Traditional Institutions in Modern Kazakhstan

Anuar Galiev

Copyright (c) 1998 by the Slavic Research Center . All rights reserved.

Independent Kazakhstan has a lot of problems. One of the most important tasks is the creation of a legal civic state and transition to democracy. Kazakhstan will use the world experience for the achievement of these aims. At the same time, the traditional institutions still play a role in various spheres of the state and society. These institutions existed in the past, and they were necessary for the normal function of society, but now they have started to revive and are seeking to play a big role in the state. If this aim is realized, Kazakhstan's advancement will be difficult and it may regress to the state of affairs of 100 years ago. (The experience of Japan may be useful for us. For example, the abolishment of the traditional institutions promoted to the development of Japan.) *1
But we may suppose, that some institutions have a chance of helping Kazakhstan's successful advance.
This problem has not been sufficiently researched in the Kazakhstan's historiography.
The aim of this report is to study the roles of the traditional institutions in the state and society during the process of the establishment of a democratic society in Kazakhstan.
The main tasks of our report are as follows:
a) to define the most important traditional institutions;
b) to determine their nature;
c) to follow how they try to influence the current process;
d) to see what impact their existence will have on modern Kazakhstan.
It has been proposed that this issue concerns almost all post-communist countries, since some traditional institutions influence the current process in different ways.
We can divide Kazakhstan's traditional institutions into 3 main groups:
  1. those concerned with the power structure;
  2. those concerned with the make-up of society;
  3. the Cossacks.

1. Traditional institutions and power

1.1. Khan's power
In the Khanate of Kazakhs all the power was concentrated in the khan's hands. The khan was a symbol of the Centre of the Society and Cosmos, he guaranteed the stability in the State and Nature.
In the post-Mongolian steppe states there existed a tradition, according to which the khan was elected from Chingiz-khan's descendants (Chingizids).
Chingizids were not included in the Kazakh juzes - hordes as some other groups of Kazakhs were (Hodzhas, Tulenguts, Sunaks, etc.).
The Russian administration abolished the khan's power and the institute of khans in Kazakhstan in the nineteenth century. But before this action the Kazakh khans were reduced to the level of the Tsar's bureaucrats. Now, Kazakhstan is the only country, in the world where Chingiz-khan's direct descendants, the tore now live (nearly 300 people). The revival of this institution is connected with the Kazakh juzes (hordes) and the problem of tribalism. The unofficial leaders from juzes are pretendes to the khan's throne. Many of the pretenders are not Chingizids. The elections of the khans took place in some districts of Kazakhstan, and they were carried out in accordance with ancient tradition. (The last time, elections took place was during the First World War, when the kazakhs revolted against the Tsar's administration. In 1916 9 khans were elected in the Turgai district alone.)
The revival of this institution may see an end to democracy in our Republic, if the unofficial khans take power. Moreover, this institution, and the three juzes' khans could cleave the territory of Kazakhstan into three Juzes-States.

1.2. Council of Elders (aksakals)
The old men's (aksakals') councils are reviving in practically all areas of Kazakhstan. As a rule, these councils exist as unofficial akimats' (district or city administrations), departments. The role which is played by Council of Elders in Kazakhstan is in contrast with that in Turkmenistan where the corresponding organization is de jure a fourth branch of government. In Chechnia (North Caucasus) the leaders of taips (tribes) are included in the government.
All Councils of Elders in Kazakhstan have representatives from all of Kazakhstan's nationalities. The Council of Elders carries out the function of a consultant of the administration. They have a certain degree of authority and they mediated the interethnic conflicts in Novyi Uzen and Issyk.

1.3. Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan
The official documents of Kazakhstan (the Constitution etc.) declared the existence of "the People of Kazakhstan", which is made up of the various nationalities (peoples) of Kazakhstan. In order to achieve this aim, national culture centres were created.
This nongovernmmental Assembly was founded in 1995. The Assembly includes the leaders of the national culture centres of Kazakhstan. The nature of this institution is like a Council of Elders in ancient times, but the main function of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan is to guarantee and provide the peace and stability in the interethnic relation.
Though the Assembly is a nongovernmental organization, the President of Kazakhstan used it as Parliament. For example, the Assembly passed recommendations about prolonging the President's power and about passing the new Constitution.

