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The Junior Zhuz In Kazakhstan: A Story Of Dropping From The Uppermost Level To The Lowest One – Analysis

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Speaking at the July 14 enlarged government session, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made a few statements that seem to be paradoxical. According to him, the Mangystau province, on the one hand, is one of the three provinces with the highest salaries in Kazakhstan; on the other, the incomes of its people are lower than the national average. Well, let’s assume that there are no contradictions between those two statements. But then it is impossible not to question: how is it that a large proportion of the people remain poor in the province having one of the highest average monthly wages in Kazakhstan?! 

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And here’s one more thing. Also at that meeting, Mr. Tokayev said: “Due to an inappropriate migration policy, a grave situation is now in the making here [in the Mangystau province]. While there was an increase in the population, social infrastructure was not expanded [to match that growth]. Job openings were not in progress. The quality of life declined… The government adopted a special plan for the development of Zhanaozen [an oil town in the Mangystau province]. It allocates a great deal of money from the republican budget and reduces taxes. Such direct support measures are carried out at the expense of other regions of the country”

In connection with the above, two questions immediately arise, the answers to which must be obvious to the Kazakh president, albeit his words under consideration create a quite different impression.

First, why not settle Kazakh repatriates [from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan] not only in the Mangystau province and Western Kazakhstan, but also – as Mr. Tokayev has suggested – in other provinces including those being part of other regions? Well, that’s fine in theory. Yet Kazakh repatriates who have their roots in the Mangystau province and Western Kazakhstan, have preferred and are preferring, for the most part, to opt for their historical homeland, where social and environmental conditions are often worse than in, say, Northern and Southern Kazakhstan. This is perhaps to be explained due to concerns, that in other regions of the country, they may be treated by the local population as ‘kirmeler’ (‘non-natives’) over many generations. Besides, it might be assumed, that the pattern for the treatment of Alshyns [West Kazaks] by the other two zhuzes, mentioned (about this in further detail later) by Nurbolat Masanov and one of the members of the Kazakh government back in the decade before last, already permeates the entire Kazakh society, and people feel it. Yet Mr. Tokayev instructed the Kazakh government to consider ways of resettling Kazakh repatriates, who are planning to leave Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for Western Kazakhstan, in other regions of the country. And this instruction is already being implemented. A video has just recently been made available online where ethnic Kazakhs from Turkmenistan complain bitterly that they are denied their right to be registered in the Mangystau province. Kazakh officials tell them they can go to North or East Kazakhstan, but not to West Kazakhstan. In the video, its author tells the viewers that all of them [ethnic Kazakhs leaving Turkmenistan] object as one to this. According to her, they insist on their choice to settle in the Mangystau province. Nobody from among Kazakh officials seems to be going to meet them on their terms.   

Second, what is all this talk about ‘such direct support measures’ aimed at helping Zhanaozen [an oil town in the Mangystau province] and ‘carried out at the expense of other regions of the country’, whereas the Mangystau province has been and still is contributing – as one of only two donor-provinces in Kazakhstan – to all the other regions which rely on subsidies from the republican government? How can the two things be put together? Speaking at the extended meeting of the Kazakhstani government on February 8 this year, President Tokayev said: “The situation, in which 82 percent of the provinces are being subsidized, is not normal”. It is difficult to disagree with these words. At that time, only 18 per cent of the provinces were the donors in Kazakhstan. These were the provinces of Atyrau and Mangystau, the cities of Nur-Sultan and Almaty. 82 per cent of the provinces were in need of help from the national budget.  In February, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev assessed this situation as abnormal. On March 16, addressing the Central Asian nation’s parliament, the Kazakh President said he wanted to recreate three provinces that were merged with other regions in the 1990s, which effectively means increasing the share of the provinces in need of help from the national budget at least to 90 percent. But that’s not all! Speaking at the July 14 enlarged government session, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev once again said that… all but four [the provinces of Atyrau and Mangystau, the cities of Nur-Sultan and Almaty] provinces have become dependent on subventions from the national government. Only one thing was left untold this time. And that’s that between February and July 2022, the number of provinces in need of subsidies has been by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s efforts increased from 13 to 16. Which mean the increased expectations of official Nur-Sultan in connection with the economic potential of Western Kazakhstan, a region with rich oil and gas resources that is known as the main area of interest in Kazakhstan for Western multinationals. Meanwhile, the people living there are sometimes seen by the Russian media as representatives of the ‘poverty-stricken West’ (the Junior zhuz). Of course, the ruling regime that came to power in Kazakhstan in the late 1980s has contributed and still is contributing significantly to the formation of such a vision.

