Category Archives: Area Studies

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: The Central Asian Economies in the Twenty-First Century: Paving a New Silk Road, by Richard Pomfret

In this post we welcome Alfinura Sharafeyeva (University of Adelaide), who interviews Professor Richard Pomfret (University of Adelaide) about the course of his work and career, including his most recent book, The Central Asian Economies in the Twenty-First Century: Paving a New Silk Road, where “Pomfret considers the enhanced role of the Central Asian nations in the global economy and their varied ties to China, the European Union, Russia, and the United States. With improved infrastructure and connectivity between China and Europe (reflected in regular rail freight services since 2011 and China’s announcement of its Belt and Road Initiative in 2013), relaxation of United Nations sanctions against Iran in 2016, and the change in Uzbekistan’s presidency in late 2016, a window of opportunity appears to have opened for Central Asian countries to achieve more sustainable economic futures” (Princeton University Press).

This is the third book where you provide analysis of the economic transition in Central Asia.  Do you remember how you started your work on Central Asia?

In July 1992 the new independent states of Central Asia joined the United Nations and had to elect which of the UN’s regional bodies they would participate in.  The Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan joined the UN Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).  The ESCAP Secretariat had little idea how to interact with these formerly centrally planned economies and appointed me in December 1992 as a Regional Advisor.  The story that I was told was that, because I had worked on Poland and on China, I should be able to understand economies halfway in between.

In 1992 the Central Asian economies were unexpectedly in transition from central planning but had little conception of what they were transitioning to.  There were no economists with training in or experience of how market-based economies functioned.  Governments received advice from international bodies, but ministers and officials had little capacity to evaluate the advice.

In the fifteen months that I was with the UN, my role was often as an educator rather than as a policy adviser, and with more success when talking to younger policymakers than to ministers and deputy ministers.

Professor Richard Pomfret and his class during the course on Economic Development of post –Soviet Central Asia organized  by the Structured doctoral programme on Sustainable Agricultural Development in Central Asia (SUSADICA) in Tashkent, June 2019. Photo credit ©SUSADICA

 As an example, on the 1992-3 big issue of the ruble zone, it was difficult to convince senior policymakers, who believed that hyperinflation was due to monopolies increasing prices, that monetary policy was the driver of hyperinflation.  Either the ruble zone had to be reformed so that monetary policy could address the hyperinflation or countries should issue national currencies.  Only Kyrgyzstan learned this lesson in early 1993, while the other four countries did not control hyperinflation until the second half of the decade.                               

What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing about the Central Asian economies? There are some statements in your book that probably may not sound plausible to the officials of these countries. Have you ever received any criticism with this regard?

My biggest challenge has been linguistic.  Having to conduct most meetings through an interpreter creates an inevitable element of incomplete communication.  It also emphasizes outsider status fuelling the criticism that I do not understand the special circumstances/history/culture of a country.

Good economics applies to all economies.  However, on almost all issues application needs to take into account the particular setting.  The criticism that I misunderstood the setting is hard to refute because it may be true on many points.  However, that does not justify the extreme position that “foreign” economics does not apply to country x.  Too often that criticism is used to justify bad economic policies.  To return to the money example; it was much easier to blame monopolists for hyperinflation than to work seriously on avoiding budget deficits that could be covered by creating more money – reducing budget deficits meant higher taxes or lower government spending, either of which would trigger opposition.

The key questions you attempt to answer in the book are related to the economic systems adopted in the newly established states of Central Asia after the collapse of Soviet Union and their consequences, as well as the challenges of development for resource-rich countries. Have you found a unique answer for all five countries to the questions you pose in your book, or each country should be treated individually? How does your work on the Central Asian economies contribute to our understanding of broader theories and themes in the development economies studies?

After returning to academia in 1994 I wrote my book The Economies of Central Asia, which introduced the five countries, their economic background and the initial construction of national economies after dissolution of the Soviet Union.  In 1992, they could be treated as components of a common region with minor variations, although already in 1993-4 economic differences were strengthening.  By 2020 national differences are much stronger, although shared geography, history and culture continue to provide a common background.

The 2006 book The Central Asian Economies since Independence took the story up to the early 2000s.  A big issue in the 1990s had been the choice of transition strategy: shock therapy or gradualism, sequencing of reforms, and so forth.   The Central Asian economies had been seen as a natural experiment with five countries starting from similar initial conditions and adopting different transition strategies.  An important lesson from the 1990s was that successful transition was not simply a matter of creating a market economy, privatizing and restructuring state enterprises, having good trade and macroeconomic policies and so on. It also depended on institutional factors, widely defined.  Uzbekistan benefited from Tashkent having been the administrative centre of Tsarist and Soviet Central Asia.  The Kyrgyz Republic introduced good reforms, but suffered from lack of the institutions needed for markets to flourish (property rights and rule of law more generally, and limited trust of third parties) as well as a paucity of efficient uncorrupted administrators.

