"Democratic Traditions in Kazakh Nomadic Society"


Thesis of the Discussion Paper

Osaka, December 4, 2000


Democratic Traditions in Kazakh Nomadic Society

Zhanylzhan Dzhunusova


The civilization of the Kazakh Steppe had the features of the Orient and the West as well. Kazakh nomadism in its original form combines collectivist and individualistic, etatistic and liberal principles. The absolute dominance of corporativism or individualism does not characterize the political culture of nomadism.

The democratic tendency of the Kazakh traditional society to a considerable degree was determined by conditions of climate and landscape, the specific way of life, management of resources and socio-political structure.


1. The Development of Political Structures.

The composition of Kazakh statehood took place at the turn of the fifteenth to the sixteenth century. By this time the Kazakhs were primarily a political union. The Kazakh khanate and the Kazakh people were synonymous, a people formed by the union of previously disparate clans and tribes of Turkish descent. The Kazakh union, founded by Dzhanibek and Kerei (1465 - 1466),1 offered potential for both continued control and future expansion. Tribal unity implied increased military potential, with more warriors to mount a common defense against outside invaders. The Kazakh khanate initially experienced a period of economic growth and relative power due to the unification of several tribes.


It is known that the Kazakh khanate initially began to take form within the Golden Horde. Orus-Khan, a fifth-generation descendant of Dzhuchi, is considered the founder of the line of Kazakh khans. The Chengisids, standing outside the division of the zhuzes (hordes) were tore (aristocrats). Historians trace the division of the Kazakhs into three zhuzes back to the times of Batu-Khan. 2 The southeastern part of his father's ulus belonged to Dzhuchi's eldest son, Orda-Ezhen, while the western lands belonged to Tokai-Temir. Over the expanse between them, Batu and Sheibani held sway. Corresponding to this configuration of Dzhuchi's ulus, the zhuzes were designated "Ulu" (Elder), "Orta" (Middle) and "Kishi" (Younger).


The tripartite division of the Kazakh people was in response to the unique geography of the steppe. Within the Kazakh-held territories of the sixteenth century there were three natural geographic regions, each containing both summer and winter pasturage.


In the first half of the sixteenth century, during the rule of Hakh Nazar (1538 - 1580),3 the Kazakhs formed their three distinctive zhuzes reintroducing a sense of organization and order. The conception of the zhuzes as unions of related tribes and the development of the so-called "tradition of the zhuzes" fit the interests of the ruling clans, both in solidifying power within the horde of their own tribes and in the struggle for centralized power.


The Kazakh zhuzes were, in fact, federations or unions of tribes that normally did not share a common ancestry. They were instead simply an extension of the temporary military unions formed by both Turkish and Mongol tribes. It is probable that the Kazakh hordes formed largely for military purposes - to make the Kazakh lands more secure in the absence of any stronger central authority.


The zhuzes stood in contradistinction to the tribes that were ethnic units. The formers were military unions, consisting of rank-and-file and commanding components. The elders of the tribes tended toward a peaceful life via compromise; the khans of the hordes preferred the military mode of life. The coexistence of horde and tribe was called el. This is a particularly characteristic term, corresponding to the political constructs of the Steppe and assuming the presence of subjugated tribes.


Thus, the social structure of Kazakh society in the khanate period (XV to XIX centuries) was based on two main principles. One of them is that all Kazakh clans and tribes entered into three associations namedby the Kazakhs themselves as Ulu Zhuz, Orta Zhuz, and Kishi Zhuz.


We can find the first mentioning of zhuzes in historical sources of 1616. 4 However, many genealogical and documentary materials have a clear evidence that Kazakh zhuzes existed long before the beginning of XVII century. Origin of zhuzes is not clear so far among researchers. The heart of the problem is that the origin of Kazakh zhuzes connected with geographical factor. Kazakh steppe was naturally divided to tree parts: Semirech'e, Western Kazakhstan (to the West of Mugodzhar mountains) and Eastern Kazakhstan (to the east of Ural mountains). Each of these geographic zones was characterized by particular cultural and historical processes. Correspondingly, zhuzes were historically developed ethnoterritorial units of nomadic Kazakhs that differed in some ethnogenesis, socioeconomic features, daily life, and culture. 5


The other basic principle of public structure in the Kazakh khanate was Kazakh society's subdivision into two basic social groups: ak-suyek (white bone) and kara-suyek (black bone), - differing not so much in economic as in political and legal attributes.


