Monday, April 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Retraditionalization of Central Asia Isolates Russians There and Central Asians in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 21 – Since the end of Soviet power, the de-industrialization and impoverishment of Central Asian societies has contributed to a radical retraditionalization of life there, a change that is helping these societies to survive but one that has increased the divide between Central Asians and ethnic Russians there and in Russian cities.
In an article that summarizes the latest research on social change in Central Asia, Moscow analyst Aleksandr Shustov notes that these processes began in the late 1960s, grew during the next decades as Soviet power weakened, and dramatically increased during the 1990s (
Central Asian countries have de-industrialized, he points out, with employment in urban factories falling and that in rural areas increasing. During the 1990s alone, rural employment increased “more than a third” in Kyrgyzstan and more than 20 percent in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Elsewhere, he says, official statistics hide this reality.
As a result, an increasing share of the population has lived in extreme poverty at least for some of the period after 1991. In the early 1990s, one in every eight residents of Kazakhstan, one in every four in Uzbekistan and more than one in every two in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan lived on less than two dollars a day.
All have recovered somewhat, but that shock, Shustov argues, had the effect of destroying many of the Soviet-imposed social arrangements and led Central Asians to turn back to more traditional arrangements, a shift that survives despite some economic improvements in the region and transfer payments from migrants working in Russia.
In Tajikistan, which was ravaged by a civil war in the 1990s, “the role of pre-industrial social structures appeared most clearly.” Even in Soviet times, the traditional clan grouping, the awlod, survived, but in the 1990s, the Moscow scholar says, it became the dominant force in many parts of that country and even led to a revival of blood feuds.
In Uzbekistan, the traditional city quarter system of mahalas returned, displacing secular organizations and serving in addition as a means of social control over residents. In Kyrgyzstan, elder (aksakal) courts took over from the civil ones. And even in Kazakhstan, the traditional biye courts have expanded their role in rural areas.
Not surprisingly, this retraditionalization has been most marked in family and marriage customs. In Tajikistan, where so many men died in the civil war, polygamy has returned, albeit unofficially since the government continues to ban it. Moreover, marriages among close relatives have increased, leading to a rise in birth defects.
According to one study, Shustov reports, 27 percent of all birth defects among Tajiks are the result of such marriages, but despite that public health problem, the country’s health ministry acknowledges that the government is not in a position to prevent such unions.
Another form of retraditionalization with negative social and economic consequences is the often-expensive celebration of marriages. In Tajikistan, the average cost of a wedding is approximately 5,000 U.S. dollars, but the average pay of Tajiks is only 36 dollars a month, a disproportion that has forced many to delay getting married.
In May of last year, Shustov notes, the Tajik government banned such “extraordinary” expenditures on marriage rites, something that did not end the practice but did lead to a doubling of the number of marriages in Tajikistan in the course of a single year.
Such changes in Central Asian societies, the Moscow scholar suggests, have increased “the social-cultural distinctions” between their members and ethnic Russians, both in the region and in the Russian Federation where many Central Asians have moved to get work.
Even those Russians who have lived in Central Asia for much of their lives “are no exception” to this pattern, Shustov says. And that in turn means ever more of them are likely to leave that region as the economy in the Russian Federation improves and their isolation in their longtime homes increases.
And in the Russian Federations, the increasing traditionalization of the Central Asian migrants means that even those who speak Russian are increasingly alien to many ethnic Russians, a situation that dramatically “increases the conflict potential of inter-ethnic relations, which frequently manifests itself in the criminal sphere.”

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