Are There Castes in Kazakhstan?

At the end of last year, Russian media resource Ogonyok published an interview with Simon Kordonskiy, a professor of the Higher School of Economics and the head of the Khamovniki Fund, in which he spoke on the necessity of using the non-standard approaches when studying Russia. What attracted our attention was the scholar’s opinion that a caste system existed in Russia.

Here are some key massages on the subject taken from the interview (text in bold ours – Kazakhstan 2.0).

“And our reality can be described only through castes. Because the castes, as oppose to classes, ethnic groups or simply social groups are the strata created by the state. Our entire society – from top to bottom – has been constructed by the state. Most castes even have their own laws – regarding the police, the prosecution office, the pension system, etc. When studying castes, it is important to first understand the basic characteristics of the caste structure – are there caste courts, judicial system, assembly and, if there are, how they function. We, however, do not really know about this”.

“I do not argue with the fact that everyone is equal under the Constitution. But you, in your turn, cannot argue against the fact that not everyone is equal under the caste law. Try to enroll your child in a kindergarten and you will discover how many persons, from prosecutors to the low-income individuals, have certain privileges. Since the people are used to understanding and describing reality in the terms of the market paradigm where everyone is equal in the face of the law and democracy, they perceive explicit inequality as nonsense and protest against it. Meanwhile, it is not simply a “flaw” but our constructive feature. And, in the West, the new castes are starting to appear as well”.

“There are quite a few of them. Each one has its own law. State servants of the three categories, the military of the eight-nine categories, law-enforcers of the ten categories, judges of the three categories, elected officials of the three categories… On the other hand, there are individuals of free professions…, there are pensioners of many categories, employees of the state and private companies, traders of the three guilds… The hierarchy is very well-defined”.

State-paid workers is the caste inherited from the USSR that is functioning non-effectively in the new Russia. Its future is unclear – the state-paid workers, by definition, are the people involved in carrying out state social responsibilities. And the state is, de-facto, refusing to carry out such responsibilities. Starting from this year, for example, college teachers are switching to contract labor, in other words, they are losing the state-paid employee status and become just employees. To put it simply, workers. The same is happening in healthcare and among the culture professionals. Scientists also become workers even though all the academic activity today is channeled to make serving the science a matter of the state importance and turn the academics into the titled caste. So far, however, they have not been successful. So, here is the answer to your second question – today’s workers are not those who are engaged in the physical labor, it is everyone who works as an employed person”.

Since Kazakhstan is very similar to Russia and vise versa, we have tried to test Simon Kordonskiy’s hypothesis on the Kazakhstan realia and have come to the conclusion that he is right in many ways. The only thing we do not agree on with the professor is the number of the castes. In our opinion, Kazakhstan has only four. We will describe them citing both the Kazakhstan law and the unofficial rules of life in the country.

The first caste, in our opinion, is the smallest one and consists of Nursultan Nazarbayev and the members of his immediate family. It was formed on the basis of the Kazakhstan Constitution (Section 3, Law on “The First President of Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation”). Based on it, Nursultan Nazarbayev has the rights other citizens do not and cannot have. For example, he can be elected as the head of the state more than two times in a row (Article 42) and his status and responsibilities are determined by a special Constitutional law (Article 46). The law on “The First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation” stipulates that, even after he is released from his duties, Nursultan Nazarbayev has the life-long right:

“1) to reach out to the people of Kazakhstan, the state agencies and the state officials with the initiatives concerning the most important matters of the state building, the domestic and safety policies that must be addressed in an obligatory manner by the state agencies and officials;

2) to speak before the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan and its Houses, at the government meetings that discuss matters important for the country; to lead the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan; to be a part of the Constitutional Council, the Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan”.

With that, the “initiatives concerning the main directions of the domestic and foreign policy of the state are to be approved by the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation”. At the same time, “Interference with the lawfully conducted activities of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation, as well as public insult or any other infringement on the honor and the dignity of the First President of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation are forbidden and prosecuted under the law”.

Article 3 of the Constitutional law “On the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation” stipulates the immunity of both Nursultan Nazarbayev himself as well as the members of his family. Here is a quote (text in bold ours – Kazakhstan 2.0).

“The First President of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation has immunity. He cannot be prosecuted for the actions conducted during his term as President of the Republic of Kazakhstan and, after he retires, for the actions conducted under the status of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation. He cannot be subject to detainment, arrest, search, interrogation, or personal search. The immunity extends to all the private property belonging to the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation and the family members living with him as well as to the housing and office accommodations he uses, the service vehicles, means of communications, correspondence, documents belonging to them. No kind of restrictions can be imposed on the private property belonging to the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation and the family members living with him. Banking privacy and the immunity of the bank accounts of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – the Leader of the Nation and the family members living with him are guaranteed”.  

The cited law allows us to separate Nursultan Nazarbayev and the family members living with him as the single highest caste in Kazakhstan that we have decided to call “The Demigods”.

As for the second highest caste, its size and personal composition are less clear. We believe it consists of about one thousand people. These are the so called political state servants and the persons without an official position in the state apparatus who, for one reason or another, have the means to seriously influence the state, the individual agencies and territories, the officials, the distribution of the zones and spheres of influence, and budget and the quasi-budget expenditures, and so on.

We do not see a point to name them all, but it is precisely this caste we have symbolically called “The Thousand” that serves as the base of Nazarbayev’s power. Every day, we read about them in the Kazakhstan press, see their faces on TV-screens. Their names are mentioned at dinner tables when the Kazakhstanis wish to show off their ambitions, connections, and influence.

The third caste consists of the state and the quasi-state servants and of the people without an official position in the state apparatus but with the unofficial privileges inaccessible to the ordinary Kazakhstanis. Nonetheless, these people do not make it to “The Thousand”. In the Kazakhstan realia, they do possess certain “weight”, “authority”, and “immunity” but all these privileges are much weaker than those of “The Thousand”. In this group, we can distinguish among the other sub-castes, such as the “silovics”, the “committee men”, the “prosecutor’s men”, the “governors’ men”, the “Samruk-Kazyna Fund’s men”, etc. As for the caste itself, we call it “The Servants of the People”.

Finally, the fourth caste consists of the rest of the Kazakhstanis or “The People”. Essentially, if we are to follow Simon Kordonskiy’s reasoning, this caste can also be divided into the sub-castes based on the laws regarding the special rights and responsibilities, the unofficial practices, and the existence of certain group morale. However, we believe that, due to the fact that the Kazakhstan population is eight times smaller than the Russian population and is much more patriarchal, too, the offered classification is just enough.

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