Interviews | Politics | Central Asia

Aksana Ismailbekova on Patronage Politics in Kyrgyzstan

What lays beneath the surface of Kyrgyzstan’s dramatic political scene?

Catherine Putz
Aksana Ismailbekova on Patronage Politics in Kyrgyzstan

President Soornbay Jeenbekov and former President Almazbek Atmbayev stand side by side at the former’s inauguration in 2017.

Credit: Vyacheslav Oseledko/Pool Photo via AP

In August, Kyrgyz authorities detained former President Almazbek Atambayev. After a botched first raid, which resulted in one death, Atambayev was taken in on a second attempt and the list of charges began piling up. Political drama is not new in Kyrgyzstan, which had two popular revolutions — in 2005 and 2010 — overthrow sitting presidents. Once again, apparent political instability pushed Kyrgyzstan into international headlines for a moment but nuance is needed to understand what happened and what happens next.

What lays beneath the surface of such a sometimes suddenly tumultuous political scene? To help us understand the dynamics of Kyrgyz politics, the role of patronage and kinship, as well as existing ethnic and regional divides, The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz spoke to Aksana Ismailbekova, affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany and author of Blood Ties and the Native Son: Poetics of Patronage in Kyrgyzstan

Can you explain the role patronage and kinship play in Kyrgyz politics broadly?

Most ethnic Kyrgyz can trace their lineage to one of 40 lineage groupings, each with a common geographic origin and unique history and genealogy. During Soviet times these lineages were prohibited and strictly controlled by the state. In the post-Soviet context, kinship systems have flourished and function in part due to nation-building projects, and partially because of democratization. The introduction of new electoral processes under the umbrella of democracy, for example, greatly contributed to the strengthening of kinship networks. As political institutions were weak, kinship formed an important aspect of mobilizing voters and gathering political support.

Lineage affiliations have gained new relevance in Kyrgyz society in the post-Soviet era. Some have now chosen to affirm these affiliations and kin ties by creating informal patronage networks that exert behind-the-scenes influence over daily life, as well as in national politics. The main initiators and sponsors of such associations are influential politicians, party leaders, opposition leaders, and businessmen. Associations are vehicles that people who have a vested interest in the governing of the country can use to garner support. 

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In a patrilineal society like Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyz man’s identification is relational, meaning that he cannot be identified as Kyrgyz without being linked to other male relatives such as fathers, grandfathers, and other forefathers. These are patrilineal descent groups. More specifically, the Kyrgyz view their lineage identity or ancestral belonging as a given or natural part of identity, thus it cannot be changed, removed, or left out of any matter. In other words, it flows in the blood and it is given for granted. 

In the modern context, kinship now provides not only the base for an individual’s identity but also a pathway for political loyalties. 

There is contention between, and cynicism toward, the existence of associations bases on lineages in Kyrgyzstan. Although these groups promote accountability of the state and represent the preservation of Kyrgyz values and ancestry, their implicit influence upon the establishment of people into positions of power and the embeddedness of “shame” and “honor” dictating behavior is also viewed as a backward institution trying to achieve its own aims.

Most importantly, these kind of kinship-based patronage networks hold significant power to mobilize voters, control patronage, and organize protests. In essence, they function as lobby groups, or even rudimentary political parties that reach deep into local and regional institutions. At the same time, there is the emergence of new lineage associations, which are increasingly striving for greater recognition in Kyrgyz politics and society. Some advocate for a formal constitutional role, including the creation of a special governmental assembly to represent them. Despite wielding considerable influence, lineage associations largely operate in the political shadows. The country’s law on public associations restricts such groups from engaging in open political activity. Therefore lineage associations function as a kind of constraint and control mechanism on the political sphere, ensuring that no single leader is able to gain sufficient enough power to become a dictator, and at the time containing local corruption to a certain degree.

Do you see the machinations of that patronage systems in the current drama, which hit a peak recently with the arrest of former President Almazbek Atambayev?

