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Several arrested in Kazakhstan protest at capital name change

File photo of Nursultan Nazarbayev. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Almaty, Kazakhstan Mar 21, 2019, 06.02 PM (IST)

Police arrested several people in Kazakhstan's capital Thursday protesting a decision to rename the city in honour of Nursultan Nazarbayev who stepped down as president after three decades in office. 

Career diplomat and political loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was sworn into office Wednesday 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.

On Thursday at least a dozen demonstrators protesting the name change close to the capital's mayoral office were arrested by police, one of the protesters told AFP.  

They were subsequently released. 

"There were around a dozen of us," Askhat Akhmedyarov, who is an artist, told AFP.

"They put us in a police van and took us to the police station where they checked our phones. They wanted to know if we had any ties to (the opposition)," he said. 

"I am at home now," he confirmed, adding that he had not been fined by police.

The interior ministry did not comment on the arrests.  

Public gatherings in Kazakhstan are illegal unless they receive permission from local authorities, which is almost never provided in the case of political demonstrations.

Akhmedyarov said he was protesting a name change that "showed Nazarbayev's insecurity."

"This is a person who has looted the country and left millions in poverty. Now he has named the capital after himself and put a puppet president in charge. Next he will probably try to put his daughter (in the presidency)," Akhmedyarov said. 

"As a citizen, I have the right to have my voice heard on these issues."

Kazakhs have also been showing their opposition at the name change online. 

One online petition against the name change had gathered close over 36,000 signatures as of Wednesday despite the petition website appearing to be blocked in Kazakhstan. 

Kazakhstan's Senate on Wednesday 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 next year, though the former president retains significant powers in the country he ruled for nearly three decades.

Story highlights

Career diplomat and political loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was sworn into office Wednesday less than 24 hours after Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader an independent Kazakhstan had ever known, suddenly announced he was stepping down.