Chernaya kassa (Kyrgyzstan)

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Chernaya kassa 🇰🇬
Kyrgyzstan map.png
Location: Kyrgyzstan
Definition: Informal trust-based credit and savings system accompanied by gathering over a meal
Keywords: Kyrgyzstan Central Asia FSU Credit Micro-credit Saving ROSCA Mutual help Sociability Network Ties Personal connections Gathering Survival
Clusters: Solidarity Informal welfare
Author: Arzuu Sheranova
Affiliation: Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary

By Arzuu Sheranova, Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary

Chernaya kassa in Kyrgyzstan is a method of voluntarily issuing informal credit (Neuhauser, 1993), similar to the rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs). The term chernaya kassa comes from Russian, and translates as ‘black cashbox’. The command economy of the Soviet Union was an ‘economy of shortage’ (Kornai 1980). It produced constraints on the role of money and did not offer any form of consumer credit, which led to the increase of non-cash transactions and informal rotating credit system of chernaya kassa (Gaddy and Ickes 1998). In Kyrgyzstan, chernaya kassa was especially important credit-issuing institution during the transition period followed after the collapse of the Soviet Union when most labour-active people, especially women, were involved in informal economy of bazaars to supplement family income (see Őzcan 2006, Cieślewska 2013). Similar to household exchanges of gifts and hospitality, at the time aimed at economic survival, chernaya kassa can be considered a ‘household [survival] strategy’ (Werner 1998: 598). During the post-Soviet period, savings supported travel expenses of family members for labour migration. Kassa members stayed behind to back up the costs of migration for children or close relatives. Chernaya kassa is a widely spread practice in post-Soviet Central Asia beyond Kyrgyzstan (Wolters 2014), as it became a reliable, manageable and widespread informal mechanism of obtaining credit.
A laid dastorkon for chernaya kassa in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Source: Author. © Arzuu Sheranova.

The success of ROSCAs relies on the code of honor, reputation and shame: “since all members know each other well, the cost of monitoring the use of the funds is low, and the members are in a good position to evaluate a recipient's ability to repay the loan” (Neuhauser 1993: 51). ROSCA-like mechanisms similar to chernaya kassa are common in developing countries of Latin America, African countries and in Asia (see similar informal credit practices). An analogous practice in the former Soviet Union was informal credit in the Soviet penal system, called obshchak.

The negative connotations related to chernaya kassa relate to political corruption, illicit party funds, and manipulation of the state budget by the elites (Barsukova and Zvyagintzev 2006, Zyryanova 2013, Gelman 2002) (see also cash for access). However, at a grassroots level in Kyrgyzstan, chernaya kassa has a positive image and is associated with mutual help. In contrast with ROSCAs, Kyrgyz chernaya kassa is connected to a tradition of laying food and drinks on the floor and often accompanied by spreading a dastorkon, a traditional tablecloth used to serve food. On the occasion of rotating the savings, people get together over dinner or lunch, usually organized and paid for by the individual receiving savings. Chernaya kassa usually takes place once a month, and involve families, colleagues, classmates, relatives, neighbours, alumni or friends in a group of ten to twelve, who collect savings in turn and without any interest rates. Similar to tandas and cundinas in the northern part of Mexico and the south-west of the United States and gap in Uzbekistan, chernaya kassa in Kyrgyzstan, is more common among women (Kandiyoti 1998). For female entrepreneurs chernaya kassa is a good opportunity to advertise and sell their goods or services among the kassa members (Turaeva 2018). Joro gatherings, popular in Kyrgyzstan, often also include the kassa saving fund system. Members of joro gatherings agree on the conditions under which chernaya kassa would run.

Chernaya kassa as informal micro-credit issuing scheme allows taking a large amount of money at once without interest rates. It enables individuals to get an unofficial extra-fund when in need. Since chernaya kassa participants know each other very well and trust each other, they usually do not have conflicts over money. People spend the savings to buy services and durable goods, such as expensive furniture, household equipment or jewelry, which they would not be able to afford otherwise, or to celebrate life events, such as jubilees, weddings or feasts. Alternatively, they can be spent to travel abroad, to pay for tuition fees, or invest in their small family businesses.

Based on drawn lots or collective agreement, the kassa members determine the rotation order enabling access to funds, the common rules, number of members in the kassa, and the amount of saving funds each member will contribute (the contributions vary between the value of 30 to 150 USD and are smaller in rural areas). As members take their turn to receive the savings, they organize their upcoming kassa meeting and inform the others in advance about it. Depending on social status and financial standing, an individual can be a member of several chernaya kassa. Chernaya kassa is normally set to run for a year or more. Because of the pressure of shame and loss of face and reputation (moral and social punishment), there is no need for enforcement of its rules and payment schedules. Even if members do not physically attend the meetings, they make sure their contributions are regular and the scheme benefits all members (similar shame-based rule-enforcement mechanisms can be found elsewhere, see for example Vietnamese vay mượn).

Chernaya kassa is a good reason to keep friendship or kinship ties, stay in touch on regular basis, and maintain social networks. This is especially true among kinship-based kassa because they often collect a symbolic (very small) amount of money as a reason to chat and meet with each other. This particular type of symbolic chernaya kassa is popular among housewives with little time and opportunity to escape their routines. As they find it difficult to leave their children and husbands at home to socialize, they can appeal to attending a chernaya kassa meeting to meet their relatives and friends. In this circumstance, the saving mechanism of chernaya kassa is the least important part of their gathering; however, this type of chernaya kassa is a recent phenomenon. For Kyrgyz with low incomes, chernaya kassa is a way of raising funds when individuals might prefer not to keep their savings in a bank, for example for those with a regular, but unofficial extra income who want to use the funds to launch small businesses, contribute to existing businesses or purchase a property.


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