Can centuries-old clan rivalry explain the crisis in Kazakhstan?

Tribal identities still affect the public and political life of the troubled Central Asian nation.

Unfair distribution of wealth, coupled with galloping inflation, the economic stagnation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and corruption have spurred protests in Western Kazakhstan.
Unfair distribution of wealth, coupled with galloping inflation, the economic stagnation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and corruption have spurred protests in Western Kazakhstan [File: Pavel Pavlov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Ancient Turks created a nomadic empire that stretched from Mongolia to Eastern Europe.

Thirteen hundred years ago, when Arabs were expanding their caliphate and Western Europe was mired in feudal squabbles, Turkic rulers left inscriptions that are often called “Turkic runes”.

The inscriptions mention several tribes that still exist in modern-day Kazakhstan.

Dozens of these tribes and hundreds of clans form Three Zhuzes (hordes), or confederations. Many Kazakhs remember the detailed genealogy of their forefathers, their clan’s battle cries and banners.

Having survived the Communist era, tribal identities still affect the public and political life of the arid Central Asian nation which is four times the size of Texas – albeit not a very visible one.

“Relations between different clans or tribes in is a side of Kazakh society that is not immediately visible to outsiders, even to those living and working in the country,” Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog, who lived in Kazakhstan for several years, told Al Jazeera.

Kazakhstan’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and many top government and security officials hail from the Major, or Elder Zhuz that dominates the most densely-populated southeastern regions.

But the cornerstone of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet wealth is the hydrocarbons drilled in the stomping ground of the Younger, or Minor Zhuz in the country’s west, next to the Caspian Sea, one of the biggest sources of untapped hydrocarbons on Earth.

What seems to many like an unfair distribution of wealth – coupled with galloping inflation, the economic stagnation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and corruption – spurred protests in western Kazakhstan.

Most of the protesters in the first, non-violent days of last week’s rallies, were blue-collar men who perceived their own financial straits as a consequence of clan inequality, when first President Nazarbayev’s Shaprashty clan controlled all walks of political and economic life.

“Kazakhs understood very well what they demanded – they wanted to abolish the Shaprashty clan power and an equal participation of all the Zhuzes and clans in the country’s social and financial life,” Moscow-based historian Andrey Zubov wrote.

Incumbent President Tokayev may have shared their dissatisfaction because he hailed from another clan within the Elder Zhuz – and was widely seen as a nominal figurehead installed by Nazarbayev whose kin and clan retained the real power, including the control of intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

“To be a nominal president who doesn’t control the treasury in a [Central] Asian, clan society is doubly humiliating,” said Ukraine-based analyst Aleksey Kushch, who spent his childhood in Mongolia and studied Central Asian politics for 20 years, told Al Jazeera.

By the middle of last week, protests spread to most Kazakh cities and turned violent in some of them.

Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital and largest city with more than two million residents, became the epicentre of unrest.

On January 4 and 5, police and military were barely visible, as hundreds of protesters seized arms, stormed government buildings, looted stores and burned cars.

President Tokayev said the protesters were trained “terrorists” who planned a “coup”.

“It is of utmost importance to understand why the government ‘snoozed’ the underground training of terrorist attacks by militant sleeping cells,” the bespectacled, grey-haired leader said in a national address on January 7.

His predecessor Nazarbayev was the top security official as head of the powerful Security Council, and his proteges dominated the KNB, the National Security Committee, the main intelligence agency.

Tokayev dismissed Nazarbayev and KNB head Karimov Masimov. Masimov was later detained on suspicion of “high treason”.

Analysts blamed the emergence of armed “protesters” on Nazarbayev’s proteges and nephews who decided to use the peaceful rallies to overthrow Tokayev.

One of these nephews is Samat Abish, KNB’s deputy head.

Some observers claimed he was also fired last week, but the KNB said he was still “fulfilling his duties”.

Abish’s brother is Kayrat Satyboldy, a powerful businessman who for years promoted an austere version of Islam, especially in southern Kazakhstan, the stronghold of the Elder Zhuz.

The brothers joined efforts by flooding Almaty with thousands of their supporters and arming them, observers claimed.

“What is obvious is that Nazarbayev left the scene … But his clan, his family’s law enforcement and business empire fiercely resist as they don’t want to lose their financial assets and power,” Moscow-based Central Asia expert Daniil Kislov told Al Jazeera.

Historian Zubov wrote: “Seeing that they have lost power, Nazarbayev’s nephews quickly mobilised the simple, illiterate folks in the south.”

Officials do not support their claim, but said they arrested Satybaldy’s right-hand man Arman Zhumadeldyev, known as “Wild Arman”.

“Wild Arman” was among the almost 10,000 people detained or arrested last week, as the death toll rose.

The death toll from last week’s protests is unclear, as reliable information is hard to verify in the tightly controlled former Soviet country. At least dozens were killed, including citizens and police, but officials have stepped back from their announced toll of 164 people – calling it an error.

On January 5, police and the military returned to the streets and squares of Almaty to clash with the protesters.INTERACTIVE- KAZAKHSTAN CSTO

At the time, Tokayev asked Kazakhstan’s former imperial master for help. He urged the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-dominated security bloc that unites Russia and five ex-Soviet states, to send troops.

Russia dispatched the 45th Guards Special Purpose brigade that had taken part in the two Chechen wars, the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and helped besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad win back most of his nation.

Other contingents included Armenians, Belarusians, Kyrgyz and Tajiks.

On Monday, Almaty seemed eerily calm.

Police patrol cars moved around in threes or fours next to burned-downed buildings, looted shops and city residents who snap photos on their mobile phones and have their IDs ready for checks.

Commenting on the possibility of purges in the halls of power, among Kazakh clans and in Nazarbayev’s family, an Almaty resident told Al Jazeera: “It all looks like the Game of Thrones.”

Source: Al Jazeera