"Ak-suyek" covered the khans of Chingis dynasty, who were called "sultans", and also sayyids and hodjas. All other groups and layers of society made up the "kara-suyek". A principle of the society subdivision into these two groups was carried out with strict consistency. The Steppe preserved the tradition of recognizing only Chingisids as its khans right up to the nineteenth century despite ethnical or state boundaries.


Unlike the white bone estate, the representatives of the kara-suyek always observed the subdivision into separate clans and tribes. Accordingly, the public position of any representative of kara-suyek whether he be a hereditary head of a clan or an ordinary nomad-herdsman was determined to a degree by the privileges of his clan and tribe.


Of the kara-suyek social group only biys - the leaders of clans and tribes - had special rights. The size, force, antiquity of origin and seniority of the clans headed by them determined the influence of the biys. Biy as a social title was not inherited but acquired by personal features. It was a clear case of meritocracy. One of the most influential biy in Kazakh history Tole biy (end of XVII - first part of XVIII centuries) was from sharua (poorest) social group. It was not obstacle for him to be a person whose opinion was important for khans and sultans.


Biys of Kazakh uluses enjoyed special rights: within the clans governed by them only biys (except khans and sultans) possessed judicial, administrative, and military authority. This authority gave to biys a certain political importance, which was expressed in that biys along with sultans participated in making nation-wide decisions, coming together to the annually called Kurultai (people 's assembly). The most influential chieftains were included in khans' "Councils of biys ". During military campaigns biys led trained bands of their clans or tribes.


Biys, being an important chain in the government system of the khanate, thus, possessed at least four attributes: warlords, administrators, judges and representatives of the steppe aristocracy. Biys, as opposed to khans of the Chingis dynasty - who comprised a "de-nationalized" class - constituted so to say national aristocracy, the elite of the kara-suyek social group.


The first figure in the power hierarchy, the leader, was the khan. A khan was elected at a meeting of sultans, biys, and clan or family elders. The power of the khan was vested in the person, not the office, so the power a particular Kazakh khan enjoyed was a reflection of his perceived particular fitness to rule. Periods of Kazakh unity, such as the reigns of Kasym (1511 - 1518, or 1523 ), Hakh Nazar (1538 - 1580), and Khan Tauke (1680 - 1718), occurred because the khans of the other hordes recognized the military superiority of these individuals and were willing to defer to their authority. After the deaths of Hakh Nazar and Tauke, the three hordes again became separate entities.


The khan controlled the relations between clans and auls (the Kazakh migratory unit). He also made the principal decisions about declaring of waging wars as well as preparing defensive arrangements for the horde. The khan allocated pasturelands for the clans and decided when and where the horde would migrate. This choice was closely connected to the military position of the horde, since it depended upon which lands were safely under the khan's control.


The khans functioned primarily as military leaders. The khan attempted to tax allied clans only in times of war, when the livestock and food collected were used to provision troops. Since the Kazakh khans did not exact regular tribute from their subject populations, it is difficult to consider them feudal rulers. 6 Furthermore, the rulers' life-style was not distinct. Proved military skills were required for selection as khan, since the khan led his horde in military campaigns and routine plundering.


Within the larger Kazakh community, the clan leaders and elders had far more influence than the khan. They allocated lands to the auls and families, they had control of the warriors, and, unlike the khan, they had an unquestioned right of taxation - as their right to part of each family's herd.


Thus, the early Kazakh state thus was not a feudal society but rather a military democracy 7 with a dual authority structure: an aristocracy of khans and sultans was superimposed upon a clan-based authority system.


The division on "ak-suyek" and "kara-suyek" was a clear sign of aristocratic and non-democratic structure of society. However, Kazakh nobility had some particular features. Any sultan had a right to be a khan, but should have not only noble origins, but also excellent reputation and personal features like valor or courage.


Electoral procedure was based on meritocracy principle. Clear historical example is election of Abulkhair khan (1710) who was famous by his personal characteristics, but did not have any khan predecessor in his generation except only the founder of the Kazakh khanate Zhanibek who was a predecessor of all Kazakh khans.


Despite the division into three hordes, the Kazakhs were one people, with a common language, culture, and economy. Initially, in the sixteenth century, the divisions were ephemeral, depending as much on land usage as on any voluntary allegiance to the constituent tribes and clans that formed each horde. As Kazakh control of the steppe expanded during the seventeenth century, the hordes gradually evolved into three stable unions with reasonably well defined and stable territories under their control.


