Thursday, September 5, 2019

Longstanding Tribal Divisions in Kyrgyzstan Threaten that Country and Its Ties with Moscow, Knyazev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 2 Political conflicts in Central Asia increasingly run along tribal lines and are in many cases undermining the ability of the states there to function. (See, and

            But for both geographic and historical reasons, these conflicts and their outcomes have potentially serious consequences not only for the domestic situation in these countries but also for the future relationship of them with outside actors in general and the Russian Federation in particular.

            On the one hand, these tribal groups typically are concentrated in particular regions, thus making any tribal conflict a regional conflict as well. And on the other, each of them has historical experiences and memories which dispose them toward some foreign actors and against others.

            In none of the five is this danger greater than in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asian specialist Aleksandr Knyazev argues in an article entitled  “The Kokand Khanate is Coming Back to Life in Kyrgyzstan” about the ways in which divisions of more than a century ag are coming back to haunt Moscow (

            He points out that media coverage notwithstanding, the real conflicts in Kyrgyzstan are nt between particular individuals but rather between the clans or tribes they represent. When the balance among these clans is disturbed as has been increasingly the case since 1991, there is a great danger to the state and to its relations with Russia.

            Most observers recognize that “the underlying domestic Kyrgyz conflicts are between the northern and southern regions of that country, Knyazev says. But fewer understand that this division is not just geographic but tribal and historical – and that it is in the first instance about the relationship of the Kyrgyz to Russia. 

            “If the northern Kyrgyz tribes joined the Russian Empire voluntarily, the southerners over the course of 150 years remained within the Kokand Khanate – and not simply remained: the elite of the southern Kyrgyz tribes was to a great degree integrated with the Kokand one and occupied important positions in the military sphere.”

            When Russia occupied the entire region, the southern Kyrgyz remained “one of the bastions of anti-Russian resistance,” while the northern ones served as the basis of support for the Russian position. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, the south became the site of the anti-Soviet Basmachi movement among the Kyrgyz.   

            The tsarist authorities recognized this division well and divided the Kyrgyz lands administratively, including the northern tribes in the Semirechye Kray centered in Verny (the resent-day Alma-Ata) while leaving the southern ones in the Turkestan general governorship which in 1886 became the Turkestan Kray.

            That arrangement, Knyazev says, “completely corresponded to the economic geography of the time, one that in large measure has been preserved until now,” given that even now there is but a single road connecting the north and south.   That Kyrgyzstan is in its current borders is the result of Soviet ethno-national engineering. 

            After the defeat of the Basmachi, the Soviets were able to hold this reginal and tribal division in check by a combination of force and the careful balancing of appointments and it remained “in latent form.” But it revived after 1991 and especially after the country’s first president Askar Akayev was overthrown in 2005.

            Since then, each transition has been the result of this north-south conflict, one that involves a struggle for total control over limited resources and is thus increasingly violent, given that each shift leads those who are the temporary winners to try to take everything under their control as fast and completely as possible. 

            That in turn has produced an increasing degradation of both the political system and the social-economic situation of the population, with the winners using resources from the shadow economy including drug trade to try to increase their wealth and strengthen their political position.

            These factors, more than personal antipathy, shape the current struggle between northerner Almazbek Atambayev and southerner Srnbay Zheenbekov. Many Kyrgyz support the latter but “not according to the principle that ‘we are for Zheenbekov’ but rather because ‘we are against Atambayev.’”

            Fr the time being, Zheenbekov and the southerners have the upper hand and will turn against Moscow, but his is no final victory and the struggle will continue, not s much because of the efforts of outsiders but because of the tribal history of the Kyrgyz of two centuries ag, Knyazev concludes.

No comments:

Post a Comment