Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Sub-National Groups in Post-Soviet States Ever More Important and Radicalized, Kyrgyz Scholars Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – In Soviet times, Russian and Western scholars routinely talked about the competition among supra-national identities like the Soviet people, ethnic national identities supported by the authorities, and sub-national identities like tribes and clans that were supposed to fade away.

            With the end of supra-national identities like the Soviet people and the rise of national identities, most attention shifted to the latter, with ever less being given to sub-national groupings except for clans in parts of the North Caucasus and Central Asia and regions there and elsewhere.

            But as two political scientists from Kyrgyzstan point out, sub-national groupings have in fact become stronger and even more radicalized given the ways in which the post-Soviet states have developed; and they thus constitute obstacles to the further development of these countries unless steps are taken to contain them.

In a paper presented to a Bishkek congress at the end of November that has now been published, Azizbek Dzhusunbekov and Aygul Ilebayeva of the Institute of Philosophy and Political-Legal Research of the Kyrgyzstan Academy of Sciences focus on the situation in their country but extrapolate their findings to the post-Soviet region (

Many expected sub-national groups to continue to decline in importance given the rise of national identities and the impact of globalization, but the trend has been in exactly the opposite direction, they say, both because of what has happened in these societies since 1991 and because of how the leaders of these countries have behaved.

“The marginalization of major cities, the sharp growth of the share of the Kygyz population … and the catastrophic fall of living standards have given rise to affiliated mechanisms of the re-animation of traditional society and the archaic development of social ties and made possible the renaissance of sub-ethnoses and sub-ethnic relations in the form of clannic and ethno-regional identities, values and traditions.”

Over the last two decades, “the activation of ethnicity has been realized not only in the inter-relationships among various ethnoses but also among various structural parts of ethnic formations, the sub-ethnoses. Clear manifestations of the radicalization of intra-ethnic interrelations were the sub-ethnic conflicts in Tajikistan in the 1990s and in Ukraine now.”

The consolidation of the Kyrgyz ethno-nation was not complete “at the start of the transition from the administrative-command system to a democratic society with a market economy” and that allowed for “the rapid enlivening of intra-ethnic structures in the form of family and clannic formations and ethno-regional communities.”

In Kyrgyzstan, they write, “the radicalization of sub-ethnic relations led to major sub-ethnic conflicts in March 2005 and April 2010.” They threatened the territorial integrity of the state, but they must become the basis for a new set of power-sharing arrangements if the country is to develop.

There are various ways to classify the sub-ethnic groups, some by residence, others by territory or culture, and still others by the way in which they have evolved with the shifting ethnic balance in the country and among elites which makes the Kyrgyz-Russian divide less important and divisions with the Kyrgyz nation more significant.

The growth in the importance of sub-ethnic relations has reached such a point, the two scholars say, that across the post-Soviet world, “subethnic groups can influence the formation of mechanisms of state administration” given that leaders often choose people they know without regard to expertise or a balance among such groups, thus giving rise to conflicts.

In some, this takes the form of regionalism; in others, clans and tribes, and among peoples who were formerly nomadic or semi-nomadic in Central Asia, the North Caucasus, the Middle Volga and Southern Siberia, it assumes the form of tribalism or family clan-based sub-ethnic communities.

On the basis of their research on Kyrgyzstan, the two scholars suggest seven reasons why the sub-ethnic formations have become more important: regional inequality, competition for resources, clans as the basis of choosing elites, backwardness in some regions, destruction of pre-existing arrangements, absence of leaders who understand the threat, low level of willingness to compromise with one another, and the lack or weakness of a national ideology.

At present, they continue, “stability in Kyrgyz society depends not only on inter-ethnic but also sub-ethnic relations and on cooperation of ethno-territorial elites who are the defenders and promoters of the interests of the subethnos groups and enjoy a certain authority in them.”  And to that end, they suggest three steps Bishkek should take.

First, they say, there must be formed an ethno-political elite which expresses pan-Kiyrgyz interests and no simply the views of one sub-ethnic or family clan group.  Second, all sub-ethnic groups must have “real” representation in government structures. And third, there needs to be a presidential council in which their leaders are represented.

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