Agashka (Kazakhstan)

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Agashka
Location: Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan map.png
Author: Natsuko Oka
Affiliation: Area Studies Centre, IDE-JETRO, Japan

Original text by Natsuko Oka, Area Studies Centre, IDE-JETRO, Japan

In Kazakhstan, an influential figure with strong personal connections enabling him to achieve objectives in informal ways. This term is formed from the word ‘aga’, the Russianised version of the Kazakh word ‘agha’, meaning an elder male relative such as an older brother or uncle, and the Russian diminutive suffix ‘-shka’. Agashka is in wide currency mostly among Russian-speaking Kazakhs in contemporary Kazakhstan, but not generally used in the Kazakh language. The term is typically associated with a wealthy Kazakh male of middle or old age. However, the most important characteristic of an agashka lies in his ability to use informal connections to circumvent official procedures and to provide favours for his closed circle of family, friends, and clients. Thus, the term agashka can be applied to any individual who functions as a patron by using personal contacts with those in official positions, irrespective of age or ethnic background. Its female version tateshka in most cases simply means an elder female relative or elder (middle- or old-aged) woman, but is also a woman with strong connections, or a spouse of an agashka. Agashka's closest synonym is perhaps the word krysha (‘roof’ or ‘cover’) in Russian.

A typical image of agashka and his client. ‘Cartoon representation of Agashka by Vladimir Kadyrbaev.’

Agashka, in the usage we observe today, came into common use in the 1990s. While the term is not recorded in dictionaries of the Russian or Kazakh languages, analysts and journalists in Kazakhstan have made some attempts to describe the phenomenon of agashka (sometimes suffixes are added to specify reference to the general phenomenon: agashkizm, agashizm, or agashestvo). While precise definitions of agashka somewhat vary among observers, there is agreement that it is an informal status. A typical agashka is a government official with a loyal following of subordinates (whom he helped to get employed), enjoying the use of a high-class official car for private purposes. However, the source of an agashka's influence is not based on his office per se but rather his personal relationships with those in power, from high-ranking officials in the central government to heads of local administration. Although most agashki hold or have held an official position in the state or an organisation connected to it, their ability to exert influence does not necessarily correspond to the level or sphere of the official post.

The term is a pejorative word and reflects the widespread view of the prevalence of nepotism and clientelism, as well as a critical or self-mocking attitude toward the Kazakhs themselves. A popular saying, ‘Bez agashki ty kakashka, a s agashkoi ty chelovek’ (‘You are shit without agashka, and you are a person with agashka’) suggests that ordinary citizens in Kazakhstan believe that people must have good connections to live a normal life. The same is suggested by a variant of the phrase, which replaces kakashka with bukashka (a small insect). Indeed, from getting a job and promotion in the government sector or national companies, obtaining or renting housing constructed under state programmes, receiving state-funded medical treatment, to securing credit from the local government or a bank loan, the power of connections and patronage dominates in many key areas of life[1][2]. Despite state procedures officially being fair and equitable, in reality decisions are often made informally when state resources are distributed. Success in business largely depends on whether one has a solid and influential patron in official positions or connected to officials. Agashka is key to winning a tender for public works projects or state purchases. In addition, maintaining good relations with law-enforcement institutions with the authority to control business (police, customs, prosecutors etc.) is critically important.

President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan

Agashka as an informal institution reflects values and practices rooted in the Kazakh culture. In the traditional Kazakh society, the elders of the kin community bore the responsibility for taking care of its members. Mutual assistance among kin members is not only a socially imposed obligation, but also viewed as distinct characteristics and ethnic markers of the Kazakhs. In such cultural settings, using one's official position for the sake of family or extended family is often taken for granted. Under the Soviet planned economy, kinship ties with high trust and reciprocal obligation served as a web of networks, providing access to a variety of resources that were difficult to obtain through official channels[3].

In its present form, however, agashka is also the product of the post-Soviet expansion of market relations, which brought changes to the function and nature of informal networks developed under the socialist economy. Following the introduction of market principles in the 1990s, those with financial resources increasingly prefer to invest money in expanding their practical networks beyond the kinship divisions[4]. One of the most widespread perceptions with respect to agashki is that their children have an advantage over the others in getting a national scholarship to study overseas, or seeking a job in the public sector or national companies. Agashka's network of favours, however, is not limited to family and kinship ties. Here, the simple definition by Kazakhstani political analyst Dossym Satpayev is relevant: ‘Agashka is a person whose connections bring money, and that money brings new connections.’ Thus, the major criterion for agashka in post-Soviet Kazakhstan is affiliation to certain financial sources, or a group of common material interests in which a variety of ethnicities, clans, and regions can be represented[5][6][7].

Notes

  1. McMann, Kelly M. 2014. Corruption as a Last Resort: Adapting to the Market in Central Asia. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  2. McMann, Kelly M. 2014. Corruption as a Last Resort: Adapting to the Market in Central Asia. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  3. Schatz, Edward. 2004. Modern Clan Politics: the Power of "Blood" in Kazakhstan and Beyond. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
  4. Rigi, Jakob. 2004. ‘Corruption in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan’, in Italo Pardo (ed.), Between Morality and the Law: Corruption, Anthropology and Comparative Society. Aldershot: Ashgate:101-117.
  5. Satpaev, D. A. 1999. Lobbizm: tainye rychagi vlasti. Almaty: Qazaqstan damu instituty.
  6. Umbetalieva, Tolganai and Dosym Satpayev, Dosym. 2012. ‘Political Elites in Kazakhstan’, in Andreas Heinrich and Heiko Pleines (eds), Challenges of the Caspian Resource Boom: Domestic Elites and Policy-Making. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 73-88
  7. Schatz, Edward.2012. “Kinship and the State in Kazakhstan’s Political Economy,” in A. Heinrich and H. Pleines (eds), Challenges of the Caspian Resource Boom: Domestic Elites and Policy- Making. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 89-101.