The natural experiment was never completed because, more or less coinciding with the completion of basic transition in 1999 and before long-term consequences could be observed, the resource boom began.  Kazakhstan’s economy pulled away from the rest and the countries that were poor in oil and gas, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, fell behind.

The title of the book mentions the new (ancient) Silk Road. Do you find the answers why, being a cross-roads of Eurasia, and liberalizing their markets by joining WTO and other trade agreements, the countries’ trading potential remain realized not in full? Do you agree with the common believe that it is a landlockedness that prevent countries from boosting their trade, or there some other factors that potentially play a greater impediment rather than the region’s geographical position? How do your findings support the active involvement of Central Asian states in the China’s One Belt One Road initiative? What are the key policy recommendations you could draw based on your findings?

Landlockedness can be a boon or a bane depending on a country’s neighbours, and its own policies.  After independence the Central Asian countries were suspicious of trade and of global markets, apart from as outlets for their cotton, oil and gas, or minerals.  Most importantly, this applied to Uzbekistan, which is potentially the major transit country but until 2016 imposed large transit costs.  The situation appears to be changing after the end of the resource boom as the countries seek economic diversification and, given the small domestic and regional markets, exports are a promising destination of new goods.

My 2019 book The Central Asian Economies in the Twenty-first Century: Paving a New Silk Road  discusses the prospects for export diversification, emphasizing the need to reduce policy-imposed costs of international trade.  There is a “window of opportunity” as Eurasian rail connections have been improved, which predates the Belt and Road Initiative but can easily be linked to the Belt and Road Initiative.  Chinese investment is helping to upgrade infrastructure, although there remains an element of anti-Chinese sentiment in the region that could easily be triggered.

A PhD student at Adelaide University is working on the reason why the costs of doing international trade are especially high in Central Asia.  Such research is important to understand the nature of the main trade costs before making policy recommendations for governments to facilitate trade and hence encourage the economic diversification that they wish to promote.

The road from Nukus.  Fieldwork photo credit R. Pomfret.

Would you agree that the economies of Central Asia receive relatively little attention by researchers? What are the remaining unexplored aspects of the Central Asian economies? What sorts of research do you see being done in the near future on this subject?

Yes, although this is changing, especially with the increasing number of Central Asian scholars now producing good research.  Coverage remains patchy and incomplete, but I am constantly positively surprised by seeing a specialized article, thesis or monograph on a previously unaddressed topic.


To Build Central Asian Studies, Invite People In: Teach More Chaghatay by Eric Schluessel, University of Montana

Those of us who devote our careers to the history of Islamic Central Asia frequently wonder why scholarly interest in the field remains low. A survey of publicly-available data supports this impression: of the relatively few scholars who self-identify as Central Asianists in the member directories of organizations such as MESA or AAS, only a handful indicate reading skills in pre-modern Arabic-script Turkic-language sources. That is, while there are many people with solid backgrounds in Russian, Persian, and Chinese sources, and some proficient in modern Turkic languages such as Uzbek, very few could conduct primary research in the language of Babur, Navai, and countless scribes: Chaghatay.[1] Continue reading To Build Central Asian Studies, Invite People In: Teach More Chaghatay by Eric Schluessel, University of Montana

Reflections on a workshop “The Future of Central Asian Studies” by Eva-Marie Dubuisson

“The Future of Central Asian Studies”  was organized by Judith Beyer and Madeleine Reeves at the University of Konstanz  and held on the 11-13th of September 2017. Continue reading Reflections on a workshop “The Future of Central Asian Studies” by Eva-Marie Dubuisson

Live Blogging the #CESS2014 Conference, at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University, Oct. 24-26th


In addressing the complexities created for Kazakhstan’s identity politics by the state’s ethnonym, Alexander Diener described a process in which ethno-nationalization and civic-nationalization–manifest in the concept of “Kazakhstani”– occur alongside one another. In yesterday’s panel “Space and Imagination: Critical Geography and Social Change,” he pondered whether this process is understood better as a duality or hybridity, and questioned its sustainability.  The push to create a unifying ideal comes from the top down as an attempt not only to engender a sense of belonging among ethnic minorities but to play to a broader international audience and present Kazakhstan as a modern state. None of Diener’s respondents, however, said that they consider themselves “Kazakhstani.”