However shortly before that, at once three representatives of the Baiuly, which has been (according to the census of 1897, they accounted for 16.2 percent of Kazakhs in the Russian Empire) and remains the largest among the Junior zhuz tribes in terms of numbers, became part of the Kazakhstani top leadership. The thing is that at the time the Baiuly elites were so powerful and influential that they, as being prominent representatives of the Junior zhuz, competed for supreme power over Kazakhstan with representatives of the Senior and Middle zhuzes. Not only that. They almost achieved, albeit for a short period of time, a predominant position in Alma-Ata, the then capital, with support from the centre of the (former) Soviet Union. Top Soviet officials in Moscow, who were thinking in terms completely different than those adopted by traditional Kazakh society, made such a decision which might seem somewhat unexpected, though quite understandable from the point of view of common sense: since Western Kazakhstan is becoming of paramount importance for the economy not only of Kazakh SSR (Soviet Socialist republic), but of the entire Soviet Union, the main stake at the republican level should be placed on leading cadres from there, above all because they are well versed in the specifics of this industry and the problems of their home region. When looking back now, one can only pay tribute to their insight. After all, the indigenous Kazakh population in the Atyrau and Mangystau provinces, which are now the largest oil-producing and the only two provinces-donars of Kazakhstan, almost entirely consists of Bayuly people. In the West Kazakhstan province, which is the third largest oil and gas producing province of the Central Asian country and where the Karachaganak field (one of the world’s largest gas and condensate fields which is being developed by the KPO consortium) is located, their share in the total number of local Kazakh population, according to a rough estimate, is not less than 80 per cent. As a result, it turns out that the bulk of the Kazakh wealth has been and is being produced in territories that are inhabited by the Baiuly tribe which was represented in the Kazakhstani top leadership positions at once by three people in 1987-1988. Yet in late 1980s, the growing loss of the previously very strong influence of sovereign Moscow on the then Alma-Ata resulted in the Baiuly representatives, who had been at the helm of the republic, being excluded from power. And the others of their kind subsequently were informally and practically barred from taking the Kazakhstani top leadership positions.

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Later on, when the Kazakh ruling regime faced with the necessity to maintain the illusion of normalcy in the context of inter-zhuz relations and to that end promote other representatives of the Junior zhuz to high positions in the civil service instead of the above-mentioned three persons and those who were said to have been their ‘people’, it began to rely mainly on those from smaller tribes of West Kazakhs considered not to be competitive in the power struggle. It’s about such people who, no matter how strong they were as politicians, did not a priori have the potential to form their own strong and numerous political teams (clans) from among their tribesmen and relatives. Later came the time of politicians and officials meant to replace the above-mentioned people as representatives of West Kazakhs in public administration. And each succeeding generation of them has been increasingly less influential and its representatives, increasingly less known to the general Kazakh public. This practice has been going on for more than 30 years, with no end in sight.

Lesser-knownness of such persons in public space has its own explanation, which is related to the Kazakh practice of political tribalism, too. In the Central Asian country, just like in many other post-Soviet nations, public opinion about the political developments and political figures, as well as officials of various ranks has been and is being formed mainly by the mainstream periodicals and television. There is a quite peculiar practice in this regard that has long been established in Kazakhstan. The largest Kazakhstani newspapers, financed by the State and business structures close to the regime, are invariably being headed by representatives of the Senior zhuz. This practice has also been going on for more than three decades now. That is the factual fact and the hardbound rule. And nobody is doing anything about it.

Likewise, the main state-controlled television channels are being headed by people from the Middle Zhuz (i.e. Eastern and Northern Kazakhstan) on a similarly permanent basis. Here, one is kind of seeing some once-for-all arrangement in action. Over the last 15 years, there does not appear to have been a single case of a Junior zhuz representative having been promoted to head some well-known republican-level media outlet. Well, here partly lies an explanation as to why now even West Kazakhs for the most are not quite well aware of who from those coming from Western Kazakhstan represent their region in various agencies of the central public administration in Nur-Sultan. Such an approach – namely the practice of popularizing one’s own ones and ignoring or discrediting those regarded as being others – has a long tradition. Immediately after the December 1986 events in Almaty, allegations were made that all this happened because of the high-ranking Kazakh officials originated from Western Kazakhstan. In more recent times, that informal conclusion in public opinion developed further. In 1996, the year of the 10th anniversary of  the Zheltoksan (December) uprising, Zakash Kamalidenov, a native of the Atyrau province, who had then been the secretary for ideological work of the Central Committee of the Kazakh Communist Party, was subjected to widespread criticism for his statements and actions allegedly said and taken in the wake of those events. Exactly ten years later, Birganym Aitimova, a native of the West Kazakhstan province, who had been the secretary at the Kazakh Komsomol (a political youth organization in the Soviet Union) Central Committee in the mid1980s, found herself in a similar situation.

