Social Networking by Tribe

A new website in Kazakhstan is seeking to organize today's social web by ancient clan identities.
                                                                                                                               Rulas.kz/screenshot

ALMATY—When Kazakhs meet for the first time, two key questions are all it takes to figure each other out: What part of the country are they from? And what horde and tribe are they? 

The answers immediately establish a person's roots, history, and allegiances—a holdover of ancient tribal divisions that remain relevant in modern-day Kazakhstan.

Now, a new social-networking site is hoping to tap into Kazakhs' tribal identity by grouping users according to their hordes and tribes.

The site, Rulas.kz—based on the Kazakh word for “tribemate”—looks much like any other networking site, with photographs of stylish, mainly young, members decorating a brightly colored homepage.

But in addition to standard registration information like name, e-mail address, and password, Rulas asks applicants to categorize themselves according to “zhuz,” or horde, and any one of the dozens of “ru,” or tribes, belonging to each horde.

Magzhan Turysov, a young Kazakh actor, was one of the first members to register on the site, using an app on his cellphone. Smiling, Turysov said it's “interesting” to belong to a site that immediately divides and distributes its users according to hordes and tribes—but admits he has some reservations.

“We have a saying, ‘Let the face of those who divide people by hordes burn,’” Turysov said. “So I sometimes have doubts. Maybe it will work for some people.”

He said he had just registered and so far had not seen any results. He said he got onto the site hoping to see some of his acquaintances, but so far they hadn't turned up.

Kazakhstan's clan system has existed since the days of the Mongol Empire, with legend holding that Genghis Khan himself laid the groundwork by dividing territory into thirds and granting each to one of his sons. He thereby created the Great, Middle, and Junior hordes that still define modern-day Kazakh society.

Despite their names, the three hordes have no particular hierarchy in either size or power. But they do imply certain characteristics among their members.

Junior zhuz Kazakhs are known as warriors; Middle zhuz members, by contrast, make up the bulk of the country's literary and intellectual class. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is perhaps the best-known representative of the Great zhuz, which is credited with superior management skills and a historic ability to unite the region's disparate nomadic tribes into a single country.

Kremlin strategists often sought to create a balance among the hordes when doling out government posts in Soviet-era Kazakhstan. But since the collapse of the USSR, Nazarbaev has largely surrounded himself with fellow Great zhuz members.

That partiality, critics say, can easily stir clan resentment, especially once dozens of tribal designations—and the fact that some Kazakhs ally themselves with no hordes at all—are folded into the mix. Journalist Toktarali Tanzharyk said a site like Rulas may only make things worse:

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Makpal Mukankyzy writes for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 

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