Political Tribalism In Kazakhstan: The Secret Of Polichinelle – Analysis


The de facto confrontation between Russia and the US and Europe has an increasing tendency to extend its activities to the Caspian Basin where the westernmost region of Kazakhstan is situated. From the point of view of those two parties’ interests, there is an ambivalent situation in this part of the Central Asian country. Kazakhstan’s largest oilfields have been and still are being developed mainly by US and other Western companies. They have to export petroleum hydrocarbons extracted there by pipelines through the territory of the Russian Federation. By and large, both sides seem not be entirely satisfied with this kind of division of the spheres of their interests.

The West has long sought to set up the Trans-Caspian Oil Transport System purposed to bring hydrocarbons directly from Caspian fields to European markets. The idea of the project is to deliver Kazakh oil exports through a Trans-Caspian underwater pipeline to the Sangachal terminal with an annual capacity of 20 000 000 tons located 40 km south from Baku where it would connect with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and the Baku-Supsa Pipeline to the Black Sea coast. However, the Trans-Caspian Oil Transport System still remains to be no more than merely a paper exercise as Russia and Iran do not cease doing their best to prevent the undersea pipeline from being constructed, citing environmental issues and arguing that the construction of some offshore infrastructure needs the consensus of all five littoral countries.

As to Russia, its being not completely satisfied with the above situation has its own explanations. Moscow, being mindful about how much effort and money it had invested back in Soviet times in creating and consolidating  the foundations for the West Kazakhstan fuel and energy complex which was believed to eventually replace the West Siberian oil and gas complex,  and currently seeing itself as the principal external guarantor of peace and stability in this Central Asian country, would hardly be quite content with the existing system for the distribution of wealth being generated by the exploitation of resources in that Kazakh region. Within its prior relationship with the West in the Kazakhstani context, the Kremlin had no good reason to seek change in those established practices. The reasons of above-mentioned kind seem to have already appeared on the horizon. 

It is ridiculous to think that if the United States undertakes to ‘curb Moscow’s clout in its highly dependent and oil-rich neighbor’, the latter would be confined to a mere verbal response and would not begin, in turn, to implement measures to create problems for Western energy corporations working in Kazakhstan that may become intractable. Companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil may have serious problems even before Washington would do something in the above context. That can happen to them merely due to developments in the Ukraine. The following forecast from Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, made in an interview she had with the Democracy Now in January, gives a pretty clear idea about what they might be: “if Putin has a political and economic say in Kazakhstan, then it would be infinitely difficult for them [US oil companies, like Chevron and ExxonMobil] to function and sort of not take Russia into account”

The troubled days of January’s unrest in Kazakhstan were left behind. But now there is a war in Ukraine. And in its background, the relations between Russia and the West have worsened even further than they were during and immediately after the January events of 2022 across the Central Asian country. So, it is very important now for each of these forces to undermine the influence of its opponent in Kazakhstan and draw this nation’s political orientation over to his side. In very simple terms, with regard to Nur-Sultan they now do not have and are apparently not supposed to have a more urgent task in relation to each other than that one. 

Even as of now the current Kazakh leadership has apparently been courted both in the West and Moscow, since it remains to be seen who would tip the scales in his own favor. You can tell it by the way in which some of the major American newspapers wrote about the reforms and the constitutional changes heralded by the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, as a ‘New Kazakhstan’. One of the articles on this topic claims that ‘Kazakhstan takes a step toward democracy’, and ‘the country’s referendum [on constitutional reform] bucks the global authoritarian renaissance and deserves Western support’, whereas Kazakh observers interviewed by a correspondent of Radio Azattyk, the Kazakh service of the Radio Liberty (which is a United States government funded organization), describe that referendum as ‘a voting procedure aimed at asserting Tokayev’s authoritarian rule’ and see  those constitutional changes as a kind of ‘a Potemkin village myth’. As for Moscow, of course it will be fine with autocracy in Kazakhstan as long as the latter doesn’t get too pro-Western.

It would appear, things are quiet for the moment. But it looks like the type of silence that comes before a storm since the main problem now is that an ever-growing clash between Russian and Western interests in the Kazakhstani context is threatening to make (if not already making) the situation in the republic increasingly vulnerable to social and political instability. There seems to be no chance to find a basis for consensus between Russia and the West in this part of post-Soviet area.

