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What Role Do Tribalism And Kinship Play In Modern-Day Kazakhstan? 

A file photo of Nursultan Nazarbaev (center) and his family in 1992. A lot of the former Kazakh president's relatives attained great wealth and power during his time at the helm.
A file photo of Nursultan Nazarbaev (center) and his family in 1992. A lot of the former Kazakh president's relatives attained great wealth and power during his time at the helm.

In Central Asia, power and wealth are often kept and passed down in a family. But the concept of blood ties goes beyond immediate or extended family members. Political alliances and influential clans are also organized around tribal or regional kinship, which goes back centuries to the times when today’s Central Asian nations were a group of separate tribes.

These days, clan politics is blamed for being a driving force behind rampant nepotism, regional division, and wealth inequality in the region. But for ordinary people, these kinship-based networks are often a source of social cohesion and mutual support.

Simple questions such “Which part of the country are you from?” or “Where is your family from?” or “What tribe do you belong to?” allow the asking party to almost build a mini-profile of another person’s roots, any shared blood relations, and even character traits attributed to that particular tribe.

In a live discussion on June 23, I spoke with Shalkar Nurseitov, a political analyst from Kazakhstan, about the role of tribalism and kinship in the present and the future of his country.

Unfortunately, our second announced speaker, Kyrgyz anthropologist Aksana Ismailbekova, couldn’t join due to technical issues.

Some key takeaways:

Shalkar Nurseitov: “In Kazakhstan, we have three zhuzes: Ender Zhuz, Middle Zhuz, and Junior Zhuz. There is no consensus among historians on their history, but there are some theories. [...] There are stereotypes. For example, it is believed that the representatives of the Elder zhuz should lead the country and occupy main political positions. There’s a stereotype that members of Junior Zhuz tend to be more aggressive and protest all the time. In the past 30 years, most of political protests actually took place in western Kazakhstan, which is occupied by the tribes of Junior Zhuz.”

“Tribalism plays a great role in politics and business but in daily life people are not concerned about kinship division. They consider this question when they get married because it’s very important to marry someone who doesn’t belong to your tribe. Most of the people in Kazakhstan can recite seven generations. But for the most [part], especially those living in cities, kinship division is not important in daily life. Because of capitalism, new social rules, social media, or news consumption, people are getting, in my view, less concerned about tribalism.”

Listen to the full conversation here:

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Read more on the subject from RFE/RL:

A Powerful Kyrgyz Clan’s Political Play

Nepotism And Dynasty In Central Asian Politics

Nonstop Nepotism: Uzbek President's Son-In-Law Named MMA Chief In Latest Sign Of Creeping Family Control

Its Media Muzzled, Tajikistan Prepares To Extend Ruling Family's Grip On Power

Is A Battle For Power Raging Within Kazakhstan's Government?

Follow @RFERL on Twitter so as not to miss our regular conversations on life and social change in Central Asia every Thursday at 3 p.m. in Prague/9 a.m. in Washington (7 p.m. local time in Bishkek/Almaty/Astana, and 6 p.m. local time in Tashkent/Dushanbe/Ashgabat).

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    Bermet Talant

    Bermet Talant is a journalist from Kyrgyzstan who is currently based in Sydney. She previously worked as a political reporter for the Kyiv Post and completed a Reuters Institute fellowship at Oxford University. She has also written for The Guardian, the Lowy Institute, Eurasianet, openDemocracy, and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.