Author interview: 30 Years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Turns and Twists in Economies, Politics, and Societies in the Post-Communist Countries, edited by Alexandr Akimov and Gennadi Kazakevitch

Editor’s note:  In this post, we are pleased to present Alfinura Sharafeyeva (University of Adelaide), who interviews Alexandr Akimov (Griffith University), one of the editors of the volume 30 Years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall:  Turns and Twists in Economies, Politics, and Societies in the Post-Communist Countries, published by Palgrave Press (Palgrave Studies in Economic History). Akimov also authored a chapter in the volume, titled “Why Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan Are Not Singapore: Comparing the First 25 Years of Reforms”.  Here Sharafeyeva and Akimov discuss the impact of issues such as the legacy of communism, authoritarianism, and intraregional cooperation, in the economic development and reform of Central Asia.

What was the key idea of putting the book together, who are the authors, which countries and key topics covered in this book?

The idea of putting together a book came about at the bi-annual conference of Australasian Association of Communist and Post-communist Studies (AACAPS), which we hosted at Griffith University early in 2019. As conference took place in the year when we marked the occasion of 30 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, it was natural that marking the occasion became the main theme of the event. Our goal was to bring together researchers from the Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world to share their research on Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, Central Asia and North Asia. With a diverse paths communist and post-communist countries took since the collapse of the Berlin wall, we were interested to hear the stories across the region on how communism and post-communism have been tracking.  We had a good turnout at the conference with a range of topics of our interest representing all major communist/post-communist countries. There, at the conference, Dr. Gennadi Kazakevitch from Monash University proposed that we prepare a submission for a book volume. I should note that this as not the first book volume, which came out from one of the conferences. Our colleagues, Stephen Fish, Graeme Gill and Milenko Petrovic a few years back published the volume A Quarter Century of Post-Communism Assessed. We thought it was a good idea continuing this nice tradition.

Fig 1  Alexandr Akimov speaking at the AACAPS 2019 conference

Fig 2 Book contributors and other conference participants at AACAPS 2019 conference (photo credit Griffith University)

The book itself, published by Palgrave Macmillan, have a good coverage of disciplines and countries. First section has a focus on common themes for post-communism or broader regional issues, with papers from our distinguished colleagues, such as Leslie Holmes, Richard Pomfret, Gennadi Kazakevicth and Milenko Petrovic. Dr. Kazakevitch starts the book with the taxonomy of post-communist countries, Prof. Pomfret and Dr. Petrovic discuss the transition in Central Asia and South-Eastern Europe, whereas Prof. Holmes talks about the cross -border issue of organized crime in the whole region, including the largest countries in the region – Russia and China.

The second section was dedicated to the largest country in the region – Russia, and examines topics in international relations, media and energy security. We had a combination of established and emerging scholars contributing to this section. The fourth section of the book dug deeper into the history with parallels drawn in Russian revolution and perestroika, migration to Australia by Vietnamese and Yugoslav communities, Chinese and Soviet economic reforms and sociological journey of Zygmunt Baumann. Yet again, there has been a good mix of contributions from prominent and emerging scholars to this section.

The third section that would be of the most interest to the CESS members was dedicated to Central Asia. This region remains relatively under-researched in comparison to its European peers, therefore I was personally very happy that we had four papers in this section, three of them were looking at the various economic aspects of transition and one looking at language and ethnical aspects of legal reforms. Not surprisingly, the largest two countries in the region, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were dominant countries of focus in those papers. In particular, Alisher Ergashev investigated potential reasons for the lack of nutrition in Uzbekistan in his chapter ‘Money can’t buy me love but it can buy apples: an analysis of fruit and vegetable demand in Uzbekistan’. Jakhongir Kakhkharov and Muzaffar Ahunov, in their chapter ‘Squandering remittances income in conspicuous consumption?’, used household level data to examine the impact of remittances from Uzbek workers abroad on the household expenditure on food, consumables, health, education and traditional ceremonies. Aziz Ismatov, in his chapter ‘Equal citizenship, language, and ethnicity dilemmas in the context of the post-socialist legal reforms in Central Asia’ discussed whether citizenship law in Central Asian countries aimed at excluding or including ethnic minorities from the citizenships and thus reduced their rights and freedoms in these countries. Finally, there was my humble contribution to the book where I analysed why Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have not become Central Asian ‘Singapores’.

Your book has been published after 30 years of the fall of the Berlin wall, and in the book’s preface Graeme Gill states that the consequences of the fall of communism in 1989/91 are still with us today. What are the main passes and achievements that have been reached by the post-Communist countries globally? What are the key trajectories of the former members of the USSR and the Soviet bloc after three decades?

Graeme Gill is right that the consequences of communism are still with us. Many in the West, in the first decade of post-communism in Eastern Europe and ex-USSR, thought the communism is done and dusted and we will see the gradual dismantling of communist outposts in countries like China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea. As we know it has not happened. In China, communist party retained and strengthened its grip on power since the Xi Jinping became a leader. In many countries of ex-USSR, early free market reforms were partially reversed, and countries are run by some authoritarian and semi-authoritarian rulers. Even in the largest democracy in the world, USA, under Donald Trump, we saw a reversal of liberal free market ideas and push for protectionism and to a degree – authoritarianism.