1.4. Court of bii
This institution existed in the Kazakh's khanate. The Courts of bii used in their practice the traditional customary laws (adat) and the laws of Islam. The famous Kazakh khan Tauke and three biis from three juzes passed the Law - "Dzhety Dzhargy". Chingiz-khan's "Iassy" was the source of this Law. "Dzhety Dzhargy" regulated all spheres of life in Kazakh society and in the Khanate. The Russian administration adapted this institution in ruling Kazakhstan.
The Soviet government abolished the Court of bii. Now, the institution of bii exists in many areas of Kazakhstan. As well as the Council of Elders, the Court of bii is not the official institute, but it deals with many juridical matters.

2. Traditional institutions and Society

2.1.1. Traditional Society of Kazakhs
Kazakh society consists of tribes. Each tribe uses a genealogy with real or legendary ancestors. As a rule, the tribes were divided to auls (nomad villages), and the inhabitants of the auls were related to each other. Each aul had a leader, - a bai (rich and authoritative man). The Soviet Government destroyed the traditional society of Kazakhs, and the bais were repressed.
In all of the former Soviet Republics there is a phenomenon newly affluent for calling people "new Russians", "new Uzbeks", etc. The "new Kazakhs" revived traditional social relations in the villages. They execute the functions of bais, giving jobs and salaries to relatives. *2

