ALMATY (Reuters) - President Nursultan Nazarbayev may drop the 'stan' from Kazakhstan to distinguish his booming oil-rich nation from the rest of Central Asia, where the other so-called stans are mostly mired in poverty.
The world's ninth largest nation by area with a population of just 17 million, Kazakhstan is the largest economy of the post-Soviet region, which also includes Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Foreign companies have invested billions of dollars in the nation's mineral wealth since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But Kazakh officials say the vast country of steppes and mountains is still little known in the world.
Nazarbayev, who visited the nation's oil capital Atyrau in western Kazakhstan on Thursday afternoon, said a new name like Kazakh Eli, which stands for "The Land of Kazakhs", would be more eye-catching for a foreigner studying the region's map.
"In our country's name, there is this 'stan' ending which other Central Asian nations have as well. But, for instance, foreigners show interest in Mongolia, whose population is just two million people, but whose name lacks the 'stan' ending," Nazarbayev's press service quoted him as saying.
"Probably, we ought to consider with time the issue of adopting Kazakh Eli as the name of our country, but before that we definitely need to discuss this with the people," he said without elaborating.
Nazarbayev, a 73-year-old former steelworker, has been in power for more than two decades and enjoys sweeping powers.
Titled "Leader of the Nation" and widely nicknamed "Papa", he has overseen market reforms and attracted foreign investors, but has kept a tight lid on dissent in his nation which has never held an election recognized as free and fair by the West.
Still vastly popular, he has said he will rule as long as his health allows him to stay in power and promised to groom a successor before stepping down.
Few doubt that Kazakhstan will receive a new name, should the veteran leader decide so.
In 1997, he moved the capital from the leafy city of Almaty in southeastern Kazakhstan to the windswept steppe town of Akmola in the north.
A year later, he said the new capital should be called Astana - which literally means "capital" in the local Turkic language - to end speculation about Akmola's name which stood for both "white shrine" and "white plenty" in Kazakh.
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov, editing by Elizabeth Piper