When the Kazakh khanate began to break up at the beginning of the eighteenth century (after Khan Tauke's death), the khan of each horde assumed the powers of a sovereign ruler in his own territory, including the right to negotiate treaties with foreign powers.


2. Customary Law.

Rich historical experience of the development of human rights and liberties vividly demonstrated the democratic tradition in the political history of Kazakhstan.


The Kazakhs did not distinguish between civil and criminal law. Until the seventeenth century, the Adat (Kazakh customary law), was non-codified and administered locally. 8 It was not formal (hand-written) law, but natural law arisen under the nomadic style of life and expressed values and ideals of nomadic culture, supported and served this society. The right of free expression of one's opinion was legally consolidated. Just for this reason insubordination to the norms of customary law was out of question and their fulfillment was a universal.


Customary law considered human rights on the principle of justice, without heading class prejudices and property status. One example was when sultan Barak who killed Abulkhair khan (1748) was convicted by biys demonstrating the developed feeling for law and order and valid tradition. In this case one of the most important bases of the legal state - that there is no person outside the legal space, everybody is equal before law - was realized.


Traditional customary law upheld a man's rights and liberties. However, he was not an abstract man, but a member of clan. According to the information of sources, 9 the ordinary nomad-herdsman was legally a free person, possessing personal and property rights. A free nomad-herdsman (the head of a family) could bequeath property at his own discretion, testify, participate in the annual "people's assembly", etc. The murder of an ordinary nomad was punished, though the law gave unequal legal meaning to the rights of persons, differing by social and public position. However, the protection of the personal and property rights of free nomads was provided not by the state bodies, but exclusively by the solidarity of the clan members.


Adat requirements were transmitted orally. With the formation of the state (XVI century) these legal norms were legalized in a special Steppe legal code named in honor of their creators. The most famous is "Tauke - Knah's Zhety Zhargy" (Seven Ascertainments, XVII century). Tauke's customary code encouraged formalization of the legal process and created a single judicial power in the form of the institution of the biys, i.e., persons endowed with authority recognized by society, known for their justice, objectivity, competency, logic and rhetorical ability. Since the biys were charged with adjudicating disputes, by the end of the eighteenth century the term 'biy' had come to mean judge.


The main innovation of Zhety Zhargy was the protection of private ownership. To the Kazakhs land had no intrinsic value. They owned their livestock but grazed these animals on common pasturelands over which tribes had usage rights but did not own. The basis of a man's wealth was his herd, not his land.


In general, Kazakh customary law was designed to maximize the stability and economic self-sufficiency of the community, which was constantly threatened both by external dangers and by the harshness and unpredictability of natural conditions.


The great Kazakh ethnographer, educator and democrat Chokan Valikhanov (Chokan Vali Khan uli) emphasized the democratic features of Kazakh customary law - justice as a basic principle; independence of the judge; participation and equality of both parties; making use of public opinion; absence of repressive measures such as freedom deprivation, imprisonment 10.


The efficacy of Kazakh customary law can be explained by its integration with socio-cultural processes, the existence of the "cultureof shame" when fear to impair one's image before the whole clan stimulated self-development and responsibility.


3. Democratic Elements in the Political System of Kazakh Traditional Society.

Clans and tribes as the main form of self-organization of the socium carried great social and political obligations in nomadic society.


Since it was difficult to rule the nomads of the great expanses of the Steppe the khans' power was never as strong as that of oriental despots in settled and agricultural civilizations. Strengthening oppression or conflict with Kazakh sovereigns could provoke a clan or tribe to migrate, as for example happened to some tribes headed by Zhanibek - Khan and Kerei - Khan - founders of the Kazakh khanate. They led some Kazakh tribes, which decided in 1459 to migrate from the State of Nomadic Uzbeks. It became a year of foundation of the Kazakh khanate.


The specific character of authority in Kazakh society consisted in people with power competence not being appointed or elected but rather recognized, i.e. the title of ruler meant a recognition of the merits of the person. Sultans, biys, and clan or family elders met annually to affirm the khan's leadership, to advise him, and to receive his instructions. At these annual meetings the year's migration was planned and each clan and aul was allocated winter pastureland. The khan generally served for life, nonetheless, since to become khan an individual had to prove his own competence, ruling families were often eclipsed by new claimants.