It may be assumed that in a few years when the time comes to mark the 40th anniversary of those events, there probably will be found yet another native of Western Kazakhstan who would be accused of having done something wrong in the wake of the December uprising, when he was still a member of Young Pioneers (a mass youth organization of the Soviet Union for children and adolescents aged 9–14 that existed between 1922 and 1991), i.e. just a school child. Yet all this seems to be nothing compared to another similar practice. It’s about obsessively expressing or even disseminating – among to the domestic and foreign public and through the mouths of publicly known and highly respected figures – the following belief presented as a kind of ‘iron rule’: those from the Junior zhuz are forbidden to claim for the office of the President of Kazakhstan. It is not clear where that came from. But the most important thing is that nobody has ever bothered to deny it. This leads to the assumption that the Kazakh ruling elites are probably finding themselves quite content with that kind of thinking. Here’s what Nurbolat Masanov, a professor of history, in his work entitled ‘THE ROLE OF CLANS IN KAZAKHSTAN TODAY’, said in this regard: “To this day, clan [tribe] is an important (though not the only) prism for interpreting and classifying the social and political processes taking place in Kazakhstan. The clan [tribe] 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… The latter [the Junior zhuz members] 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”. Based on the above, he found that ‘officials from the Junior zhuz… are illegitimate in the eyes of society, for appointment to key government posts’.

Just for the record, this is about the representatives from Western Kazakhstan which is the backbone of the country’s economy and the basis of the well-being of its population. The most important thing in this for people having an interest in understanding specific aspects of contemporary social and political events in Kazakhstan is that those who invented and promoted this kind of ‘iron rule’, has managed to convince of its inviolability those very few members of the government of the Republic of Kazakhstan representing West Kazakhs. Hence, things are growing more ugly from the point of view of political ethics and internationally recognized human rights.

Here is an example of this from an article entitled ‘Clan war in the Kazakh Steppes’ and published by the French daily newspaper Le Figaro: “For all Kazakhs, political life is nothing more than the internal struggle of hordes [zhuzes] and clans [tribes]. ‘I can never be the President of the Republic [because] I belong to the Junior zhuz’, the young minister said confidentially” (François HAUTER ‘Guerre de clan dans les steppes kazakhes’, mardi 21 septembre 2004, page 4).

That is how things stand now. But a century ago, on the initial stages of Kazakh statehood establishing within the Soviet Russia after the breakdown of the Tsarist Empire, the Junior (Western) zhuz held the leading position among three separate groups of the Kazakh population. And they (West Kazakhs) had way before become seen to be so in the Russian empire. The governor-general of Ufa governorate Otto Heinrich Igelström, in his report written in 1785 and entitled ‘Brief information about the Kirghiz-Kaisaks’, said that Kazakhs ‘are divided into three parts, the Senior, Middle and Junior hordes, the latter being the most populous one among them’. This same horde (that is, the Junior zhuz), according to the Russian dignitary, ‘is the strongest of them’. Whereas the first mufti of the  Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly (a state-controlled religious administration in the Russian Empire established in 1788 by order of Russian Empress Catherine II that had jurisdiction over certain aspects of Islamic activity in Siberia, the Volga-Ural region, and parts of Central Asia, including the Kazakh steppe), Mukhamedzhan Khusainov, in his report on the number of Kazakhs, written and presented to Emperor Alexander I in 1805, came to the conclusion that the Junior zhuz had had a population of approximately 4,000,000 by the end of the 18th – beginning of the 19th century. According to his estimates, the number of people in the Middle and Senior zhuz, taken separately, was then significantly lower than in the Junior zhuz. Such quantitative estimates were also reflected in many other Russian documents compiled in the Tsarist period. On the very initial stage of Kazakh statehood establishing within the Soviet Russia, namely in 1918-1925, the Junior zhuz was in first place among the three Kazakh zhuzes by almost any measure. In that period, the idea about the population of the Junior zhuz being much more numerous than those of the Senior and Middle zhuzes, taken separately, continued to be accepted as an axiom. 

Thus, Mukhametzhan Tynyshpaev, who himself, by the way, belonged to the Naiman tribe, and hence to the Middle zhuz, in his work entitled ‘Materials relating to the history of the Kyrgyz-Kazakh people’ (‘Materially k istorii Kirghiz-Kazakskogo naroda’, Tashkent: Vostochnoe Otdelevie Kirghiskogo Gosydarstvennogo Izdatel’stva, 1925), presented the following estimate concerning the correlation between the number of the Junior zhuz population and that of the Senior and Middle zhuz populations taken together: “The Junior horde, which currently makes up about two-fifths of the entire Kyrgyz [Kazakh] population, consists only of Alshyns [West Kazakhs]”

