Uruuchuluk (Kyrgyzstan)

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Uruuchuluk
Location: Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan map.png
Author: Aksana Ismailbekova
Affiliation: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Original text: Aksana Ismailbekova, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

Uruuchuluk denotes lineage-based identity in Kyrgyzstan, where both public and private identity is determined primarily by a person’s membership of one of the descent groups known as uruu and uruk. Ancestors, patrilineage and genealogies constitute identity for the Kyrgyz. Genealogy is of crucial importance in the segmentary lineage system, which in turn is relevant to the present discussion since it explains how the Kyrgyz construe their social world and the extent and quality of their relations with others. The Kyrgyz can usually name everyone in the previous seven generations of their patrilineage. This form of social organisation has been customary and stable for many years; as a result, the Kyrgyz people consider it natural or God-given.

There are forty large patrilineal descent groups in Kyrgyzstan today. Historically, Kyrgyz divide themselves according to Ong kanat (Right Wing), Ichkilik (Internal) or Sol kanat (Left Wing). In general, all Kyrgyz patrilineal descent groups have traditionally tended to be in competition with one another[1][2].

Under Soviet rule, the Communist Party authorities shaped the local identities of the Kyrgyz people to a certain extent, but by no means completely. Soviet ideology and local values were not separate domains; rather, they were complementary and congruent. Looked at from the outside, the Soviet system appeared to be one of top-down control. Seen from within, however, it was a system where local social relations were closely linked to the kolkhoz (collective farm) workers or to the Communist Party officials. At the top, therefore, there was a Soviet system of governance, but inside this system Kyrgyz kinship relations continued to play an important role. As a result, the Soviet system did not eradicate, but rather conserved pre-existing kin-based relations. Kinship identity and affiliations continued to form the basis of cultural identity and to play an influential role in everyday relationships [3][4][5][6] .

Photograph showing a woman doing ethnographic fieldwork at Kyrgyztan in 2008. Artist: Prof Guenther Schlle

At the same time, kinship was officially viewed as backward and primitive during the Soviet period. As a result, state officials were often afraid openly to reveal their lineage identity. Kinship became a private affair. Even so, in the villages the chairman of kolkhoz usually ensured that key positions such as deputy chairman, livestock specialist and team leader went to his own relatives [7][8][9][10].

Attempts by the Soviet authorities to dilute or even destroy kinship affiliations and to impose a new ethnic (national) identity on the Kyrgyz ultimately failed. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, kin-based relationships suddenly began to re-emerge. Genealogy became increasingly important in independent Kyrgyzstan, partly as a result of nation-building processes, and partly because of the new freedom that people had to express their previously hidden identities [11][12][13]. As a result, present-day Kyrgyzstan has seen a reorganisation of kinship relations and a ‘renegotiation’ of identities. Along with the transformation of institutional structures, the Kyrgyz started to revive and reaffirm their local, traditional and cultural values and apply them to structures of state power[14].

Kinship-based affiliations and provincial kinship play significant roles in both politics and society, since people use their kinship or provincial affiliations to build social networks. In times of economic hardship, kinship-based patronage networks have played a particularly important role. Kinship-discourse has begun to be used by ordinary people as a way of meeting their everyday needs and maintaining their hopes for a better future. People in rural areas are particularly involved with kinship practices in their everyday lives, but urban-dwellers also become involved as a means of acquiring influence or financial capital. When people are engaged in business, they feel confident that they can reply on their kinsmen, united as they are by a sense of mutual responsibility and solidarity. In the event of a crisis, they rely particularly heavily on the support of their relatives.

As the Kyrgyz revived and reaffirmed their local, traditional and cultural values, they also began to apply them to institutions of state power [15]. Today, kinship is highly valued by politicians as a means of competing for social and economic position. Those who are not related through kinship-patronage networks are often isolated. Divisions along kinship lines may provoke and exacerbate struggles between political groups and conflicts over positions within the state infrastructure, obtaining funds for development, education and so on.

Photograph depicting the collection of genealogical data in rural Kyrgyztan in 2008. Artist: Prof Guenther Schlle

Any politician – even one with presidential ambitions – will rely primarily on the support of his or her kinsmen. The logic behind this is that the politician knows that while he or she is unlikely to win the support of the entire country, they can rely on that of their kinsmen. They are also aware of the need to build alliances with other uruu members who will have recruited their own followers along kinship lines. Even so, alliances between uruu members may be temporary, since all politicians have their own ambitions. And if a politician rejects his or her former allies, he or she will be able to rely, again, only on the kinsmen. There is a mutual interest here: it is no secret that if a leader gains a higher rank, then his kinsmen will also be rewarded with higher positions. And if the leader loses his position, then the whole pyramid will collapse.