Posted by Sarah Dixon Klump


While most of their traditional nomadic rituals have either declined or been adapted in various ways to new lifestyles, the funeral rite of the Kiiz Üi among Kazakhs in Mongolia persists unvaried. Saida Daukeyeva, in yesterday’s panel on Culture and Power, attributed this not only to the importance of the traditional meaning it holds for participants, but also to its social function within the community. Traditionally, the way in which space and sound are ordered and controlled within the yurt of the deceased during the Kiiz Üi is understood to create a structured space for the deceased’s soul’s transition to the other world. Emphasis is placed on strict observance not only to avoid dishonoring the deceased, but to avert danger for the surviving family, who might suffer if the soul of their loved one is not content. At the same time, however, this ordering of space does the very tangible work of mapping out social relations as participants are organized by relationship, importance, gender, and age, validating the traditional social structure and affirming the group’s values and concepts of kinship.

Posted by Sarah Dixon Klump


Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri, Temple University, reported yesterday on the state of documentary filmmaking in Iran, noting a marked shift since the early 2000s.  Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, documentary film production, along with other art forms, fell under the control of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which has worked to limit western influence on Iranian culture and to reform the “corrupt,” individualistic cinema from the time of the shah and create a “moral Islamic cinema.” Following suit, the documentaries of the 1980s dealt with themes of self-sacrifice, martyrdom, and spirituality.  Since the 2000s, however, documentary films have turned inward, to the lives and experiences of everyday Iranians, focusing on social problems such as drug addiction, poverty, aids, and women’s issues.  Filmmakers persist despite crackdowns; during the presidency of Ahmadinejad, six documentary filmmakers were detained.  Films are screened privately, in small documentary circles.

Posted by Sarah Dixon Klump`


“A woman without a husband is like a horse without reins.”

At yesterday’s panel on Culture and Power, Elena Caprioni reported that she has recorded 156 sexist proverbs against women in the Uyghur language. Such proverbs certainly work to reaffirm the place of women in Uyghur society, but Caprioni put forth that they also serve as a political strategy by Uyghurs to keep their identity alive and maintain purity of tradition in the midst of Han Chinese assimilation efforts. Since 1949, Uyghurs have had to accept the Chinese government’s models of emancipation of women, and these popular proverbs no longer reflect the varied experiences and roles of women now present in Xinjiang. They persist, nonetheless, as means to preserve Uyghur culture and subvert government control.

Posted by Sarah Dixon Klump


Edward Schatz on the crackdown on NGOs and social dissent more broadly in the post-Soviet space: These are very disturbing and cynical developments indeed, but we must not forget that plenty of avenues for protest remain in these societies. Public protest is a phenomenon that has become increasingly contentious, but it is neither the only way that people can check and critique the regime’s power, nor does public protest always produce democratic outcomes.


Scott Radnitz on protest tactics: Outside observers often argue that you can distinguish truly legitimate protests from less legitimate protests based on their tactics.  Certain protest tactics such as peaceful demonstrations  should always be seen as legitimate, whereas other tactics like occupying public buildings or prolonged occupation of public spaces are less legitimate. However, American and other western observers repeatedly support protests that step into the area of illegitimate tactics so long as they agree with their goals. America continued to support Ukrainian protestors even as they became more militant, justifying their tactics as a response to state coercion, but then declared illegitimate the pro-Russia protests in eastern Ukraine that used the same tactics such as occupying public buildings.


Julie George on the Russian response to revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine: We should not present Russia as always working to destabilize and punish states that defy them. Russia’s immediate response to the Rose revolution in Georgia was to seek a peaceful exit for the President, and only joined the war in Ossetia after being repeatedly antagonized by the new regime. They may have succeeded in securing autonomy for Ossetia, but at the expense of their traditional avenues of influence in Georgian politics – exploiting tensions and loyalties within a divided society. For this reason, Russia is not eager to annex eastern Ukriane and create an intractibly anti-Russian stub Ukraine in the west.


David Lewis taking stock of regime change in Eurasia over the past 10 years: The regimes are so dismissive of the very idea of spontaneous, popular mobilization against them that they can only understand protests as a result of western backing – that West’s hands are everywhere instigating civil unrest. This was initially just a response by regimes to challenges to their power, but has morphed into a broader conservative politics.