The Junior zhuz also was ahead of the other two zhuzes by the number of people graduated from Russian universities and other educational institutions. In a word, Alshyns (West Kazakhs) had such people, who apparently were quite qualified for the mission of leading the country towards nationhood. They were the first to create what modern historians call an ‘analogue of statehood’ – the Uil velayat, which consisted of the volosts of the Lbishchensky, Ural, Guryev, Aktobe and Irghiz uyezds, inhabited by Kazakhs, and also included the Mangystau, Uil and Bukey uyezds. It had its own government of 9 members led by Zhakhansha Dosmukhamedov, a graduate of the Law School of Moscow University, its own armed militia, and lasted from April to September 1918.  The Uil velayat also managed to create his own armed forces and fought on the side of White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks. This fact suggests that initially the leaders of the Junior zhuz, whose territory was located closer to the Russian imperial and Soviet state center than the lands of the Middle and Senior zhuz, clearly were not claiming an exclusive leading role in building the Kazakh statehood, the creation of which was at that time expected, and then began. 

They, as the contemporary researchers believe, thought that ‘the region should be governed by its own laws, that is, it’s about the federal governance structure of the nation’. In other words, in their political constructions, the leaders of the Junior zhuz tended ‘to see the future state being founded on some kind of federal basis’

In 1920, the Kirghiz (Kazakh) Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established as part of the RSFSR (The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) with its capital in Orenburg, a city adjacent to the territories traditionally inhabited by Alshyns (West Kazakhs). Seytkali Mendeshev, a representative of the Junior zhuz, became the first chairman of the CEC (Central Executive Committee) of the Kazakh ASSR. He served in this post for five years, until 1925. At just that time, the capital was moved from Orenburg to Kyzylorda, and from there to Almaty, further to the south-east of the republic, in 1927. Thus, the headquaters of Kazakhstan’s central authorities had been gradually moving away from the western region of the country, whose population was the social basis of the Junior zhuz leaders. As time went by, their ability to apply for leading positions, and then for any significant administrative posts at the republican level apparently became steadily less and less effective. 

Efforts to reverse that situation took place in the mid1980s. However, trends towards changing the composition of leadership at the highest republican level were stopped following the Senior zhuz elites having regained the reins of power in Kazakhstan, and totally supressed after the country had become an independent state in 1991.   

Now, one hundred years after the Kazakh republic’s founding, the Junior zhuz is being considered the smallest and the least important of the three Kazakh zhuzes by all indicators, except the economic ones. According to the calculations of Kazakh demographers, West Kazakhs share in the Kazakh population of the republic now is 20 per cent – half of what had been in 1925. Even smaller and, accordingly, less significant seems to be the weight of those from Western Kazakhstan in the state administration, the public and political life and the economy of Kazakhstan. It turns out the entire history of the Junior zhuz for the last 100 years is a story of dropping from the uppermost level to the lowest one within the Kazakh society. And it is unlikely that its representatives have been and still are quite content with such a transformation.

The Alash party figures, who had been at the cradle of the creation of Kazakh statehood, and in particular, the then leaders of West Kazakhs, who weighed up the possibilities for founding it on a federal basis in order to ensure equal or fair representation of all three zhuzes in power sharing and decision-making, affecting their material and other interests, would hardly have been happy to see Kazakhstan in just that way. That is, in its current form, with its own specificities in which a widely-known Kazakh scientist-historian and political expert tells the whole world that the Junior zhuz members ‘are not, in the eyes of public opinion, legitimate contenders for power and cannot, therefore, play an independent role in political life’, and the Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan, in support of this allegation, declares to a Western journalist: ‘I can never be the President of the Republic [because] I belong to the Junior zhuz’. For the Alash party leaders were fully aware that opening the way to such distortions would sooner or later lead the state to a serious systemic crisis. 

But the present Kazakh leadership’s mind seems to be working quite differently. The general situation in Kazakhstan remains today what it, according to François Hauter, a French journalist, was back in the decade before last: “The Kazakh ethnic group imposes itself, but this is the war between the ‘hordes’ [‘zhuzes’] which compose it… The ‘Senior zhouz’ holds the rope” (Le Figaro, mardi 21 septembre 2004, page 4). Well, yes, there was a change in Kazakhstan’s leadership. But the ‘Senior zhouz’ still firmly ‘holds the rope’ and is not going to lose it to anyone else. The only change here is that the situation of Alshyns (West Kazakhs) during President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s tenure became worse than before, when Nursultan Nazarbayev had been in charge.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

One thought on “The Junior Zhuz In Kazakhstan: A Story Of Dropping From The Uppermost Level To The Lowest One – Analysis

  • July 23, 2022 at 8:56 pm
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    Kazakstan is a 1,000,000 square mile region with a Russian population. Russia will not ever allow Kazakastan out of its grip.

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