2.1.2. Institution of slaves
The Institution of slaves was connected with traditional structure of Kazakh society and had a feature of patriarchal servitude. The Russian administration liberated the slaves of the Kazakhs in 1859. But this institution existed in some districts of Kazakhstan in the nineteenth century. In the Soviet period the Koreans of Kazakhstan used the labour of slaves and half-slaves. Now, the institution has been revived unofficially. As a rule, the slaves work as shepherds in the farms.
2.2. Juzes-Hordes
Kazakh people are divided into three juzes. The origin of the juzes is a difficult problem for historians. Here are some of the opinions on this problem:
a) Iu. A. Zuev considers that juzes are connected with a hunting-army system: "left flank - centre - right flank"; *3
b) the Majority of Kazakhstani historians consider that the origin of juzes was connected with geographical factors. They suppose the territory of Kazakhstan is divided into three geographical zones, and this circumstance caused the origin of three juzes; *4
c) "Functional theory".
This theory is connected with J. Dumezil's theory of the Indo-European "three functional Society".
Now, some scholars use the "functional theory" to explain the internal political processes in Kazakhstan. But they consider the functions of the juzes are not an ideal image of Society, it reflects Kazakh reality. Indeed, we see that in modern Kazakhstan the ideal model coincides with reality: the Ulu Juz rules in the country and the Middle Juz is the intellectual elite. *5
This point of view equates the Kazakh juzes to the Indo-European model of Society. For example, such a society that existed in India.
But we must say, the real division of juzes functions in Kazakhstan was established comparatively recently in the periods of Russian Empire and the USSR. The division of function was a result of a real process.
In the period when Kazakhstan was included in Russian Empire, the Kazakhs of Middle Juz had more contact with European people. They studied in the Russian-Kazakh schools and after finishing them they worked as translaters, managers, etc. As a consequence, the Kazakhs of the Middle juz composed the intellectual elite (I. Altynsarin, Abai Kunanbaev, M. Auezov, leaders of Alash, etc.).
The Soviet government passed the political course to diminish intertribal connections. There was collectivization, sedentarization, migration of peoples of the USSR in Kazakhstan. In 1960-1965 the territory of Kazakhstan was divided into three areas. The borders of these new districts coincided with the borders of juz territories. The hegemony of Middle Juz was interrupted in the 1960s. It happened because L. I. Brezhnev became General Secretary of the CPSU, and he appointed his friend D. A. Kunaev to be the head of the republic. Kunaev belonged to Senior Juz. The position of the Middle Juz was weakened because his brother became President of Kazakhstan's Science Academy.
As the Indoeuropean functions of the juzes were coupled with turkic-mongol tribal organizations, the problem of juzes for Kazakhstan becomes the problem of tribalism. It is shown in the strengthening of various juz positions in various spheres of activity and by their attaining power.
Now, the Middle Juz clans are attempting to reestablish their positions. K. Sagadiev, representative of this juz, was elected as President of the National Academy of Science. But the government of the republic reduced the significance of the Academy. It was included in the Ministry for Science and New Technology. A neutral figure, V. Shkolnik, was appointed President of this organization.
Kazakhstan's economical difficulties assist in the revival and the growth of tribalism. These difficulties affect the Kazakh population more seriously than other parts of citizens as the 65 % of Kazakhs live in villages. Admittedly, the countrymen are adherents of customs and traditions. *6
Also, we must say that representatives of the Senior Juz are more adherent to the tradition of tribalism than the Middle or Junior Juzes, because the South is traditionally an agrarian part of Kazakhstan. *7 When the Kazakh youth migrates from the villages (aul) they encounter an environment of hostility, because the Kazakhstan's cities are made up of non-Kazakh populations (with the exception of cities in the South). The Kazakh youth consequently searches for the support and revives the tribal relations.
The tribalism in the political life of Kazakhstan has the following manifestations:
- Tribal relations have a negative influence on the society and political life of state. As this factor have a strong influence in politics it may result in unforeseen consequences;
- Tribal and juz interests are reflected in the government's political course, and this lowers the state's effectiveness to govern;
- The strengthening of some juz positions may result in a split of the national elite;
- Tribalism strengthens the influence of the regional lobby on governmental policy;
- Administration system functions in agreement with the interests of the juzes;
- Tribalism influences personnel policy.
Kazakhstan may be divided into three parts as a result of tribalism. Such circumstance as frequent celebration of ancient and modern heroes' jubilees promotes realization of this prognosis. Jubilees are intended for strengthening of all Kazakh's selfconsciousness, but in reality they strengthen ambition of unformal leaders of juzes. When in 1995 Kazakhstan celebrated the jubilee of Abai and after that in 1996 the jubilee of Dzhambul Dzhabaev, a lot of people perceived it as an unofficial competition among Middle and Senior Juzes. And it is true because the Kazakh's jubilee is a variantion of rites of feast, whose purpose is establishing social relations. *8
1997 is the year of the great Kazakh writer Mukhtar Auezov. His son and author of conception of jubilee understands this nature of feast and he refused elements of competition as baiga, the building of monuments, etc. *9
Besides this, there are phenomenons that have ancient traditions such as the elections of khans on the Kurultai; the formation of the army on a tribal basis (now in Kazakhstan this is possible thanks to freedom to buy different weapons). In the army there exists the traditional institution of "old soldiers" (dedovshchina), but it has tribal features.
Some political scientists consider that the transfer of capital has the main aim of directing the stream of migrants from the Southern villages, where there are a lot of jobless, to the North. This action will result in: 1. increasing the Kazakh population in the North; 2. increasing the territory of Senior Juz; 3. diminishing the influence and authority of the Middle Juz in its own district. *10
In 1996 a regular re-arrangement of staff in Government took place, and the press wrote about the Kazakhstani President's return to a traditional eastern tribal structure for the formation of the ruling elite. *11
Besides, some political scientists talk about the President's policy of "chemolganizatsiia". (The president of Kazakhstan was born in the South of Kazakhstan.)
Kazakh tribalism in the modern multiethnic Kazakhstan is not only a Kazakh's phenomenon. Representatives of many nationalities have many kinds of relations with Kazakh people (kinship, friendship, etc.) and they are included in the Kazakh clans (in the period of Russian Empire there existed the institution of "tamyr" - "Friendship-Brotherhood").
For the first time this group ("fourth juz") declared about own rights in the December events in 1986 in Alma-Ata. Political scientist A. Kurtov consider that Russian population (russkoiazychnye) works in the factories and now has a lot of problems because the industry of Kazakhstan has been destroyed. This is why Russians have no sympathy with the elite of the Senior Juz, as it dreams of controlling industry of North and East Kazakhstan and for this purpose it is destroying the economy of region.
The Kazakh juzes had a long period of development, and from the ideal model of society they have been transformed into a negative factor for an independent Kazakhstan.
To overcome this factor there are a lot of ways. One of them is the creation of pan-national. *12