In this morning’s panel on Teaching Central Eurasian History, participants Scott Levi, Timothy May, Morris Rossabi, and Shoshana Keller addressed the vastness–in time, space, and material–presented by the region. Covering “all of it” becomes impossible not only because of timing and logistical constraints, but because students often lack sufficient background, or get “lost” in the material. Panelists suggested a number of methods for managing the vastness and making it teachable, such as approaching it topically (silk road, Mongol empire, etc.), thematically (environment, language, material culture, technology, etc.), as a “view from Bukhara,” and as an anchor for exploration into wider world history. Keller uses Central Eurasian history in her lower level silk road course as an introduction to thinking like an historian, beginning with prehistory to dismantle major concepts such as race, prompting her students to question their usefulness and challenge established narratives with evidence. At the panel’s conclusion, Levi acknowledged the falling levels of enrollment in history courses, and proposed that Central Eurasian history is uniquely positioned to provide attractive, strong, cross-cutting interdisciplinary courses that more directly meet the shifting needs of new curricula.

Posted by Sarah Dixon Klump


Attending one of the exciting panels right now – “Follow the Money in Soviet Central Asia”! 

Shoshana Keller of Hamilton College presented on “Money and Power between Central Asia and Moscow.” Shoshana discussed how systems of fraudulent financial systems were developed and practiced by kolhoz leaders, but not necessarily as a way of thickening their pockets, but dealing with practical problems of financing infrastructure and other socially needed projects in villages.

Botakoz Kasymbekova of Technische Universitat Berlin is presenting on “The “bai” Dilemma: Grain, Plan and Agency during First Collectivization in Tajikistan.” Botakoz discussed how collectivization – as a process and means of production initially aimed at organizing extracting resources from agricultural regions, i.e., implementing a direct rule. But eventually these attempts turned into the form of grain-requisitioning that was based on tributes, i.e., indirect rule – when the central state ordered how much peripheral agricultural regions were supposed to pay.



Posted by: Aisalkyn Botoeva


At this morning’s panel on Teaching Central Eurasian History, participants Scott Levi, Timothy May, Morris Rossabi, and Shoshana Keller agree that the greatest challenge facing their endeavor is a lack of quality pedagogical materials.  The scholarly literature that exists speaks to a very specific audience and is largely inaccessible to students, and popular books, mostly written by journalists, are too general and ultimately inadequate. Established resources are heavily Russo- and Sino-centric; Central Asian texts have not been translated, translations are not easily useable or accessible, or people are unaware of their existence. Legitimate books are also often unaffordable. Scholars, including some in the room, have starting working to respond to this dearth with works like Scott Levi’s and Ron Sela’s Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology, but participants called more broadly for the development of accessible general histories and biographies.

In the absence of textbooks or accessible primary sources, however, instructors turn to the recent “explosion” of online resources and databases of art an artifacts, and are able to use material culture in engaging and innovative ways with their students.

Posted by Sarah Dixon Klump 


The Workshop on Preparing for Academic and Non­-Academic Job Searches is happening right now!

Scott Levi of Ohio University – spoke about his experience working for three different types of universities. Having extensive experience serving at different search committees, Scott shared with some useful tips. The interview process has to be a conversation – you’re assembling your dossier to highlight your strengths. They’re looking at you as a colleague and not as a grad student. It’s important to come prepared with questions for that position. Your elevator pitch needs to be ready.

David Abramson of Department of State – drawing from his work experience as a policy analyst focusing on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, spoke of his career path. David stated that there’re a number of fellowships that are geared for academics than can serve as a good bridge for getting a job with the state department. Depending on one’s inclinations, it’s possible to keep up with teaching endeavors.

Marianne Kamp of the University of Wyoming spoke of her experience working at different universities. She highlighted that it’s good to remember that job searches involve a big share of chance. It’s also good not to oversell yourself when on the job market, and know who you are, and agree on teaching courses that you are indeed prepared and interested to teach, according to Marianne.

Edward Schatz of the University of Toronto, echoed Marianne’s sentiments and reminded that job search is contingent on chance, but good work will be recognized. As a chair of his current department, Edward suggested that it’s good to remember that search committees go through a lot of files. Cover letters therefore need to be upfront, and state it clearly who you are as a scholar from the first paragraph. It’s good to also provide a narrative to the committee of your career and your specific trajectory. It’s not always recommended to be forceful in saying that you are the best fit – leave it to the committee to decide. Showing that you’ve done your research about the institution that you’re applying to and showing your strengths should speak for themselves.

Cynthia Werner, of U Texas A&M, shared with her experience of being in the job market for several years before landing on her current tenure-track position. Some of the tips included: publishing in top-tier journals, using personal ties (Cynthia knew some of the department members through past conferences), conveying one’s interest in living in the area where that job is located. Cover letters need to be tailored to each job with consideration of the requirements that are mentioned in the job announcement.