The institution of khans' appointment by election was a judicial procedure of legitimizing the power of the tore-Chingisids who had been acknowledged by public opinion as leaders. The khan's office was not inherited but elected. As is known from history, only an individual with charisma was proclaimed khan or a leader responsible for the fortunes, prosperity and well being of the country. And such forms of oral popular creation as aitys (songs and poetry competition) legitimized the right to express free opinion and impartial criticism directed at an unworthy leader. 11 Quite often a subject of criticism was a khan, or batyr, or wealthy person who made immoral deed.


The ritual of acknowledgement the elected khan on the white felt (symbol of khan's power) only in the presence of people and under their approval is an evidence of the political rights of Kazakhs. Traditional Kazakh political culture was not limited to conformism, it included elements of democracy.


According to Agyn Kazymzhanov and Keith Tribble 12 this of course cannot be considered democratism because there were absolutely no procedures for electing a supreme leader. Power was seized and conquered, although genealogy gave legitimate character to this power. But the emphasis on power serving society and the people and concerning itself with the good of the people constitutes a substantive argument for legitimacy. This valuable trait of identity, unifying power and the people was secured for posterity by the Turkickhans.


The single-power principle of rule was preserved. But assumption of the throne required the observation of a procedure called kurutlai. This was a meeting of representatives of ruling family, a ritual for proclaiming a khan and administering his ceremonial oath (analogous to the act of inauguration). In addition to the khan of each zhuz and the elders of each clan, the presence of persons of social prestige likely to influence popular opinion (biys and batyrs) was obligatory. In the development of Kazakh statehood a kurultai was absolutely requisite because it demonstrated the creation of power capable of uniting all tribes. Aimed at integration, union or confederation of many tribes, the supreme khan had to take into consideration the precise relations between individual tribes.


The specific institution of the biys served as a mechanism to solve conflicts concerning violations of individual and collective rights.


Each Kazakh aul, consisting of a few related, extended families had an elder, usually referred to as an aksakal (white beard), who was charged with the protection of the aul's pasturelands and people. The elders met to choose a biy to represent the family in negotiations withother families and to mediate internal disputes, regulate migration, and allocate pastureland. Although the title of biy often went from father to son, the office was not hereditary and could be shifted if the elders so chose.


Biys were not formally educated, but they had good personal abilities, thus an ordinary man or one distinguished by origin can take an office. Only knowledge, sense of justice and a skill to convince were only necessary for being elected biy. His reputation and significance were based on personal authority, which was maintained and popularized by people. Loss of authority deprived him of his title. It is possible to say that one became a biy by vocation.


The institution of biy involved a political function, i.e. coordination of the interests of power structures, clanic and tribal groups of the population. In addition there was a social-legal function, i.e. solution of civil, property, territorial and other disputes between clans and tribes, on the one side, and between members of the same clan and tribe, from the other.13


Chokan Valikhanov vividly described the democratic character of the court of biys as a particular institution for protecting human rights and liberties in traditional Kazakh society.


Firstly, in case of suspicion of a biy not being impartial both plaintiff and defendant had the right to choose another judge.


Secondly, they had an unlimited right to appeal against unfair judicial decision, and call in another biy.


Thirdly, in case of insufficient evidence against the accused, biys had the right to convoke a jury from the honest relatives with high reputation, who under oath prosecuted or discharged a defendant.


Fourthly, the court of biys was conducted orally, publicly, and in every case permitted lawyers.

Fifthly, it commanded such high respect among people that no disciplinary measures were expected to ensure the execution of pronounced decision. Thus, the decision of a biy practically did not require any appeal.14


In other words, the regulated role of legal tradition was so important that judicial decisions were executed by society itself without state interference.


The foregoing testifies to the high adaptation ability of the political system of traditional nomadic Kazakh society. Even in medieval times it formed its own system of separation of powers.


The specific character of Kazakh society was revealed also in differentiation of power authorities, similar to the widespread modern system of checks and balances. The khans had the right to take final decision only de jure, but de facto during the discussion of this or that national issue at the Khan Council, where the interests of the common people were protected by the biys - their lobbyists - they were forced to take into consideration the opinion of the majority.


The general practice of the election of office-holders in some institutions of power improved the susceptibility of the elite to social requirements, strengthening at the same time the adaptability of the political system.


Thus, the Kazakh traditional society had some features of autocracy, but from the other hand very strong proto-democratic peculiarities. The latter ones might be called elements of democracy, primordial democracy, liberal traditions or pluralism. All these terms may fit to describe and explain some essential processes in the Steppe. These processes with democratic elements were election of a khan, biy's hearing of civil disputes or criminal cases, and changing social status on meritocracy bases. Traditional Kazakh society had both aristocratic and meritocracy principles of social stratification and mobility, and meritocracy is one of the main characteristics of democratic society.


