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Author Talks About Kazakhstan's Clan Politics

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev during a visit to the Almaty subway in early August.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev during a visit to the Almaty subway in early August.
With the birth of the Kazakh people came strong familial ties that helped forge the nation's politics. This is still the case today, with three clan divisions -- The Great Horde (Uly Zhuz), Middle Horde (Orta Zhuz), and Small Horde (Kishi Zhuz) -- jockeying for influence. RFE/RL Edward Schatz, associate professor with the University of Toronto's Department of Political Science and author of "Modern Clan Politics: The Power of 'Blood' in Kazakhstan and Beyond" talks to RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Galym Bokash about why clan politics matter in modern Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL: Some of your proposals in your main book on clan politics in Kazakhstan might cause a bitter reaction from local authorities and apologist historians. You claimed that clan clientelism is the core of the Nazarbaev regime. Have you received any invitations to Kazakhstan since the publication?

Edward Schatz of the University of Toronto
Edward Schatz: Actually, yes, I've received many invitations of various sorts not only to talk about clans, but to talk about other research projects as well. And I have lots of wonderful Kazakhstan colleagues that I've met and had great conversations with over the years. Kazakhstan is a country with enormous numbers of hospitable, open-minded people. My view is, and my experience is, that reasonable people can disagree about many things -- and that goes for my book as well. I will say that the people who tend to disagree with me most strongly are often the people who have not actually read the book. Because they merely read the cover or the back of the book, and they see the word clan and they jump to conclusions. But those who read the book generally are much more sympathetic.

You ask specifically about the characterization of the regime as practicing clan clientelism. I think that the privileges that disproportionately go to the Uly Zhuz (Great Horde -- Azattyq) Kazakhs are pretty well documented by the data, pretty well supported. On the other hand, the data also show that the regime has been generally effective at balancing clan interests in broader society. So beyond the core of the regime if you look broader across the country, the regime has been pretty good at balancing clan interests.... I hope that if the book can be translated into Russian and Kazakh, that people who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to become familiar with the material will have a better chance to do so and look at the book more closely and evaluate what it has to offer.

RFE/RL: How do you define "clan" and "clan competition" in modern Kazakhstan?

Schatz: Some people who use the term the word "clan" use it differently than I do. So people in the U.S. will talk about the "Kennedy clan" or the "Bush clan." They are using that word as a metaphor; they are not using it in the same way as I am using it. I'm using it to describe kinship-based groups or networks. The groups or networks can include people from different kin backgrounds or it can also include people with weak knowledge of their kin ties. Somebody could be from the Uly Zhuz but do not care that they are from the Uly Zhuz, or may be not able to recite seven generations, or 13 generations, of the shezhire (genealogical tree -- Azattyq). But for it to be a clan there should be a critical mass of people for whom kinship provides this initial social relationship and an initial bond of trust. And that's the key. It doesn't mean that they can't include a Uyghur or a Korean or a Russian. They can. But there should be enough people from the particular kind of kinship background for it can be a clan, in my definition.

RFE/RL: In your book, there is an observation that the akim (governor) rotation rate is high in two oblasts (provinces): East Kazakhstan and Mangystau. Do you attribute this to clan politics?

Schatz: That's a good question, and it gives me opportunity to be very clear. My argument is not that clan is always the most important factor. It's not always the most important factor. In any given situation it may play a significant role, it may play a secondary role. In some cases, it may play no role at all. The example of Mangystau oblast -- at least up to the point my book covers; the book was published in 2004 -- the example there is generally one of, some degree of, clan clientalism in the oblast, that is there's preference given to people from particular kinship background. This is tolerated by the regime, by the central government and national regime, because Kishi Zhuz (Small Horde -- Azattyq) is generally in an underprivileged position in national-level government. At least, this is in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That may have changed; I don't follow this on a day-to-day basis anymore. But it's a pretty important factor, I think, in considering Kazakh politics. But it's not the only thing. Some people who want to criticize the book will say, "You can't explain everything by clan." And, of course, the answer is, you are right. You can't explain everything by clan. But it's hard to give full explanation of Kazakh politics without considering clans -- that's the argument of the book.

