Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dangerous Clan Conflict or Muslim Civil Society?: Towards an Alternative Understanding of Central Asia's Democratic Development

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On November 30th, I gave the seventeenth annual Nav’ai Lecture in Central Asian Studies at Georgetown University. The title of my talk was the same as that which is featured above. I was inspired to speak on this topic by the recent glut of literature on “clan politics” in Central Asia. This recent literature includes Oliver Roy’s influential introduction to Central Asia, The New Central Asia, Kathleen Collins new book, Clan Politics and Regime Transition in Central Asia, Edward Schatz’s book Modern Clan Politics: The Power of “Blood” in Kazakhstan and Beyond, and Fredrick Starr’s policy paper Clans, Authoritarian Rulers, and Parliaments in Central Asia. While this literature is increasingly providing a new paradigm for analyzing political actions in Central Asia, it is also, with the exception of Schatz’s more grounded research, characterizing the Central Asian political context as somehow more tribal or clan-based than that of any other former Soviet regions. Such a characterization, I believe, is symptomatic of a certain “orientalism” in Central Asian studies that seeks to portray the region as still on the margins of modern civilization and plagued by Asian “primordial attachments.” In my talk, I challenged such perspectives noting that the patron-client relations at the higher levels of politics in Central Asia are more Soviet-based than they are grounded in Central Asian traditions. If anything, I argue that the “solidarity groups,” as Roy calls them, of local Central Asian communities may provide the basis for indigenous civil society in the region rather than reflect the roots of anti-democratic clans or tribes. Most of all, however, I intended the talk to make us all think more critically about the concept of clanism in Central Asia, which remains poorly understood. Thus, I wanted to post my talk HERE so that I might generate some discussion about the topic in the comment section. Your thoughts on the topic would be most welcome!


Blogger Dan said...

Prof Roberts:

Thanks for the link. I'll read it this break after my final papers are done.

Are you going to be teaching any classes on Central Asian politics this or next year?


11:59 AM  
Blogger Sean R. Roberts, PhD said...

Yes, I am teaching a class at Georgetown in the spring - it is entitled "Islam and Modernity in Central Asia."

12:13 PM  
Anonymous James said...

Professor Roberts,

I started to write my thoughts on your excellent speach here, but it got too long, so I put up a post on neweurasia.


3:02 PM  
Blogger Sean R. Roberts, PhD said...


Thank you for highlighting my talk on neweurasia. I must say, however, that I think you misinterpret some of what I am trying to say. One of the biggest problems with the present interest in "clanism" in Central Asia is that those writing about it usually fail to define it. What are clans? Are we talking merely about patron-client relations? If so, these are indeed critical to the politics of Central Asia. But, how are these different in Central Asia than in other former Soviet regions? Including one's family members in patron-client networks is fairly common around the world. It is usually referred to as "nepotism." But does the presence of "nepotism" mean that there are some sort of clearly defined cultural units known as "clans" in Central Asia that operate in unison from the local level to the highest level of politics? I think the idea of clearly bounded clans in Central Asia has been overexaggerated, especially when it is applied to "mahalla" local community structures.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous nomad said...

I'm Kazakh and I completely agree with your approach to the clan issue. Clan is not a right word for describing the phenomenon of nepotism in KZ.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous James said...

Professor Roberts,

Thank you for the feedback. Like I said, I think it is a really interesting and well argued speech. I'm still not quite sure what I misinterpreted, but I would be more than happy to insert into the text of my summary your comments at the specific points I got wrong.

Is this statement, for example, in error?:

"So Roberts is not arguing against the idea that Central Asian rulers tend to put their family members in power, nor that local kinship networks exist and have political power. Rather, he is arguing that national politics are not driven by these kinship networks, but rather by the old Soviet system, and that the Soviet legacy that exists in, for example, Russia and Ukraine, is a better explanatory device for national politics in Central Asia."

I.e., you wouldn't call nepotism in Russia or Ukraine clan politics any more than you should in Central Asia. Nevertheless, as you suggest at the end of your speech, and as Nathan points out on his post at Registan, these local groups have the potential to leverage political power, but they have generally not done so yet.

So essentially you are arguing a) that scholars need to define their terms better, and b) that defining clans as patron-client networks doesn't really make sense unless they are prepared to use it in pretty much any developing country in the world.

I ask because that was what I interpreted as the crux of your argument, but I could of course well have mis-read it.


10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to offer a few thoughts on the subject. My practical experience in Uzbekistan seems to indicate that while there are still extremely strong familial ties (what you could call 'clans') the strength or influence is all based on patronage.

Hence, those groups or individuals that do not have any pull - or, more importantly, those individuals that have 'made it' and don't want to drag their weak cousin, uncle, brother along - are creating separate economic AND social classes in the society.

In the case of Uzbekistan, I have spoken with enough people to gain that the Uzbeks are really splintering between the 'intellegencia' or the 'haves' and 'have nots'. While the few middle class Uzbeks I know still have that social obligation to attend the plov, wedding (although even that is diminishing), the obligation to hire the cousin, brother based on bloodlines versus qualifications is lessening, dramatically.

There must be some truth that some type of clan structure still exists in the Uzbek villages or small towns, where economics and social status are very difficult to separate. And patronage exists at this level, in any Hokimiate. The question is, how much is clan (or familial/social) and how much is patronage (economic/social) based?

One observation I have is that in the regions of Uzbekistan, a certain substantial wealth was made in the last few years by a few influential (not necessarily intelligent) people.

Those people are moving into Tashkent - as is the expressed dream of most village people in UZ, to move to the 'big city' - with their friends, relatives, associates, in the old-style way.

Yet, as quickly as them move in to Tashkent, both the heads of these groups as well as those underneath feel the economic pressure to perform and 'keep up with the joneses'. And then the splintering begins, where those who can stand on their own do, and the rest have to fend for themselves.

My observation is that the familial (or 'clan') pressure in Kazakhstan - while unmistakeably there - is slightly less there, because the Kazakhs (more or less) have learned from their leader - that the modern social model is driven by economics.

Regrets on the vagueness, hope it adds some value to the discussion.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Jeff said...

The basic view is sound. I think we can argue that the Tulip Revolution was not only a reaction to the Akaev's corruption but also that it was a reaction to the fact that the Akaev brand of corruption was too clan based--that the proceeds weren't being spread widely enough.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The paper is very interesting and raises great points.

One irony that you hinted to, but did not directly state, is the comparison between Akramiya and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and the Uzbek government.

At the risk of sounding generous (but not disingenuous) - it may be plausible that the Uzbek regime has recognized that Akramiya DID fulfill the role that the UZ government could not in rural communities, especially as a counterbalance to HUT - but only after destroying it.

And so with the indiscriminate response of May 2005, maybe the Uzbeks did realize (similar to the realization by the US that maybe Al Quaeda was not much of a threat in Iraq prior to the US invasion), Akramiya was not the nefarious threat that the UZ government succeeded in discrediting/destroying (locally) through military action and subsequent propaganda.

Regretfully, apologies or mea culpas by the Uzbek government for indiscretions like Andijon will not take place in cyber time, like the rest of the world...but over long, extended periods...

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Jolene said...

Very helpful piece of writing, much thanks for this article.

3:11 PM  

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