Great changes in political system of Kazakhs took place in 20s of XIX century: the Russian tsarist administration abolished khan's authority and introduced a new system of territorial administration (in 1822 on the territory of Orta Zhuz and partly Ulu Zhuz, in 1824 in Kishi Zhuz). Traditional electoral system was eliminated, and all officials beginning from aul starshina (foreman) to ruling sultan were appointed by Russian administration. Thus, in the early 20s of the XIX century the last remainders of political independence of Kazakhs were abolished.


Nomadic society developed its own mechanism of regulation of social and personal disputes. The colonization of the Kazakh Steppe by the tsarist regime in the XIX century and the introduction of a unified Russian legal system led to the significant deformation of traditional mechanisms for protection of human rights and liberties. It took a long time while a unified legal system of Russian empire started work efficiently in Kazakh steppe.


When Kazakhstan achieved sovereignty in 1991, it had a long democratic tradition behind it. Sovereignty was won by the experience of the Kazakhs' ancestors and by the events in December 1986. Ana the relatively successful realization of social and political transformation and democratization in contemporary Kazakhstan mainly can be explained by the country's good synthesis of traditional and modern values.


1 Istoriia Kazakhstana s drevneishikh vremen do nashikh dnei (Almaty: Dauir,1993), p. 148.

2 A. Kazymzhanov and K. Tribble, 'The Political Tradition of the Steppe', Nationalities Papers 26, 3 (1998), p. 462.

3 Vostrov V. V. and Mukanov M. S, Rodoplemennoi sostav i rasselenie Kazakhov (Alma-Ata, 1978), p. 20.

4 Iudin V. P., 'Ordy: Belaia, Siniaia, Seraia i Zolotaia...' in Kazakhstan, Sredniaia i Tsentral'naia Azia v XVI - XVIII vv. (Alma-Ata, 1983), p. 143.

5 Asfendiarov S. D., Istoriia Kazakhstana s drevneishikh vremen (M. - Alma-Ata, 1935), v. 1, p. 82; Iudin V. P., 'Ordy: Belaia, Siniaia, Seraia i Zolotaia...', p. 148;

Argynbaev Kh., 'Obrazovanie kazakhskih zhuzov i ikh dal'neishaia etnopoliticheskaia sud'ba' in Problemy etnogeneza i etnicheskoi istorii narodov Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana (M, 1988), p.p. 16 - 19; Masanov N. E. 'Kazakhskaia politicheskaia i intellektual'naia elita: klanovaia prinadlezhnost' i vnutrietnicheskoe sopernichestvo', Vestnik Evrazii 1(2), (М. 1996), p. 47.

6 Olcott, Martha Brill, The Kazakhs, (Hoover Institution Press, 1987), p. 15.

7 Tolybekov S. E., Kochevoe obshchestvo Kazakhov v XVII - nachale XX v (Alma-Ata, 1971), p. 235.

8 Ergaliev I. E., 'Problema prav cheloveka v traditsiyah kazakhskoi kulturi', in Stanovleniye grazhdanskogo obshchestva v stranah Tsentralnoi Azii (Almaty, 1999), pp. 22-28.

9 See: Abuseitova M. Kh., Kazakhstan i Tsentral'naia Aziia v XV - XVII vv.: Istoriia, Politika, Diplomatiia (Almaty, 1998), p.p. 71 - 112.

10 See: Problemy kazakhskogo obychnogo prava (Alma-Ata, 1989).

11 Sarsenbaeva Z. N., 'Traditsionnaya etika kazakhov i stanovleniye grazhdanskoi pozitsii lichnosti', in Stanovleniye grazhdanskogo obshchestva v stranah Tsentralnoi Azii (Almaty, 1999), p.p. 30.

12 A. Kazymzhanov and K. Tribble, 'The Political Tradition of the Steppe', in Nationalities Papers, 26, 3 (1998), p. 457.

13 Orazbaeva A. 'Istoricheskaya rol' i sotsialnoe znacheniye instituta biystva v istorii kazakhskogo naroda', in Sayasat, 5 (1997), p. 103.

14 Valikhanov Ch., Sobraniye sochinenii v 5 tt. T. 4 (Alma-Ata, 1985), p. 88.