RFE/RL: Writing about clan conflict in Kazakhstan, you cite the interesting example that the akim of Zhambyl oblast in 1995 replaced 80 percent of ousted employees with members of his sub-clan. Where did that figure come from?

Schatz: The information, I think, came from other report by Khliupin, a Russian scholar. If it's 60 percent or 5 percent, it is very difficult to substantiate it in any concrete way. So what I tried to do is I tried to ask around to scholars who were familiar with that region, if this sounds more or less accurate. They, too, can only say, "I have an intuition. Or yes, maybe that sounds right, [or] it sounds like exaggeration by 5 or 10 percent, or something like that." That's the kind of material that someone working on that question has to work with. There's a little bit of guess work. In that particular case, it was so clear that the favoritism was being practiced that it doesn't really matter if it's 80 percent or 60 percent; it serves as a clear example of the phenomenon.

RFE/RL: Your opponents might argue that social networks in any Western society, whether in the form of ruling families or "onetime government members,' etc., could play the same role as kin-based institutions. They might say that, for instance, main figures of the senior Bush administration kept or improved their positions under [George W.] Bush and so on. Like you said, the metaphorical use of the "Bush clan" term. So what makes clan networks different and a symbol of backwardness in developing countries?

Schatz: Yes, of course, in some proportion you can see things that look similar.... My response would be that absolutely different kinds of networks of privilege and loyalty exist. And they can sometimes perform similar functions and have similar outcomes. So you gave the example of the Bush administrations. You could think of the Kennedys, you could think of any number of political families in any number of contexts. But typically societies with rich tradition of kinship produce a slightly different dynamic because kinship bonds are usually -- and I should say usually, because this is a broad tendency; this is not a rule; it's not always the case -- but there's a broad tendency that kinship bonds are stronger and more resilient than other kind of ties. So it becomes harder or more consequential to break a kinship bond than to break another kind of bond. Again, there are plenty of exceptions, but that tendency seems clear to me.

As for clan being a symbol of backwardness, I recognize what you are asking. It has come to symbolize in many people's minds some ideas about backwardness. In fact, this is exactly what the Soviet approach to clans was -- was to assume that because these kinship divisions preceded Soviet rule, they must necessarily be only negative; anything that's before Soviet rule was by definition negative. I realize that there are people today who take a similar kind of approach, assuming that it's a symbol of backwardness. But for me, kinship in many societies is simply a social and political fact that has both negative and positive aspects. And whether it plays a positive or negative role depends less on kinship itself and more on the political and social circumstances in which kinship finds itself. Trying to summarize a very long book; but that's the idea.

RFE/RL: There are many high officials in Kazakhstan whose close associates and subordinates belong to different clans, subclans, or even different ethnic groups. I personally know some of these associates or "pomoschniki" who remained loyal to their chiefs to the end, and in some cases accepted exile as the only way to cover up their corrupted bosses. Don't you think that simple corruption-based structure might be more appropriate illustration of modern Kazakh politics rather than clan-based relations?

Schatz: You are right, of course, that clan background can in some circumstances have nothing to do with the politics of a given situation. So if someone is a Russian, or Korean, or Jewish, or Uyghur, or what have you, they are operating by a different sort of logic and they may be loyal for different reasons. But if you think about replacing it with just a notion of corruption -- corruption is rarely just based on money exchanging hands. It's also -- as your question seemed to indicate -- about loyalties that go beyond pure material self-preservation and pure material self-aggrandizement. It's not just getting rich, because at some point, you have to demonstrate loyalty in order to ensure any kind of ongoing source of wealth. And that loyalty has to come from somewhere. Where do they come from, how are they forged? My argument for parts of Central Asia is that one of the most common ways -- it's not the only way, but one of the most common ways -- to forge the initial trust, some trust at the beginning, is kinship -- some kind of kinship connection. But that kinship connection is rarely enough. I mean, you can't simply just rely only on your being a blood relative of somebody to remain in that person's favor. We've seen recently that prominent numbers of dominant kin groups can be sent into political exile because they show themselves to be disloyal. But kinship nonetheless is one very common way to establish that initial bond.

RFE/RL: What implications do clan politics have for wider Central Asian states? Is it a visible factor, a part of political life?

