to take you to Green Square, and you get a very funny look.

Or think of how St Petersburg became Leningrad, and then reverted to St Petersburg again, or Volgograd was briefly Stalingrad. Or look at India, where major cities have been renamed to reflect local nationalist sentiments. Bombay became Mumbai in 1995, Madras became Chennai in 1996 and Calcutta became Kolkata in 2001.

It’s not always obvious what name you should use for a country – do you go for Burma or Myanmar? The country’s pro-democracy movement prefer Burma, because they reject the authority of the military junta that renamed it in 1989.

And now Kazakhstan wants to change its name. According to The Economist, the vast and oil rich central Asian country is seeking to distance itself from its less well-off neighbours like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and avoid being lumped with volatile “stans” like Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Nazerbayev has suggested it become “Kazakh Yeli” (land of the Kazakhs) or Kazakhiya instead. So far his suggestion hasn't gained much popularity.

It’s unlikely the name change will do much to change international perception of Kazakhstan – in fact it sounds a little bit like a storyline lifted straight from the BBC comedy Ambassadors – but it will give sub-editors and diplomats something to puzzle over. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.