Staunton, February 22 – Kazakhstan has “an Achilles’ heel,” the continuing vitality of the three tribal unions – the Elder, the Middle and the Younger -- into which Kazakhs are divided, Vladislav Maltsev says, and especially the role of the impoverished “younger” one which has been excluded from power, turned to Islamism and periodically engaged in violence.
Its center, he says, has long been in the oblasts in the western part of the country, and at various points, whenever the central authorities have shown any weakness, the Russian analyst says, there have been violent explosions that recall “not only the Wild West but also the North Caucasus” (ukraina.ru/exclusive/20200217/1026719515.html).
Maltsev says that the Kazakhs readily acknowledge these divisions and their importance even if they are typically ignored by others. There is a Kazakh saying that “One should give the Elder Zhus the crook and let him herd cattle, give the Middle Zhus a pen and led it resolve disputes, and give the younger Zhus the spear and sent it to fight enemies.”
He usefully traces the history of the Middle Zhus in western Kazakhstan over the last 30 years and argues that its distinctive mentality “has been preserved to the present,” even if the overwhelming use of the Kazakhstan state’s police power has typically been able to keep the situation under control.
According to the commentator, the distinctive qualities of the Middle Zhus have been intensified in recent decades because “under Nazarbayev, it was excluded form power” and did not participate in the economic growth that lifted other parts of the country. As a result, social problems intensified this ethnic difference.
“The sense of national and social oppression by the Center as often happens provided the basis also for the religious differentiation of the western Kazakhstan oblasts,” Maltsev says. That process began in the last years of Soviet power, led to the violence there of 1990-1991, and accelerated until the clashes of 2011.
Many have assumed that the tight control Nazarbayev imposed has ended this problem. Instead, it has only driven it underground. And what has arisen in its place is “informal Islam,” something that resembles what is found among young Arabs living in France who are increasingly radicalized.
“It isn’t hard to imagine,” Maltsev says, “that in the case of a weakening of the central power” during the transition from Nazarbayev “and the fall in world prices for oil, control over the Western Kazakhstan oblasts will be weakened and local radicals … will have the chance if not to take power locally then at a minimum to take part in its redivision.”
In that event, he suggests, the ancient zhus system could prove to be a graver threat to the Kazakh state than any ethnic divisions between the titular nationality and the ethnic Russians.