In order to better understand the situation with former President Atambayev, it is important to understand the internal dynamics of the political system in Kyrgyzstan. Despite a significant change in the formal political system – from a presidential to a parliamentary system – the logic of informal governance, with its rules and practices, remains in place and is widely applied behind the façade of the formal governmental framework. The motivations of informal governance are rooted in efforts to protect resources and power, and it is used as the basis to decide on access to or exclusion from the benefits of distribution. Usually, a politician recruits a group of loyal people into their network; once this is established, the leader finds ways to control them by managing clashes as well as enforcing discipline. Finally, camouflage is significant — the manner in which informal transactions take place behind an institutional façade of democracy and commitment to the rule of law.

To put it differently, every president, upon their appointment, immediately starts the process of government restructuring aimed at strengthening the power of a small group of people. This co-optation overwhelmingly revolved around close kinship ties and regional identity during the Akayev, Bakiyev, and Jeenbekov eras. Under Atambayev, however, it was mostly close friends, party members, advisers, and even drivers — still a close and closed circle of individuals but less easily defined. All the Kyrgyz presidents used top-down or direct control by demonstratively punishing, removing individuals from their posts and selectively arresting opponents. 

However, these systems of informal governance have not entirely contributed to long term political stability in Kyrgyzstan. In fact, what we see is that the corruption excesses of the Kyrgyz political elites have twice led to social uprisings – the Tulip Revolution in 2005 and the second revolution in 2010 – that have overthrown the government. However, in both cases, the incoming political elites reverted to practices similar to those of the regimes they helped to topple. 

During Atambayev’s regime, by relying on their informal personal networks, political leaders secured votes in the parliament and acquired enough assets to facilitate a good lifestyle. This resulted in enormous powers that allowed the political leaders to evade formal rules, while at the same time protect their own interests and those of their followers. Consequently, “loyalists” made great efforts to protect their position and power since they too had a shared interest in maintaining the status quo. In turn, the current president, Soornbay Jeenbekov, has sought to establish his this informal governance based on his own kinship network, with all the same aspects of control, co-optation, and camouflage. 

There are various divisions in Kyrgyz society that analysts occasionally cite as points of friction — north/south, ethnic Kyrgyz/Uzbek, and perhaps increasingly urban/rural. How important are these to understanding the flows of Kyrgyz politics?

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The two first presidents (Akayev and Bakiyev) played the regional card as an identity marker for cultivating loyalists and creating an “imagined enemy” — “the southerners” or “the northerners.” Thus, network building on the basis of kinship and regionalism was used as a tool for political purposes, since the idea of kinship solidarity was still fundamental in the minds of the people. They highlighted the lack of regional politicians in the parliament and government, the unfair way in which one side treated the other, and how connections to the provincial political arena were strengthened by promising jobs and rent seeking opportunities in exchange for support. This “us versus them” conceptualization was significant as a way of challenging the distribution of resources and power structures as well as enforcing the legitimacy of new elites.

Whereas kinship and regional origin would appear to be fixed, the Kyrgyz experience demonstrates otherwise. Seemingly inflexible categories have been manipulated as needed for the purposes of inclusion into and exclusion from ruling networks. Genealogy and informality were complementary to one another; as a result, genealogy was itself susceptible to practices of informalization. In contemporary Kyrgyz society, informal networks are organized along kinship and family lines, and they are key in order to access resources, for career advancement, and for dealing with bureaucratic red tape. During elections, all presidents wanted to maximize the number of kin they could rally for support, but when it came to the distribution of power and lucrative resources they wanted to limit the beneficiaries to a very close circle. In this way, the kinship network changes size based on context. Informal governance in Kyrgyzstan is complex, flexible, dynamic, multifactorial, and not reducible to a simple matter of genealogical descent.

Atambayev followed a different pattern by balancing south and north through appointments and going beyond regional divisions and kinship to incorporate individuals personally close to him (such as his friends, party members, advisers, and even drivers) to positions of influence. This was his way of legitimizing his power in contrast to the previous presidents who had, as noted above, played regional cards most strongly.

In all cases, however, the practices of co-optation of allies and their excesses in exploiting public authority and resources led to social upheaval. In some cases, these challenges were managed with informal control tactics, but in others led to the use of state violence. Twice public frustration led to the overthrow of the government, illustrating the failure of these informal kinship or personal-based systems to develop a stable system of national governance.