The struggles between liberal democracy and authoritarianism, free markets and protectionism, individual rights vs society interests are still there.

In terms of achievements, we can say countries of Eastern Europe, who were able to join European Union, were the major beneficiaries. They were generally able to improve their standards of living, gain more economic and political freedoms, and opportunities for self-realisation. Those countries are generally committed to that Western liberal values, although we saw some reversals of those in countries like Hungary and Poland.  For people in former Soviet Union, it was a bit more of a mixed bag with opportunities for entrepreneurs, access to education and travel abroad for a part of population. However, there have been some inferior outcomes for more vulnerable communities with higher levels of inequality and poverty. Some post-communist countries have settled on the model with a combination of market forces and strong state intervention.

One phenomenal outcome among the communist/post-communist group was China. We all know that market reforms allowed China to leap forward in terms of economic development and improved social outcomes even without liberalisation in the political scene. The system proved to be rather liveable and may stay around for years to come.

Gennadi Kazakevitch shares a Cluster Analysis of the post-communist countries transition from planned to market economy. Could you briefly explain the concept of the clustering? We can find that Central Asian economies are spread across different clusters. What are the key reasons for such a trend?

The concept of clustering in Dr. Kazakevitch’s analysis is an attempt to form groupings of countries that share certain characteristics. In this work, indicators from the Economic Freedom survey, such as property rights, government integrity and corruption, government spending, business freedom, monetary freedom, international trade freedom, investment freedom and financial freedom are used as criteria for forming the clusters. Using statistical methodology, Dr. Kazakevitch was able to narrow the number of clusters to five. Central Asian countries were spread over three cluster. Kazakhstan was the only country from the region to appear in cluster 2, which represent countries that ‘more or less successfully built market economies, albeit with some limitations’. The limitations may include significantly higher proportion of grey and black economy, as well as corruption and tax evasion in comparison to developed Western economies. Cluster 3 contained many post-Soviet republics, including Central Asian republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These group is described in the chapter as either authoritarian states or imperfect democracies with quasi-market economies. Finally, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were placed in Cluster 4, which is characterised by strong authoritarianism and a strong intervention of the state in most aspects of economic activity, apart from small business.

This classification is not surprising; Central Asian republics never really declared a goal of becoming liberal Western democracies. They modelled their economic management more in line with countries like Russian and China, both of which are in Cluster 3.

None of the Central Asian countries had previous history as independent states. A common perception in the 1990s was that their prospects for long-term survival were poor. Nevertheless, they have survived for over a quarter of a century. According to Richard Pomfret, what are the key factors that benefitted Central Asian countries? What are the key economic shocks that newly independent countries faced while in transition?

It is hard to pin a set of uniform factors for the whole region. The story of each country is unique. One reason might be that these newly independent countries were largely left to themselves. There have been no strong disruptive forces from major global and regional players. In four out of five republics, local elites were consolidated around the country leaders. The only exception is Tajikistan, which faced problems of Islamic fundamentalism and a civil war until Emomali Rakhmonov came to power. Economically, three out of five countries, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had enough easily tradeable commodities to sustain themselves, such as oil, gas, other mineral resources, agricultural commodities, such as grain and cotton. The economies of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were hit harder. They had to rely on economic support from Russia and to a degree from Kazakhstan and try to develop strong economic ties with China.  Culturally, in four out of five Central Asian republics the population was rather homogeneous, with large ethic majorities of indigenous people. That, to a degree, helped to reduce the probability of ethnic conflicts. The only exception was inter- ethnic conflict in Southern Kyrgyzstan where large Uzbek community resides. Finally, some credit should be given to skillful leadership in countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and in Kyrgyzstan, particularly in difficult 1990s.

The major economic shocks were the immediate years of post-independence when economic ties between the republics of ex-USSR were cut. It took few years for the policy-makers in the countries to get a firm grip on economic management and set reform agendas. Further challenges accompanied Russian and Asian crises at the end of 1990s, where we saw some reform reversals. In 2000s, GFC was certainly a significant test for all economies in the region. Interestingly, closed economies such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan weathered the storm better than more open Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Finally, current Covid-19 pandemic provides even greater economic challenge to the global economies, including economies in the region. We know that political career of Kyrgyz president Sooronbayev became a first casualty of the pandemic induced economic crisis in the region.

Despite the geographic closeness, cultural and common historic ties there is still weak intra-regional cooperation among Central Asian economies. Why and what could be done to improve the situation?

