As Kyrgyzstan constructs a modern national identity, a social institution long considered to be a vestige of the past – lineage identity – continues to exert significant influence over the process. This fact needs to be recognized and addressed.
Lineage affiliations have gained new relevance in Kyrgyz society in the post-Soviet era. Most ethnic Kyrgyz people can trace their lineage to one of 40 lineage groupings, each with a common geographic origin and unique history and genealogy. Some have now chosen to affirm these ties by creating informal lineage associations that exert behind-the-scenes influence over daily life, as well as in national politics.
The fact that lineage identities survived the Soviet period is testament to their deep historic roots. For much of the 20th century, Soviet authorities sought to wipe out kinship networks in Kyrgyzstan, considering them backward and a hindrance to progress. This effort failed in part because kinship politics quickly permeated the Soviet apparatus, in party organizations and on collective farms.
Independence in 1991 left Kyrgyzstan with a weak state and fractured national institutions – an environment that allowed kinship associations to reemerge and gain influence. These days they not only promote local culture and traditions, but also function as mutual aid societies, providing jobs and financial support to more disadvantaged members of the kinship association. A few such associations have gained a high degree of organization and visibility, holding their own mass meetings and sporting events. Some even operate wings for youth and women, and even operate informal consulates.
Most importantly, lineage-based organizations hold significant power to mobilize voters, control patronage, and organize protests. In essence, they can function as lobby groups, or even rudimentary political parties that reach deep into local and regional institutions.
One such association is Sarybagysh, representing a lineage which has for generations supplied Kyrgyzstan’s political and cultural leaders. The association’s informal gathering, or kurultai, in the summer of 2014 attracted 450 delegates, among them public figures, entrepreneurs, MPs, historians, and lineage elders.
Although the meeting had an ostensibly apolitical focus – emphasizing cultural dialogue and youth outreach – the association holds considerable political sway. Its leader is Keneshbek Duyshebaev, a former head the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB. Given the wide-open presidential race that is shaping up, lineage-based associations could be a factor in determining the outcome of the presidential election this fall.
Despite wielding considerable influence, kinship associations largely operate in the political shadows. The country’s law on public associations restricts such groups from engaging in open political activity.
That kinship maneuverings are kept out of the public eye is connected with the complicated process of forming a post-Soviet national identity, in which kinship politics was designated as “tribalist” and shameful – an argument advanced by anthropologist David Gullette in his 2010 book on the topic. My own interviews confirm that members of the older generation in Kyrgyzstan strongly disapprove of lineage networks, even though they themselves often rely on them on a daily basis.
At the same time, kinship associations 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. Many other policymakers and experts vehemently oppose any reference to “medieval” lineage or kin.
It is clear that lineage associations are more than a historical relic. Today, kin loyalty functions as a kind of political constraint of the last resort, ensuring that no single leader can amass excessive power. Yet politicizing lineage by bringing it out into the open could well increase the risk of heightening ethnic and social tensions.
Since lineage associations seem certain to stay relevant either way, political stability might be best served by keeping them in their current informal role, at the intersection between modernity and traditionalism.
Aksana Ismailbekova is lead researcher for Kyrgyzstan in the project “Informal Governance and Corruption –Transcending the Principal Agent and Collective Action Paradigms”, funded by the British Academy (BA) – DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme (ACE) and led by the Basel Institute on Governance (2016-2017).