Chapter 6 Ethnic and Tribal Factors in Kazakhstani Politics

Zheng Nan

*Zheng Nan is currently a PhD candidate in Political Science and Central Asia Studies at the Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University, Beijing. He plans to get his PhD in the fall of 2020. From 2015 to 2017, he conducted fieldwork in Kazakhstan. His research focuses on the Republic of Kazakhstan and his general interests include comparative politics, ethnic politics, and social problems.


Kazakhstan is a multiethniccountry, in addition to the Kazakhs, there are ethnic minorities such as the Russians, Uzbeks and Germans. The Kazakh nation is also divided into three tribal groups – Senior zhuz, Middle zhuz and Junior zhuz. From the Soviet period, when neither religion nor ideology could achieve self-control, the tribe factor existed as a means for the elite to control all aspects of the state power.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Nursultan Nazarbayev becoming the first president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Senior zhuz gradually took control of the core of power in the country, and gradually consolidated it over the next decade. In many ways, tribalism is a taboo subject in Kazakhstan. In recent years, Kazakhstani governments have sought to emphasize national unity and to move away from any link with tribal dimensions, denouncing such practices as nepotistic. Yet the reality is that building up a society that breaks with deeply-ensconced traditions is not an easy process.

The author screened over 700 political elites for tribal affiliation since Kazakhstan’s independence. Through the statistical analysis we can see, that even though the policies designed to counter ethnic and tribal discrimination in senior appointments at the local and national levels have been in place for more than twenty years, it remains the case that members of the Kazakh Senior zhuz tend to have a more substantial share of senior posts than do Kazakh officials from the other two zhuzes. The share of these senior positions occupied by Russian speakers is well below the proportion of ethnic Russians in the overall population, and this figure is declining. Disparities are particularly marked at the level of governors and mayors, state-level senior officials, and within the armed forces. Even in fields in which the Senior zhuz appears to be in a less prominent position, as with the post of prime minister, the statistical data tends to belie the reality of influence. Senior zhuz prime ministers tend to enjoy more political influence at the presidential level, while the influence (or lack of thereof) of Middle and Junior zhuz prime ministers tends to reflect either their pre-existing role as presidential confidant or reputation for sound administration of state policies. And under the premise of guaranteeing the absolute power of the President, the post of Speaker of Senat has been held in recent years by the Senior zhuz.

The impact of the centuries in which ethnic and tribal identity played a key role in Kazakh social and political life cannot be erased easily. Nonetheless, the part currently being played by the Nur-Otan political party offers some hopes for the future. The president, as the leader of the party, has clearly been seeking to use the party as a tool to bring representatives of all the zhuzes, as well as those of Russian speakers, to the centre of political power. A channel has been opened to enable effective national integration. The willingness of these groups to rely on the Nur-Otan party to achieve this will, of course, require the party to ensure that factors of ethnic and tribal identity are not present in its own operations and structure. Kazakhstan has been steadily improving its position in the World Corruption Index issued by Transparency International, and its progress has been noted by some international experts.

No doubt there is still a long way to go before Kazakhstan can completely eliminate the influence of ethnic and tribal factors on its political system, but the grounds on which progress can be made are also clear.