Lineage-based identity and kinship-belonging are very strong forces. If an individual breaks the rules of identity, he or she immediately loses status and becomes an outcast. As a result, no Kyrgyz would insult or ignore their kinsmen. Ties within political parties in Kyrgyzstan are, by contrast, much weaker and less disciplined. Parties are fluid organizations: their members converge or diverge, constantly moving from opposition to pro-government and back. The European party model has not taken root in Kyrgyzstan; the parties that function most actively and effectively are kinship-based [16]. Kinship played an important role, for example, in rallying people to take part in the mass protests of recent years – from the events in Osh in 1990 and 2010 to the revolutions of 2005 and 2010.

In times of instability and economic hardship, ordinary people choose to rely on strong politicians or entrepreneurs with political power and economic resources. People seek the patronage of such politicians and business people by stressing their shared lineage, kinship ties and common provincial identities, and by using kin terms which lend legitimacy to their relationship. People imagine and construct a union with these figures built on closeness, hoping thereby to gain access to resources, protection and influence. Politicians and entrepreneurs, for their part, also use kinship ties to further their own political and economic interests. They do this by scrutinising the family history of potential kin in the hope of identifying common ancestors[17].

Today, patrons are perceived as a source of economic and social support. This is reflected in people’s attitudes toward them in times of socio-economic hardship. During the Soviet era, people performed shared labour for the supposed benefit of the state. Now it is performed for the benefit of particular individuals. There is no term for patron. People use kinship terms such as ‘elder brother,’ ‘younger brother,’ ‘son,’ and ‘father’ when seeking social and economic support from a wealthy politician or entrepreneur[18].

In the Central Asian context, the ambiguous and manipulative behaviour of social actors such as patrons has been described by political scientists under such headings as ‘clan politics,’ ‘tribalism,’ ‘neopatronalism,’ ‘provincial identities’ and ‘power of localism.’

Notes

  1. Abramzon, S.M. 1971. Kirgizy i ikh etnogeneticheskie i istoriko-kul’turnye svyazi. Leningrad: Nauka
  2. Geiss, P.G. 2004. Pre-Tsarist and Tsarist Central Asia: Communal Commitment and Political Order in Change. Abingdon: Routledge
  3. Yoshida, S. 2005. ‘Ethnographic study of privatization in a Kyrgyz village: Patrilineal kin and independent farmers,’ Inner Asia, 7(2): 215-247
  4. Jacquesson, S. 2010. Pastoréalismes: anthropologie historique des processus d’intégration chez les Kirghiz du Tian Shan intérieur. Wiesbaden: Dr Ludwig Reichert Verlag
  5. Hardenberg, R. 2009. ‘Reconsidering “tribe,” “clan” and “relatedness”: A Comparison of Social Categorisation in Central and South Asia,’ Scrutiny: A Journal of International and Pakistan Studies, 1(1): 37–62
  6. Ismailbekova forthcoming. The Native Son and Blood Ties: Kinship and Poetics of Patronage in Rural Kyrgyzstan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  7. Roy, O. 2000. The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations. London: I.B. Tauris
  8. Yoshida, S. 2005. ‘Ethnographic study of privatization in a Kyrgyz village: Patrilineal kin and independent farmers,’ Inner Asia, 7(2): 215-247
  9. Jacquesson, S. 2010. Pastoréalismes: anthropologie historique des processus d’intégration chez les Kirghiz du Tian Shan intérieur. Wiesbaden: Dr Ludwig Reichert Verlag
  10. Isakov, B. and Schoeberlein, J. 2014. ‘Animals, Kinship and the State: Kyrgyz Chabans Recovering Their Livelihood with the Collapse of State-Oriented Herding,’ The Anthropology of East Europe Review, 32(2): 33-48
  11. Gullette, D. 2010. The Genealogical Construction of the Kyrgyz Republic: Kinship, State, and ‘Tribalism.’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  12. Jacquesson, S. 2010. Pastoréalismes: anthropologie historique des processus d’intégration chez les Kirghiz du Tian Shan intérieur. Wiesbaden: Dr Ludwig Reichert Verlag
  13. Light, N. 2011. ‘Genealogy, History, Nation’, Nationalities Papers, 39(1): 33–53
  14. Ismailbekova forthcoming. The Native Son and Blood Ties: Kinship and Poetics of Patronage in Rural Kyrgyzstan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  15. Ismailbekova forthcoming. The Native Son and Blood Ties: Kinship and Poetics of Patronage in Rural Kyrgyzstan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  16. Ismailbekova, A. 2014. ‘Performing democracy: State-making through patronage in Kyrgyzstan,’ in M. Reeves, B. Beyer and J. Rasanayagam (eds), Performing politics: Ethnographies of the state in Central Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  17. Ismailbekova forthcoming. The Native Son and Blood Ties: Kinship and Poetics of Patronage in Rural Kyrgyzstan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
  18. Ismailbekova forthcoming. The Native Son and Blood Ties: Kinship and Poetics of Patronage in Rural Kyrgyzstan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press