- Blood Ties and the Native Son: Poetics of Patronage in Kyrgyzstan by Aksana Ismailbekova
Born in Bishkek and trained in Germany, the anthropologist Aksana Ismailbekova studies the transition of Kyrgyzstan from a Soviet Republic to an independent nation-state using a case study of one village in Northern Kyrgyzstan. She uses her ethnographic observations of the intrinsic connection between kinship relations and political patronage to argue that clan politics help sustain rather than undermine democracy in Central Asia.
In the course of fourteen months in 2006 and 2007, Ismailbekova observed daily life in the village of Bulak in Chüi Province, conducted interviews with its inhabitants, and participated in their activities. Her study focuses on the rise and fall of a local politician and businessman, Rahim, a "native son" of Bulak raised in Bishkek, who manipulated the ties of kinship and patronage to fulfill his political ambitions at the local level and throughout northern [End Page 304] Kyrgyzstan. Ismailbekova argues that Rahim's strategy was typical of many other Kyrgyz politicians, which made his case paradigmatic for the development of democratic politics in Kyrgyzstan.
The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, and "Concluding Words". The introduction presents the setting of the story and conceptual frameworks used for its interpretation. Chapter 1 discusses the structures of kinship and patronage in Kyrgyz society from the pre-Soviet era to the post-Soviet period. Chapter 2 charts Rahim's place on the genealogical map of local society in Bulak and beyond. Chapter 3 explains the categories of kinship and the operation of patronage networks and kinship practices in the village. Chapter 4 discusses the concept of the "circle of trust" supported by patronage networks, using the example of Rahim's private farm Emgek. Writing about negotiations on the building of a mosque in the village of Orlovka, in chapter 5, the author explicates the link between patronage networks and state structures. Rahim's election to the Kyrgyz parliament from the local election district highlights his return "as a native son" of Bulak. This part of the story is told in chapter 6, which also deconstructs the symbolism of election day to demonstrate how democracy functions in rural Kyrgyzstan and what it really means to ordinary Kyrgyz. Chapter 7 presents Rahim's victory feast as a celebration not only of his election success but also of the power of traditional social ties. The concluding section of the book mentions Rahim's death and the subsequent collapse of patronage networks. The author offers her interpretation of the political meaning of patronage in the modern world and criticizes the normative Western concept of democracy as incompatible with clientelism and tribalism.
Ismailbekova speaks of informal social networks in terms of "social poetics": they are omnipresent and deeply ingrained in the society but not formally institutionalized and need to be explicated by a scholar as both violating and adhering to the official norms. Historically, Kyrgyz tribes were organized along common genealogies and hierarchies, and knowledge of family lineage was transmitted through sanjyra (oral genealogical legends). The lineage was organized according to patrilineal descent. Patron–client relations were established between clan leaders (bii or manap) and the poor, but they were not necessarily blood-based. During Soviet times, kinship and patronage networks survived, even if somewhat modified, as many lineage groups were integrated into the kolkhoz structures. The post-1991 period witnessed the revival of interest in genealogies at the private [End Page 305] and state levels, as the foundation for rewriting the country's official history and promoting national culture. The historic rivalry among different lineages in the north and south of the country contributed in part to the escalation of political tensions that brought about the Revolutions of 2005 and 2010.
It is against this historical background that the author identifies Rahim's position in the structures of kinship in Bulak village. She argues that Rahim was integrated into the segmentary lineage system (which implies a combination of...