Atambayev relied heavily on practices of horizontal control in which the elite enforces discipline within the elite. Jeenbekov has relied more heavily on conformity and peer pressure to ensure discipline. In the case of kinship-based co-optation, the control issue becomes an interesting aspect. Belonging to the family locks members into it, but also enables them in an immense way. Therefore, establishing a kinship link enables leaders to maintain “undisputed control.” Loyalists are usually related by genealogical ties or shared ancestors. They are aware of their obligation to support relatives, because the kinship system is linked to the honor and shame of a Kyrgyz man and his personal identity is relational, as mentioned above. The social costs of not being loyal to your own kin are very significant. Thus, being part of a kin group is like an endowment that the family members of presidents inherit but that also constrain them with the possibilities it opens up.

The ethnic issue in particular is a heated topic in Kyrgyzstan. Governments tend to downplay it; outsiders often highlight it. In your research in Osh in 2011-2014 what was your sense of this ethnic tension? How did Uzbek communities in Kyrgyzstan’s south view the then-recent violence?

I would say that the ethnic issue is not only a heated topic but also a very sensitive and taboo one. My own research reveals how Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan have found creative ways of protecting their livelihoods, keeping their everyday concerns a very low-profile, and work to not escalate the situation further. 

One way to think about ethnic tensions is by looking at the boundary between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and how ethnicity plays into the crossing of that boundary.

For example, locals in southern Kyrgyzstan have their own socioeconomic symbiosis and cultural negotiations. An Uzbek may pay a small bribe to a policeman for a slight traffic violation. My Uzbek informants largely viewed this bribe as a “fine,” but also as additional income for a poorly paid policeman. Since salaries are very low in Kyrgyzstan, additional income outside of an official salary would be useful for the needs of family members — most understand this circumstance and pay the small bribes where needed, both ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. In a way, it’s an unstated form of inter-ethnic solidarity — everyone pays.

But things get much more complicated when some Kyrgyz state authorities intentionally use their positions to exploit the labor of Uzbeks, for example construction workers, for free, or refuse to pay for services provided, and regularly focus on the stereotype of Uzbeks as rich merchants. Even though some Kyrgyz may violate traffic rules, the police might close their eyes. In this account, the boundary of acceptability and unacceptability emerges and tension arise. Despite such occasional cases, people are usually calm and wise enough to find ways to ignore injustice and discrimination. In such situations, many Uzbeks talk to the leaders of the community (ming boshy) and elders of the community (aksakal). They regulate the situation by telling everyone to be tolerant and ignore possible ethnic aspects, instead stressing that such problems are matters of individual personality not ethnicity. 

I don’t claim that all the Kyrgyz state authorities are like those that I described above, but there a few such authorities that nevertheless undermine the prestige of all state authorities in southern Kyrgyzstan with such actions and make the state evil in the eyes of an international audience in this regard. The current Kyrgyz government has been reluctant to raise ethnic issues. I would urge them to raise these issues and punish those who discriminate. This would shed positive light on the state authorities as well as address a real concern. If these issues, even if they are only occasional occurrences, are left unaddressed, new patterns of anger and misunderstanding might emerge. Confronting such issues openly could be even considered as a preventive action from the state.  

In researching for your book Blood Ties and the Native Son: Poetics of Patronage in Kyrgyzstan did you discover anything that surprised you?

The main message that I would like to highlight is that kinship politics is not all that puzzling, inherently irrationa,l or archaic. It is not surprising at the moment that kinship-based groups can challenge or support the state; they can destabilize it or provide stability. So it has both sides. In Kyrgyzstan we see both the dynamics of stability — the building of a democracy — at the same time we see violent revolution and other features of instability. These things co-exist. Despite criticism and rejection of kinship politics, lineage affiliations are fundamental to political alliances in Kyrgyzstan. Kinship is strong because of its powerful cultural construction, its existence as a basis for sociopolitical identity. The Kyrgyz view their lineage identity or ancestral belonging as a given or natural part of identity. In a patrilineal society, exclusion of any kind from such lineages equates with an existential threat to being a man, of not being identified as Kyrgyz any more, and being marginalized from the extended networks of kinsmen.

Another interesting factor is that some analysts keep underestimating the role of kinship, despite its clear impact on Kyrgyzstan’s political situation. Instead of pretending that this facet does not exist, imagine openly recognizing and addressing, even accommodating politically, the functional role of kinship networks in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps it is time to turn away from rejection and put to positive use such lineage ties.