Schatz: The argument is that it's a part of political life -- and it has an impact. Sometimes it has quite a significant impact and sometimes the impact is less important than, say, bribes, right? Bribes can matter quite a bit more in any given circumstance.

But the question of visibility is interesting one. Because my argument is that kinship is often invisible, at least to outsiders. It's something that becomes difficult for outsiders to see. Let's say that you and I are from a different ethnic group: you are Uyghur and I am Russian. Usually there are certain physical characteristics or use of language that allow us to say, "Ah, he is probably Uyghur; he is probably Russian." They are visible things. Clan and kinship don't quite clearly have that kind of visibility. You have to have a conversation with somebody in order to know where he or she is coming from, what kinship division he or she belongs to. And even then sometimes it is not entirely clear.

So it's the fact that it's hard to detect that makes it easier for those who want to use kinship to go undetected. That's not always a bad thing. But if people want to use the kinship for nepotism and favoritism they can often do so in a way that allows them to enjoy plausible deniability. You can say, "No, it's not because he is my brother, it's because he is the best engineer. It's not because he is my blood relative, it's because he is in fact quite talented." That's plausible deniability. And that comes because it's not actually visible, which generated its own kind of political dynamic, what I argue.

The broader implications for the Central Asian states? My focus was largely on Kazakhstan, to a lesser extent to Kyrgyzstan. I think there are some similarities between these two countries in terms of how kinship works. I think the implications vary. I said that kinship is a social and political fact with positive and negative aspects to it; and I think that whether it plays a positive or negative role depends largely on the political conditions in the country. One of the conclusions that I come to in the book is that the lack of transparency in government in Kazakhstan actually helps to promote the use of kinship ties. In this environment of secrecy and people keeping their relationships below the radar screen -- in that kind of environment -- there is every incentive for people to continue to use kinship. If you, on the other hand, can imagine a totally transparent state in Kazakhstan, people would have to be very clear about their kinship ties...

RFE/RL: Let's go back to your book. In the concluding part, you suggest that "to re-legitimize kinship as a basis for social organization and political life." You also asserted that Central Asian states might gain from restructuring kinship-based competitions not to extract from the central state, in your words, but to contribute to national development. As a good example, you put Kenya's harambee movement. Do you think it might happen in Central Asia, particularly in Kazakhstan?

Schatz: The book was published in 2004; it was slightly different moment than we are in right now. If I am betting, I am betting that it's unlikely at the moment, unfortunately. I think that could change, though, and a lot depends on the leadership in Kazakhstan. Because what we've seen is that when Nazarbaev decides that something is a good idea -- the recent example is the Nazarbaev University is a pretty good one -- if he decides that something should happen, then it can happen. The Nazarbaev University, I think so far at least, is an example of a positive development that the regime has embarked upon. You could imagine something similar happening here [in clan politics -- Azattyq] -- the example of harambee movement in Kenya is essentially an example of local level initiatives where kinship-tied divisions in the Kenyan context are mobilized so that people can pool together their resources and have those resources be matched by the central government for development projects. Kazakhstan is now quite different from Kenya, with the macroeconomic growth and so on it's starting to change. But there is nothing to say that you couldn't say, "All right, essentially what we have here is a ready social network that's ready to be put to some kind of use. Why not put it to use for some kind of positive developmental purpose." In Kenya, it might have been building irrigation projects or roads, matched by central government funds, and with the local network providing the labor. In Kazakhstan, it might be very different, given Kazakhstan's more rapid economic development.

But nonetheless the whole idea is to recognize that this is a resource for Kazakhs. It's not something to be ashamed of or to be worried about as being backward or something like that. No, it's simply a part of the Kazakh national tradition to be aware of your kinship background, and that plays itself out in certain ways. Why not emphasize the positive kinds of potential trajectories for this social fact? And I don't know what exactly that would look like -- Kazakhs themselves would have to have this kind of conversation. But I think the conversation needs to happen, in part because no one knows -- even Nazarbaev doesn't know -- what comes after Nazarbaev. As I said, in spite of the kind of core of clan clientelism, the regime has been fairly able at balancing clan interests in broader society. There is no guarantee for that what happen after Nazarbaev. There's no guarantee that that would happen after Nazarbaev. So why not generate a very positive kind of dynamic as concerns kinship divisions, and why not start it now? That would be my response.

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