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University of Zurich (2010)

Making a living in uncertainty : agro-pastoral livelihoods and institutional transformations in post-socialist rural Kyrgyzstan

Steimann Bernd

Titre : Making a living in uncertainty : agro-pastoral livelihoods and institutional transformations in post-socialist rural Kyrgyzstan Auteur : Steimann Bernd

Université de soutenance : University of Zurich

Grade : Doktorwürde (Dr. sc. nat.) 2010

Over the last two decades, academic and policy-oriented debates on development in post-socialist societies and economies have thrown up starkly contrasting approaches to conceptualizing post-socialist development. The early 1990s were dominated by the neoliberal Washington Consensus, which considered ‘transition’ a rapid and linear process of change from the socialist economy towards modern market capitalism. The tools that were meant to bring about this change included rapid privatization of state assets, price liberalization and deregulation of markets. However, things went seriously wrong. By the mid-1990s it had become obvious that many countries whose governments had followed the Washington Consensus were experiencing the fastest rates of poverty increase worldwide and that socioeconomic disparities had rapidly worsened. The weakening of the neoliberal hegemony eventually gave way to alternative approaches to post-socialist development. They built on the idea of ‘transformation’ as a bundle of evolutionary, multi-directional and open-ended processes, in which actors recombine and improvise on the old and the new in order to cope with the numerous challenges ‘transition’ poses. These alternative approaches promoted a shift away from the previous macroeconomic focus towards multi-level analysis and particularly emphasized actor research at the micro level. The present study takes up these approaches to examine processes of post-socialist transformation in rural Kyrgyzstan. After 1991, Kyrgyzstan was among the fastest neoliberal reformers in the former Soviet Union. Collective farms were dissolved and rural households endowed with private property rights over arable land, livestock, infrastructure and machinery. However, rural Kyrgyzstan today is experiencing widespread poverty and a considerable divide between the wealthy and the poor. In order to gain a better understanding of these processes, the study adopts a livelihoods perspective to examine the recursive relationship between various actors engaged in agro-pastoral production and the institutional and organizational context. To do so, it draws on advances in – among others – new institutional economics, property rights theory and legal pluralism. The empirical data presented here were obtained during a total of 10 months’ field research between 2006 and 2009 in two case study villages in Naryn oblast (province), Central Kyrgyzstan. The study combines quantitative and qualitative methods, i.e. a household survey ; semi-structured in-depth interviews with representatives of local households and state representatives at various levels, and others ; participant observation and group discussions. The first focus of the study is on the existence and emergence of socioeconomic disparities at the level of rural households. A quantitative household survey carried out in spring 2007 revealed a striking gap between wealthy and poor households in terms of livestock ownership, which is a common wealth indicator in rural Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand, there are many households with no animals of their own, as well as numerous smallholders with very small private flocks. On the other hand, there are a few large farm households with large private flocks and access to more private arable land per capita than others. Further qualitative analysis showed that these disparities are not entirely new. Instead, they already existed in the socialist economy, where the principles of rational redistribution and allocative power allowed rural elites to accumulate more wealth than others. At the same time, however, the symbiosis between the official and the so-called ‘second’ economy – in the form of illicit transfers between state-controlled and private production – also ensured the survival of the less wealthy rural population. In many cases, the rapid privatization of the Kyrgyz agriculture in the 1990s exacerbated these existing disparities. The reasons for this include the prominent role of rural elites in the dissolution of ‘their’ kolkhoz and the sometimes unfair distribution of land, livestock and infrastructure ; legislative reforms which often lagged behind decisions taken at the local level and a lack of control by higher levels of the state administration ; a poorly planned distribution process which led to the loss of thousands of animals due to fodder shortages and uncontrolled diseases ; and a striking lack of knowledge among many ordinary kolkhoz workers about how they should establish a private peasant farm and profitable agro-pastoral production. Research thus suggests that the privatization of the Kyrgyz agriculture took place in a hybrid institutional context. Far from being a just and proper distribution of assets along neoliberal rules, it was instead a final round of resource allocation along organizing practices and social networks inherited from the socialist economy. The second focus of the study is on the various actors, practices, organizations and institutions around current agro-pastoral production. It examines how people negotiate, defend and use their property rights over arable land, livestock and pastures. Evidence shows that private land ownership endows people with an economic and symbolic value that suggests a certain sense of security. At the same time, however, it implies new liabilities. Irrigation is subject to the payment of user fees and contributions to maintenance costs, the terms for the use of machinery must be constantly renegotiated, and arable land is subject to taxes. Land cultivation has thus become closely related to monetary exchange. This represents a major obstacle to many among the less wealthy, who often struggle to earn sufficient cash in the local context. More than ten years after the heyday of reforms, the concept of private farm units has not yet come into its own, land has become a liability for many, and a great deal of land has fallen out of production. In terms of animal husbandry, evidence shows that most rural households consider livestock not only a key financial asset that can be converted into cash whenever the need arises, but also a pivotal point for the reproduction of social relations and the definition of wealth. Wealth in the form of livestock is often equal to negotiating power over resources and also governs people’s access to pastures. Evidence shows that wealthier households can refer to formal rules and regulations when they are handy for securing their claim over pastures, but also recombine these rules with other less formal strategies and routine behavior. At the same time, less wealthy households are often unaware of the existing pasture law, or else have no means of referring to or circumventing it. In conclusion, the changes in property relations stemming from the Kyrygz agrarian reforms redefined the economic value and social significance of land and other resources, as well as the livelihood prospects of and the social relations between the asset-rich and the asset-poor. To a considerable extent, community life has evolved according to the logic of the market and social relations have become embedded in a poorly regulated economic system. While wealthy and powerful households can extend their property rights over resources, the less powerful often struggle against various forms of uncertainty, which seriously undermines their prospects to escape the vicious cycle of short-term coping and resource depletion. In the long run, this may exacerbate rural socioeconomic disparities. Under these circumstances, the study suggests that the introduction of new laws and regulations needs careful consideration and must be embedded in a thorough understanding of the specific processes that cause and reproduce disparities between potential stakeholders. Otherwise, apparently ‘strong’ new rules and ‘robust’ institutions run the risk of widening the existing gap between the rich and the poor.


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Page publiée le 20 septembre 2012, mise à jour le 5 novembre 2018