Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Kazakh Neopatrimonial Regime: Balancing Uncertainties among the "Family," Oligarchs and Technocrats

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Kazakh Neopatrimonial Regime: Balancing Uncertainties among the "Family," Oligarchs and Technocrats

Article excerpt

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the academic literature devoted to the Central Asian political regimes, both in Western and locally-produced works, took the "clan" factor as one of its dominant interpretive prisms.1 It assumed that the existence of regional or clan identities impacted political life. This assumption, which had long been present in Soviet academic literature, emerged in the region's media with the great corruption scandals of the Brezhnev years at the beginning of the 1980s, and was heatedly debated in the Soviet press at the onset of perestroika. Western researchers undertaking fieldwork in the 1990s reproduced this prism and contributed indirectly to validating it-the implicit idea was that so-called traditional or archaic elements were halting the birth of modern civic identities and classical political parties based on a shared ideology.

In the case of Kazakhstan, analysts argued that the three hordes, or juz, which had historically constituted a supple system of tribal confederations assembled on the basis of a territorial principle,2 determined the nature of the country's political life. During the Soviet period, the Great Horde, based in the Almaty region, was assumed to have largely controlled the apparatus of the Communist Party; the Small Horde, whose territory was situated in the west of the country, reportedly had symbolic control over the country's main oil wealth; whereas the Middle Horde, the most Russified, was well represented in intellectual circles and the administrative apparatus.3 In the post-Soviet period, phenomena such as the high turn-over of Kazakh senior officials and President Nursultan Nazarbayev's strategies for nominating cadres were interpreted as being the peak of the clan iceberg, indirectly revealing the precarious and continually renegotiated balance between the hordes.4 If these solidarity strategies, which are far more pertinent in rural than urban milieus, and were deeply transformed by the Soviet decades, may have some social influence, in particular on marriage strategies and traditional exchanges of services, their role as drivers of political life has never be convincingly demonstrated.

In the 2000s, new works in political science set out to revamp the analysis of post-Soviet political transformations.5 The notion of "patronal presidentialism," applied not only to Putin's Russia but also to the Central Asian regimes, makes it possible to avoid the cultural pitfall linked to the supposed clan feature of the region.6 The notion of neopatrimonialism, often used for the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, is also relevant. Definitions of neopatrimonial regimes differ depending upon whether they emphasize political elements (patronage, paternalism, arbitrariness, weakness of institutions, and misuse of public office) or economic ones (endemic corruption, the kleptocracy of the established elite, management of national wealth as private property),7 and whether they analyze the highest circles of the state (the presidents and their intimates), or more local mechanisms of the state apparatus. In this article, I work with the broad definition of neopatrimonial practices as blurring the boundaries between the political and the economic, the public and the private, the individual and the collective.8

The regime established since Kazakhstan's independence is intrinsically linked with strategies of economic development and is often presented as an archetype of the rentier state.9 The recentralization of oil and gas wealth; conflicts around the ownership of the mining sector and the banking industry; and success or failure in increasing living standards as promised by the president to his fellow citizens are key topics the Kazakh authorities use to assert their political legitimacy.10 Thanks to its economic success, the Kazakh regime has indeed managed to delegitimize its democratic liberal opposition and has established a paternalist state with weak institutions in which justice is not independent and the figure of the president-in power since 1989 and decreed by the parliament as "leader of the nation" in 201011-dominates public life. …

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