Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 3

The role of clans in Kazakhstan today

By Nurbulat E. Masanov

Traditional Kazakh society was divided into three zhuz or "hordes" — the Greater, Middle, and Small. Underlying this division is the principle of genealogical seniority — elder, middle, and younger brothers. According to this complex and widely-branched system, each zhuz is divided into tribal groups which are, in turn, divided into smaller clans, and so on, all the way down to the concrete individual. According to the norms of customary law, every Kazakh should know his ancestors for forty generations back. The norms of exogamy, claims to property, leviratic norms (according to which a widow must sometimes be married by a brother of deceased husband) and many other things are based on the degree of genealogical kinship.

This is a product of the traditional Kazakh mentality which, by virtue of the specific character of the transmission of information (as something secret, only for "one’s own") and property (from father to son, from son to grandson, and so on), fosters a clan-based identification of the individual’s social space.

The zhuz-clans in Kazakhstan were never, however, functional organizational structures, such as existed in medieval Scotland and still exist in some African and Asian countries. Kazakhstan’s zhuz-clans are more a way of thinking, a way of interpreting ongoing processes through the prism of the genealogy of the individual or group.

In Soviet times, this traditional principle of interpreting social phenomena was transformed into a universal way of identifying and interpreting political processes and personnel reshuffles. Kazakhs of the Greater zhuz, for example, mythologized the figure of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party First Secretary Dinmukhamed Kunaev. Since he was a member of the Sty tribe of the Greater zhuz, they saw him as one of "their own." The Kazakhs of the Middle zhuz, by contrast, did not see him as one of "their own."

To this day, clan is an important (though not the only) prism for interpreting and classifying the social and political processes taking place in Kazakhstan. It is an important psychological factor which finds its greatest application in the selection and career paths of public officials. The clan factor underlies the legitimacy of an individual’s claim to this or that public post, feeds his hopes, and determines his ability to play an independent role in political life. It is the clan factor that largely defines the extent of an official’s authority, his power, how high he is likely to move in government service, the bounds of his social space, and the length of time he stays in power.

In Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbaev has established a regime of personal power, clan considerations enable the president to manipulate personnel policy in his personal interest and to exclude competition, corporate consolidation, or the appearance of political opponents within the government.

Back when Kunaev was Party leader in Kazakhstan, he could afford to appoint members of the Small zhuz to the ruling Buro of the republic Communist Party. He knew that they were so few in number, so rooted in the countryside, and so lacking in influence in the capital, that they would never be able either to challenge him for power or to become his successors.

Kunaev’s main rivals came from the Middle zhuz. He was careful to keep them in positions that looked important but were in reality second-tier — Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Party boss of a region — and he never allowed them access to the serious jobs, that is, posts in the Buro of the Central Committee of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party.

President Nazarbaev has taken a leaf out of Kunaev’s book and runs his personnel policy along similar lines. Nazarbaev fully understood the dissatisfactions and frustrated ambitions of the political elite and intelligentsia of the Middle zhuz — the most populous and most urbanized zhuz — when the country gained its independence. He kept representatives of the Middle zhuz close to him in order to prove how balanced his personnel policy was. This was the role played by Vice President Erik Asanbaev, who has since been "demoted" to Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Germany. Later, the appointment of Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin was also supposed to prove that all the zhuz-clans were equal in the president’s eyes. In the eyes of the Middle zhuz intelligentsia and political elite, however, it proved nothing, since Kazhegeldin was from one of the least influential tribes of the Middle zhuz — the Uak tribe.

The Middle zhuz bureaucracy, both during Kunaev’s time and now under Nazarbaev, was supposed to play the role of an obedient creature, a symbol of the purportedly equal representation of all zhuz-clans in the upper reaches of the government. Reality was and remains different. Those holding key positions today are either representatives of the Greater zhuz (for the most part, Nazarbaev’s close relatives) or people from the Small zhuz. The latter are not, in the eyes of public opinion, legitimate contenders for power and cannot, therefore, play an independent role in political life. This phenomenon, which was less noticeable in the Kazakhstan’s first years as a sovereign state, has grown more visible over time, as power has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of President Nazarbaev.

The following members of Greater zhuz are currently to be found in the ranks of those with real decision-making power in Kazakhstan: the president himself and his closest relatives or members of the same clan, including Deputy Premier Akhmetzhan Esimov, who has control over the receipt of foreign investment, presidential adviser Nurtay Abykaev, Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev, Senate Speaker Umirbek Baigeldi, and Director of the Press and Information Agency Altynbek Sarsembaev.

Representatives of the Small zhuz in the top levels of government include: Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbaev, State Secretary Abish Kekilbaev, Majlis [lower house of parliament] Speaker Marat Ospanov, and Director of the president’s Scientific-Analytical Center Marat Tazhin.

The Middle zhuz is not seriously represented in the top level of government at present. It did however receive peculiar and, as always, purely formal compensation in the movement of the capital from Almaty, which is located on territory traditionally settled by Kazakhs of the Greater zhuz, to Akmola, on territory traditionally settled by Kazakhs of the Middle zhuz. Meanwhile, all the best-known political leaders from the Middle zhuz are either in respectable "exile" as ambassadors (Nazarbaev’s former rival, Olzhas Suleimenov, in Italy; former vice president Erik Asanbaev in Germany; and former deputy premier Baltash Tursunbaev in Turkey), or out of a job (former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin).

As political power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of Nursultan Nazarbaev, less effort is being made to ensure that all the zhuz-clans receive equal representation in the top levels of government (as was the practice during Soviet times and in Kazakhstan’s first three or four years as a sovereign state). More use is being made of the clan factor to eliminate political opponents and to create a neutral "vacuum" around the figure of the president. The president dominates this vacant space to such an extent that no room is left for possible opponents and competitors. The fact that the president prefers officials from the Small zhuz, who are illegitimate in the eyes of society, for appointment to key government posts enables him both to strengthen his own influence and to exclude possible opponents from political life.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Professor Nurbulat Masanov graduated from the History Faculty at the S. M. Kirov Kazakh State University in Alma-Ata in 1976, and began to specialize in Kazakh nomadism. Since 1992, he has been Assistant Professor of history at Kazakhstan State University and increasingly involved in the study of current political issues. Banned from teaching for a while because of his critical stance toward government policy, he is now teaching again in the History Faculty. He has received several international grants for the study of national minorities in Kazakhstan.


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