Staunton, Mar. 15 – Kazakhs have always been divided into three great tribal confederations known as zhus, with almost every ethnic Kazakh knowing whether he or she is a member of the Older, Lesser or Middle zhus and with major government jobs routinely handed out on the basis of those identities.
Many expected that with modernization, the role of the zhus in Kazakh society would lessen; but a curious thing has happened, according to Russian analyst Vladimir Prokhavtilov. These divisions have become more important as Kazakhs move toward being the overwhelming majority of the population of that country.
In the past, Kazakhs of whatever zhus would unite when they faced opposition from ethnic Russians who until the mid-1980s formed a plurality of the population but who now are on their way to being a small minority of less than 15 percent (fondsk.ru/news/2023/03/17/ob-imitacii-borby-s-trajbalizmom-v-kazahstane-58773.html).
Kazakhstan President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev is worried about this development because these divisions could easily be exploited by Russia or some other outside power to weaken Kazakhstan now that relying on the ethnic Russian minority is no longer as possible or as effective as it was in the past.
Speaking earlier this week, he told the country’s leaders that “recently it has become a trend to erect monuments to personalities known only in one region. Local commissions on onomastics should not allow this. The republic commission must prevent such illegal decisions” (akorda.kz/ru/glava-gosudarstva-provel-soveshchanie-s-akimami-i-rukovoditelyami-gosudarstvennyh-organov-1321138).
“If everyone erects monuments exclusively to their ancestors, tribalism and parochialism will reign in the country,” he said. “This issue requires close attention” because the three zhus are territorially situated and such memorialization is about this zhus identity more than anything else.
Over the last century, the republic’s Elder zhus has been the community from which the leaders of Kazakhstan have come, including Tokayev himself, his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev and longtime Kazakhstan party head Dinmukhamed Kunayev who was replaced by Gorbachev in December 1986 sparking riots in the streets.
The two other zhus have been the source of opposition to the central government not only in 1986 but most recently in January of last year; and Prokhvatilov is correct to point to the reason why this is the case: when other divisions recede in importance, this division will certainly increase.
What is worrisome is that the Moscow writer, no friend of the Kazakhs as such, is talking about something Kazakhs themselves usually prefer not to discuss openly especially with outsiders. That is because it may mean that some in the Russian capital are now calculating that they may be able to use the zhus divisions to weaken Kazakhstan as a whole.