3. The institution of Cossacks

After the collapse of the USSR the problem of Cossacks has become very real. The Confederation of Mountain People of the Caucasus held a conference in October 1992 in Groznyi. Among the problems that were discussed in the Conference was a question - are Cossacks a people or they are military-feudal estate? It was a practical question, as Cossaks have a desire to join the Confederation as a people of the Caucasus. The question about the nature of the Cossacks is not a rhetorical problem, because the Russian Cossacks have fought in Abhazia, Pridnestrovie, and former Yugoslavia. In Kazakhstan there was an incident between Kazakhs and Cossacks in Uralsk (1993), and in Almaty (1994, November).
The Cossacks are an unstable factor in Kazakhstan, but historically they are connected with Kazakhs. The documents tell us that many Kazakhs were included in the Cossacks. The Cossacks borrowed a lot of elements from Kazakh culture - words, songs, fairy-tails, myths. Cossacks as well as Kazakhs connected with traditional institution of Kazaks (kazakovanie). *13
Kazaks as the institution exist long time in the Eurasian steppes.
The Kazakh's genealogical myth say the Kazakhs originated from three hundred warriors (dzhigits). They left their motherland and settled in the steppe. Such action was practised in ancient times, and was connected with passing from one age group to another (rites of ordaining or initiation). During the passing of this rite, the youth were divided into groups - hundries. *14
For example, we see the institution of hundry in ancient Greece (Sparta).
One element of initiation is leaving the society. Usually, in the Turkic steppes the people that go away from state, society are called Kazaks (fugitive, tramp, free man, etc.). Later, this name was used for men, who had different reasons for leaving their own group.
There was "society from Kazaks"... One of them was a community of Abulkhair-khan's nomads. They revolted against Abulkhair-khan, and left him to seek happiness in another place with Girei and Dzhanibek, descendants of Urus-khan. *15
They were divided in three "hundreds" ( juzes) and named Kazaks (Kazakhs) , with the agreement of tradition. Also, in the fifteenth century, the Ukrainian peasants leaving from Polish feudalists, borrowed from Turkic people, the name "Kazak" (Cossacks) and a lot of terms of this institution (ataman, koshevoi, kuren, etc.).
Later they were broken up, and changed from opposing the Tsars' regime to defending it. The government increased the army of Cossacks on the border of Empire for annexation of new lands. For instance, on 10 April 1789, a whole people, the Bashkirs, were registered as Cossacks. Also, practically, all Kalmuks were Cossacks.
When the Russians annexed the lands in the East and South, the Ossetians, Buriats, Iakuts were added to the Cossacks.
So, Russian Cossacks have a difference in origin. The Ossetians are an East Iranian people, the Kalmuks and Buriats are Mongolian, and the Bashkirs are Turkic. Ethnic factors do not allow us to regard the Cossacks as one people or as part of Russia. We have no reason to interpret the Cossacks as a pure Russian phenomenon, because at the same time there exists Ukrainian Cossacks. Besides, Ukrainian Cossacks are the enemies of Russia.
The Cossacks are not homogenous in religion: Kalmuks are adherents of Buddhism, Buriats are lamaists and some of the Ossetians and Bashkirs are Muslims.
The Cossacks have different cultures. For example, Russian Cossacks of Bashkortostan wore military forms, but Bashkirs had a national dress. (Absurdly, but now the Cossacks declare military dress as their national clothes.)
The word "Kalmuk" and "Kalmukian" in Ossetian is used as symbol of unknown things, but Ossetians and Kalmuks are both Cossacks.
The Cossacks of Russia do not have united aim. If the aim of the Bashkirian Cossacks (Iaugirs) is independence for Bashkortostan, the aim of Tabyn's Cossacks of Bashkiria is "united and indivisible Russia".
So, the one common feature of the different groups of Russian Cossacks is their military function.
The Tsar's administration transformed the Russian Cossacks as an institution into a military-feudal estate. The institution of Cossacks disappeared as a traditional one. The Soviet government abolished the Cossacks as an estate after the October Revolution.
The law of Russian Federation "On rehabilitation of the repressed peoples" (26 April, 1991) was an impetus for the rebirth of the Cossacks. Later the Russian Government passed some laws about Cossacks.
All these actions promoted the revival of the Cossack movement in Kazakhstan. Before the October revolution four Cossack armies (Siberian, Uralian, Orenburgian, Semirechian) existed in Kazakhstan.
The Cossacks of Kazakhstan declare that they are a people or a part of Russians. Their main aim is to annul the independence of Kazakhstan, with the revival of a Cossack army, to be incorporated into Russian Federation. As we have above examined, all these demands have no basis because the Cossacks are not a people but a military estate. This circumstance does not give them the right to pretend to national autonomy. Besides, a lot of Cossacks of Kazakhstan are descendants of Kazakhs. The Russian law for Ruling of Siberian Kazakhs prescribed that Kazakhs who adopted Orthodox Religion should be registered as Cossacks. In some Cossack villages (stanitsa) about half the population were Orthodox Kazakhs.
Ch. Valikhanov, Sh. Nuralikhanov, A. Bukeikhanov and some famous Kazakhs were Cossack Officers.
The Cossacks of Kazakhstan borrowed many elements of the Kazakh culture. Ch. Valikhanov, Iadrintsev, P. P. Semenov-Tian-Shanskii, G. N. Potanin, P. A. Chikhachev have wrote that a lot of Cossacks understood the Kazakh language better than Russian.
As the different Cossack units of Kazakhstan were included into Cossack territorial formations of Russia from the very beginning of their revival, they began to be subordinated to the law of another state, i.e. Russia.
For example, in the Kostanai district, four Cossack villages were rebuilt (Kostanaiskaia, Zatobolskaia, Elizavetinskaia and Novopokrovskaia), and they formed Kostanai Iurt. This formation was included in the Troitsk section of the Orenburg Cossack army. The inhabitants of these villages are citizens of the Russian Federation. Russian citizenship is one of the main conditions for joining the army. *16
Now, the Cossacks of Semirechie are divided into two parts. If one of them has a radical position, the other part tries to have a dialogue and achieve a compromise with the Government. They signed a document about "peace", work out plan of economic rebirth of Cossacks. But at the same time, the Cossacks of Semirechie have a problem with ethnic identification, on one hand they named themselves not a people but a brotherhood. On the other hand as a people they try to enter the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan. *17
But in Kazakhstan, in comparison with Russia, the Cossacks are considered not as ethnos (people), but as a military estate living by the laws of another state, so conflicts arose between the State and the Cossacks.
First of all it is connected with the will of Cossacks to renew some important sides of this institute including such as military society and the defence of borders. The transference of military functions to the Cossacks who consider themselves citizens of Russia is hardly possible, because it is an action which threatens security and independence of Kazakhstan.
The Government of Russian Federation is trying to form armed groups of Cossacks in the South of the country, and this attempt could provoke an increase of the Cossack movement in Kazakhstan and Kirgizia.
In any case, each document of the Russian Government about Cossack problem causes debate and trouble in our Republic. Recently in Russia, there was an experiment in the defence of borders by Cossacks. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan was troubled by the experiment and declared its feelings to Russia.*18
The above mentioned facts lead us to conclude, that all the traditional institutions, which are a heritage of the past, are playing a different role in the life of modern Kazakhstan. All of them want to fulfill certain functions in the state or are fulfilling these functions in fact.
As a rule, those institutions which are not actually connected with the fulfilment of function to which they are pretending are reactionary ones, but their potential is rather huge. Some political scientists consider that some of these institutions have a place in the future of Kazakhstan (Council of Elders etc.).*19