Therefore, they may now resort to such measures in Kazakhstan, which earlier have, on several occasions, been indicated, but not used by either Russians or their Western vis-a-vis in a sustained manner. In trying to comprehend what will happen further in the context of growing Russian-Western rivalry over Kazakhstan, it is obviously necessary for the observers to understand what is the means by which one or another external force could radically split Kazakh public and political opinion and, at the same time, discredit the country’s ruling power as an impartial central authority. It would appear that there’s no big problem. 

In the Russian media, such a technique in the performance of the Western agents has been presented as follows: Ukraine has been declared ‘an integral part of Europe and its civilization’, whereas Kazakhstan, a very important part of the “Great Turan” being formed by Turkey. Accordingly, the proponents of the Russian world and/or post-Soviet Eurasianism apparently should be or are presumed to be opponents of the European and the Pan-Turanian ideas in these two post-Soviet republics. Actually, that’s not quite as simple as it sounds – in the Kazakhstani case, at least. It is true that there are enough proponents of the ‘Russian world’ and/or ‘post-Soviet Eurasianism’ in Kazakhstan, just as well as in Ukraine. Whereas those who, in the words of EADaily, ‘have great faith in the idea of the ‘Great Turan’ given to the Kazakh society by the British through Turks’, are very few on Kazakhstani soil, in contrast to the fans of the ‘European’ idea in Ukraine. And we must assume that those in Russia and in the West who determine their governments’ policies concerning Kazakhstan are well aware of this. On that basis, it could be construed that they may consider using something completely different as a tool for radically splitting public opinion in the Central Asian country – should such need arise. The question then is what exactly might that be?

The answer to this lies, as it seems to us, in unraveling the issues surrounding the following two paradoxical topics: 1. Why have Russian and Turkish experts during the days of the January events and immediately after them started saying that ‘it turns out that for the last hundred years Kazakhstan has been ruled by the Senior, or Southern, zhuz, and this is not something everybody in the republic comfortable with’, and that ‘the Kazakh oligarchy is connected with tribal unions’, in particular ‘with the Senior zhuz?’; 2. Why didn’t the West impose any sanctions on Kazakhstan after the Bloody January of 2022, as well as following the December events of 2011? Let’s consider them.

We’ll begin with the first one. Here, before proceeding to consider the topic it is necessary to do some digression. The specificity of the norms in the Central Asian political tradition that goes back thousands of years to the nomadic past, is such that for at least a thousand years, the rulers have come to power and kept it (at first, in any case) relying primarily on their tribes. 

This was the case in the 10th century, when the Kayi tribe, an Oghuz Turkic people and a sub-branch of the Bozok tribal federation, established the Ghaznavid empire, which came to encompass Afghanistan, Iran, and the Punjab. That also was the case in the 11th century, when the  representatives of the Qynyq tribe, a branch of Oghuz Turks, founded the Seljuk Empire, which, at the time of its greatest extent, controlled a vast area, stretching from western Anatolia and the Levant in the west to the Hindu Kush in the east, and from Central Asia in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. In the central Asian region, the political tradition of taking and maintaining power through reliance on a certain tribal group remained current through to the second half of the 19th century in the Kokand Khanate (founded by the dynasty of the Ming tribe) and to the beginning of the 20th century in the Emirate of Bukhara (which was ruled by the dynasty of the Mangit tribe) and in the Khiva Khanate (which was under the rule of the dynasty of the Konyrat tribe). 

 With the advent of Soviet power that kind of practice was interrupted. But the new generation of strongmen sort of resumed it in Central Asia following the collapse of the USSR. In the post-Soviet period, there have been seemingly no particular obstacles to resumption of the Central Asian political tradition of getting and maintaining power through reliance on a certain tribal group, as the time gap proved to be very short by historical standards. Anyway, there is a strong impression that it has already made a new start in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. If to pay attention to the results presumably related to its revival in these three republics, the following can be seen. 

Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan entered a period of state independence being under the rule of the leaders of the respective republican communist parties nominated and approved by the Kremlin. Under the changed political and social conditions, those heads of the local communist party organizations became presidents. And the clans, of which they are representatives, have invariably held power in these two Central Asian states all these years. The first of these has been and is being headed by the elites of the Teke tribe, the latter by those of the Senior (Southern) zhuz. 