Posted by: Aisalkyn Botoeva



Yevgenyiy Zhovtis: Freedom of assembly is heavily truncated in Kazakhstan. Citizens may assemble only in specific locations (on the outskirts of major cities) and only if they successfully register their assembly. The state approves approximately 5% of requests to register, and any form of gathering can be declared an assembly – from laying a garland of flowers to a flash mob. In one curious case, a pensioner who went on hunger strike in his own home to protest his low pension was arrested and declared to have violated the law against assembly without registration.


Yevgenyiy Zhovtis: There is an established principle in democratic societies: Citizens are allowed everything that is not explicitly prohibited, and states are prohibited everything that is not explicitly allowed. This principle is inverted in Central Asia today, but the states are engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with Western democracies. The West criticizes these regimes on individual faults in the laws on freedom of religion or assembly, but only to the extent that will not damage diplomatic relations, and the regimes respond that these measures are necessary to address security threats such as religious extremism.



Yevgenyiy Zhovtis, Director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, on the state of human rights in Central Asia: We are used to a state-directed society, where the state makes all initiatives and tries to preclude civic engagement. We frequently hear the argument that the revolution of 1917 happened without the help of NGOs, and that slavery was ended in the U.S. without the intervention of the CIA.


Yevgenyiy Zhovtis, Director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, on the state of human rights in Central Asia: We cannot understand individual rights without understanding the historically grounded understanding of property rights in the region. Collectivization precluded the development of civil rights and civic engagement as in western democracies.  Privatization after the collapse of the Soviet Union has left a “mine field” set to go off.


Fascinating panel happening right now:

Roundtable on Researchers at Risk in Central Asia
Roundtable on Researchers at Risk in Central Asia

Roundtable on Researchers at Risk in Central Asia. The panel includes Ed Schatz (University of Toronto), John Heathershaw (University of Exeter), Sarfaroz Niyozov (University of Toronto), and Alex Cooley (Bard College, Columbia University – discussant).

Ed Schatz posed four questions to the panel:

1. Are we in a qualitatively different period for conducting research in the region?
2. Mitigation risks without running scared – how to respond?
3. What kinds of opportunities and limitations arise from teams of foreigners and local researchers?
4. What kind of ties between researchers and Central Asian states will create productive and independent research?


I’m attending a fascinating and obviously timely Roundtable on “Researchers at Risk in Central Asia”.  Ed Schatz (U. of Toronto) is discussing a proposal to develop an online platform for scholars to report on research conditions.


“Embedded Economies” panel happening right now, at CESS!

The first presenter Dilafruz Khaydarova of Eurasia Foundation, presented her work on social entrepreneurship in Uzbekistan. Particularly, she focused on what might be lacking in the ecosystem, and what are the existing practices locally that might spark more entrepreneurial activities with social goals.

The second presenter, Gulzat Botoeva, of Essex University presented on hashish economy in Kyrgyzstan.  She shared the results of her research on how persistence of illegal hashish production is intertwined with various forms of social relationships in rural areas. Some of these social relationships involve, as Gulzat states, reciprocal relationships and the emergence of wage labor between well-off and poor families. One of the take-away points from the presentation, is that monetization of social support networks have contributed to the normalization of hashish production and circulation in the form of subsistence for cash.

Finally, Svetlana Jacquesson, of American University of Central Asia, has presented on public clan associations. Svetlana, first presented on how the initial debates on clan politics among scholars focused on about clan and politics; particularly, how kinship networks played a role in the formal political system. Taking off from where political scientists left off, Svetalana stated that she aims to trace the process of how clans transformed into formalized institutions, or Kurultai assemblies, since 2008.


Posted: Aisalkyn Botoeva


“The Curse and the Blessing of Being a Soviet Woman” – another great session happening in the 1:45-3:30pm time slot of the Central Eurasian Studies Conference.

Guljanat Kurmangalieva of Gazi University (Turkey) was the last to present with her presentation on “Unseen Heroes: Narrations of the Kazakh and Kyrgyz Women during World War II”


The authors and the public are engaging in a discussion of issues of moral otherness, the role of reflexivity and creativity in one’s own story of his or her life; as well as advantages and limitations of oral history as a research method.



Post entered by: Aisalkyn Botoeva.


The panel “Societal Power: Protests Politics & Nationalisms in Central Asia” going on right now in room 1512 of Harriman Institute, Columbia University.



Post entered: Aisalkyn Botoeva


A few CESS authors will be live blogging the 2014 conference this week, so stay tuned to our micro posts!