  1. Interview with Professor Hakamada, Program "Mir". 15 May, 1997.
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  5. Trofimov D. Tsentralnaia Aziia: problemy etnokonfessionalnogo razvitiia. Moskva, 1994.
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  9. Medetov S. Murat Auezov: "Ia ne iskal vstrechi s Prezidentom" // Delovaia nedelia. 14 March, 1997.
  10. Masanov N. Kazakhskaia politicheskaia..., p. 46.
  11. Delovaia nedelia. 27 September, 1996.
  12. Nukezhanov Zh. // Zhas Alash. 19 April, 1997.
  13. Galiev A. Kazakhi i Kazaki // Rossiia i Vostok. Vol. III. Cheliabinsk, 1995, pp. 147-149.
  14. Etnosotsialnaia osnova Tiurgeshskogo kaganata // Margulanovskie chteniia. Alma-Ata, 1989, p. 2.
  15. Kliashtornyi S. G., Sultanov T. Kazakhstan: Letopis trekh tysiacheletii. Almaty - Mockow, p. 19.
  16. Petel A. Na granitse kazaki khodiat khmuro // Karavan. 25 April, 1997.
  17. Kazakhskoe TV. 5 May, 1997.
  18. PANORAMA. 18 April, 1997.
  19. Skvortsov V. V. Razdelenie vlastei: Teoriia i praktika politicheskoi zhizni Kazakhstana. Alma-Ata, 1995, p. 68.