In Kyrgyzstan, there was a dual power shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union represented by the first democratically elected president, Askar Akayev, and the last two leaders of the Republican Communist Party, Absamat Masaliyev and Dzhumgalbek Amanbayev, nominated and approved by the Kremlin. And, this is perhaps why Kyrgyzstan hadn’t a situation, in which a certain clan group could have secured its monopoly on power. Be that as it may, in that Central Asian country, unlike in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, there is no clear predominance of one traditional group community over all others. This is why it can be believed that the rivalry for the control of power in Kyrgyzstan can be quite fierce and intense at times. Whereas in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the ruling clan groups have so strongly rallied their forces and strengthened their own leading positions in the state administration system during the post-Soviet period that there now is almost no possibility of challenging them. 

And the interesting thing is that there is a striking difference between the domestic and international levels of public awareness of the issues of tribalism in the social and state life of Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, on the one hand, and in that of Kazakhstan, on the other. Both Turkmen and Kyrgyz, and foreign authors have spoken and written a lot about the political tribalism’s being fundamental to internal political process in the first two republics. You can find many not only journalistic articles, but also quite serious research papers on these topics written by local and foreign (Russian or Western) authors. The topic of political tribalism in Kazakhstan is quite another matter. 

It seems that this kind of is not an acute problem for the system of government in the Republic of Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan itself, it is mostly described as an anachronism, as a phenomenon that has lost its practical significance or is even alien to the nature of the Kazakh people. Even in those cases where individual authors start serious conversations on that topic, they don’t go over from general reasoning to the case studies. 

In Russia and the West, such a topic is normally covered extremely rarely and mainly on the basis of a vague idea of what is happening there (in Kazakhstan) in this context. That’s weird. But what’s weirder – to say the least – is that in those days, when Nur-Sultan found itself in a situation of short-term uncertainty due to the January events, the media outlets in Russia and Turkey (this country is usually described in the Russian press as ‘an extension of the global interests of NATO and the corporations behind it’) started talking in unison about political tribalism in Kazakhstan. And in doing so, their relevant authors displayed – to our surprise – very good knowledge of the matter, while highlighting ‘the sorest point spots’ of the above practice and  pitting some groups of Kazakhs against others. So here are some examples: 1. “Kazakhstan is being ruled mainly by representatives of the Senior zhuz, half of the elite bosses are people” from among its representatives, “including both Nazarbayev and the incumbent President, Tokayev”. 2. “Naimans who have little confidence in the Senior Zhuz”. 3. “The country is commanded by the Senior Zhuz, whereas the people of the Junior zhuz are working,” and “their leaders believe that this is unfair, because oil and gas are on their traditional land, while people from Alma-Ata are in command”. 4. “The peculiarity of” the oligarchy in Kazakhstan “lies in the fact that it is connected with tribal unions”. 5. “The study of zhuzes raises a logical question: why are only the “Southerners” in power?”.

 Actually, the clue to the above oddities, as you might guess, lies on the surface. In the West and, especially, in Russia, there is actually quite sufficient awareness of the practice of political tribalism in Kazakhstan. But in both cases, the relevant topic is normally being considered superficially or simply relegated to second place. And the said foreign media are used to start paying great attention to that issue and discuss it in a comprehensive way, with the involvement of a wide range of experts, in cases where the Kazakh authorities appear to be, so to speak, in a situation of uncertainty. As soon as official Nur-Sultan manages to re-establish relations based on confidence with the key external actors, that topic ceases to be relevant.

 Now let’s talk about the second of the above topics. So, why didn’t the West impose any sanctions on Kazakhstan after the Bloody January of 2022, as well as following the December events of 2011? After the similar 2005 Andijan uprising, the European Union and the US Congress indeed imposed sanctions against Uzbekistan. It’s about two similar events. As a result, sanctions were imposed on Uzbekistan, but not on Kazakhstan. How such a selective approach could be explained? The answer to that question lies on the surface, too. The Kazakh ruling clan or the elites of the Senior (Southern) zhuz have for decades acted as a guarantor of the inviolability of the terms of contracts with the Western multinational corporations for the development of the largest hydrocarbon deposits in Kazakhstan. Oil and gas business is too serious a matter to be left to random people.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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