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Clans in Kyrgyzstan

Traditional Kyrgyz society can be broken down into a hierarchy, of which the smallest component is the family unit that is called a tutun ('smoke'). Above this is the uluu (literally 'sons'), a group of families who are able to trace a common ancestor, then uruk or 'clan', which is comprised of several uluu. These clans of blood relatives, in turn, combine with other clans to form a tribe or uruu. Clan membership demands loyalty and any wrongs that are inflicted between clans need to be avenged or at least compensated for. To most Kyrgyz, clan ties are just as important as family ties and two Kyrgyz strangers meeting for the first time will be quick to establish their corresponding lineages.

Legend has it that long ago two children, the only two survivors of a war with a neighbouring tribe, were brought to Issyk Kul and cared for by a deer and that their offspring were the forefathers of the various Kyrgyz tribes. Tribal and regional origins remain a central part of Kyrgyz identity and society. As one author put it: 'If two Kyrgyz, even Russified ones, sit together, in no time they'll find out where the other comes from and what his or her lineage is.'

According to the standard translation of their name, the Kyrgyz are a people made up of 40 separate tribes, although this number should not be taken too literally as the number 40 occurs frequently in Kyrgyz folklore and may have been chosen for its mystical quality rather than any precise anthropological meaning. Because the terms tribe and clan are rather vague it is hard to be exact, but one current source suggests that there may be a total of 38 tribes in Kyrgyz society.

Today, there are some 30 Kyrgyz tribes or sanjira. They are grouped into two main regional blocks, which do not only have distinct identities but also compete for political power: the northerners or Tagai, who also include the tribes of the central plateau and the Kyrgyz of Kazakhstan; and the southerners, or Ich Kylyk, who include the Kyrgyz living in Tajikistan and China.

In the north, running roughly from Sary Chelek in the south-west to the eastern end of Lake Issyk Kul, the major tribes are the Sary Bagysh (to which the president and his entourage belong), the Solto, the Bagysh and the Bugu. Because they have lived with Slav settlers for almost one and a half centuries the northern Kyrgyz tend to be more Russified than their kinsfolk elsewhere in the country-even though the rates of Kyrgyz-Slav intermarriage have always been low.

In the southern Fergana and Alay regions the main tribes are the Adygene (around Osh), the Kadyrsha, Kara Teit, Naiman, Bostan, Kesek and many others. The mountains close to China and Tajikistan are home to half a dozen of clans collectively nicknamed Kara ('black') Kyrgyz. As a result of increased contact with the sedentary Uzbeks, Uighurs and Tajiks, the southern Kyrgyz (who were once goverened by the Kokand khanate) have taken on board more Islamic culture than their northern cousins. The dialects are also quite distinct (the southerners have absorbed some Farsi into their language), to the extent that they sometimes have difficulty understanding one another.

The so-called 'third force' is the collection of tribes from the central plateau, covering Song Kul, Suusamyr and south-western Issyk Kul. Here the Sajak are dominant. In the At-Bashy and Torugart area live the Cherik. Since those regions are more isolated and ethnically homogenous, the Sajak are often considered as the 'purest' Kyrgyz.  The term Kara-Kyrgyz, which use to be used in early Soviet times to distinguish the mountain-living Kyrgyz from the steppe-living Kazakhs, is now sometimes used to refer to those clans that inhabit the border zones with China and Tajikistan.

Of course, due to numerous migrations and deportations, the picture is far more complex than this. Nevertheless, tribal and regional networks remained strong through the Soviet period and continue to do so today, especially since many people now depend on the informal economy. So whether it is about political power, or to obtain a spot in the city bazaar to sell your produce, much functions on the basis of 'kin helps kin'.

Tribal conflicts were often the cause of bloodshed in the past and even today there are considerable rivalries between groups. Historically there has always been a struggle between northern Kyrgyz and the tribes of the south. At the time just before the initial Russian migration into the region there was a bloody civil war taking place between the Bugun and the Sary-Bagysh for supremacy in the region, and while most northern Kyrgyz tribes were keen to enlist the aid of the Russian Empire to help rid themselves of the Kokand Khanate, many southern tribes, who had sometimes assisted the khanate in the past, were far less enthusiastic.

Such divisions still exist today in modern Kyrgyz politics, rather than straightforward clan loyalty, the struggle for influence is generally between the two tribal power blocks that represent the geographical regions of north and south. This polarised division carries far more weight than party or political ideology and goes some way to explaining why it is hard to completely eradicate bias and cronyism from Kyrgyzstan's political milieu, where the notion of democracy is a relatively new concept in comparison to tribal loyalties that have been firmly entrenched for centuries.