There are several objective and subjective reasons for relatively low level of intra-regional cooperation. For economic relations and trade, the key driver is complementarity of goods and services countries produce. In other words, if two countries are to trade, they should be able to offer to each other something that the other wants but does not have. Historically the regions have developed somewhat similar economic structures, which limit opportunities to trade, and even make the countries competitors. For example, Tajikistan agricultural produce is also grown in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, South Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and on a smaller scale Uzbekistan sell oil, gas and other mineral resources to the world market. Still, there are many opportunities that remain untapped. This includes potential for more cooperation in energy, transport, smaller scale manufacturing and construction, food processing and textiles. On a political level, the key condition for stronger ties in the region were arguable relationships between two largest countries in the region – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. However, political rivalry between two ex-Presidents might have played a role why the region has never spoke in a unison. There are some positive emerging trends though, particularly after Mirziyoyev took over leadership in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s relationships with its neighbors have been gradually improving in the last few years, which is promising for intra-regional cooperation.

In the chapter that you authored, you are exploring why Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan did not reach the level of Singapore’s development, as it was the benchmark set up by the heads of these two countries. Could you please explain what made these two countries prefer Singapore’s way of transition to market economy in the first place, and not the traditional “Western” path? What are the conditions that pre-existed in Singapore to become successful in their transition and was not present in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan?

In my chapter, I have never asked a question why the countries aspired to follow Singapore’s development path rather focusing on how they tried to achieve it and what have been achieved.  It is a very good question though, which I will try to answer. A good way to start with is to look what Uzbek and Kazakh leaders said early in their presidency.  Karimov in his 1992 work Uzbekistan: Its Way of Revival and Progress argued for gradual transition to market economy and democracy and emphasized a strong executive power as key for successful implementation of reforms.  Thus, he was dismissive of Polish style shock therapy and liberal democracy, suggesting that people are not ready for this and it will take long-time for mentality to change. Nazarbayev in his autobiographic 2006 book The Kazakhstan Way argued that post-communist transition after the dissolution of the USSR has been a unique process, with no similar historical precedents. The closest experience, he argued, was post-colonial independence of South-East Asian countries, where Singapore stood as a best example of success in building a developed independent state. Both those points, I believe, are the valid points. Eastern European countries that chose rapid transition to capitalism and democratic reforms had an experience of being capitalist countries before World War II with appropriate institutions to support market economy. In contrast, neither Kazakhstan nor Uzbekistan, had a historical experience to lean on. There has been no history of protection of private property rights, no independent courts or legislation that would enforce it, the population with no knowledge on how to exercise its democratic rights. In those circumstances, rapid democratization and shock therapy could lead to a chaos and/or the ‘wild west’ style of capitalism we saw in Russia. Therefore, gradual transition with strong central powers were much more acceptable among the population. In addition, personal ambitions of both leaders to become historical figures also played an important role. One of the advantages Singapore had over both countries was the fact that they did inherit functioning institutions to support the market economy. Lee Kuan Yew and his team had to skillfully use those institutions to promote the strategic development. Another advantage Singapore had over both countries was its geographical location. As a city port, it could relatively smoothly re-focus its trade relationship in line with its priorities. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan do not have access to a seaport. Considering the Afghan conflict, they had no choice but to work with Russia and China as logistical transits for their import/export operations. Since Russia was itself in disarray and west-east infrastructure in China was relatively underdeveloped, the diversification was a rather challenging task. Finally, the fact that Singapore is a small city-state also mattered. The transformation process was much more manageable.

Despite the failure to become “Central Asian Singapore” in 25 years, could you highlight what has been achieved relative to this “benchmark” and what could be done to improve the situation?

Neither Uzbekistan nor Kazakhstan were able to achieve level of socio-economic progress and prosperity we saw in Singapore for a range of objective and subjective reasons. However, some achievements worth highlighting. Linking to your early comment, the fact that both countries have survived the difficult years without major confrontations or civil unrest is already an important achievement. Both countries have recorded impressive economic growth rates since 2000s with a resultant higher average level of economic prosperity, especially in Kazakhstan. Citizens in both countries acquired certain level of civil liberties, including starting their own business and an opportunity to travel/study/live abroad.

What could have been done better? Neither of the countries were able to move away from corruption, cronyism and nepotism. Coupled with relatively low and ineffective investments in education in both countries, this led to much less competitive workforce critical in the modern global economy. We know that Lee saw a strong system of meritocracy in Singapore to be a key ingredient of success. The proper functioning institutions for market economy are also yet to be established, although Kazakhstan is more advanced in this regard. Political interferences are still endemic, especially in Uzbekistan. Notably that current Uzbek leadership highlights the issue as one of the priorities that need fixing. Finally, the economic strategies both countries adopted can also be questioned. Kazakhstan has over-relied on its natural endowment and was largely unable to build any internationally competitive industries apart from mining. Uzbekistan has erroneously focused on import-substitution policy, which also led to creation of some inefficient and government subsidized industries and enterprises, which would not survive the test of time. More open economic policy together with structural reforms should help to change the tides.

Announcement: Writing on Central Asia Marathon

Let’s write together on Central Asia

Writing a dissertation or an article is often a difficult and lonely endeavour, even for experienced scholars.  The Writing on Central Asia marathon (WCAM) helps you to focus on set targets, overcome writer’s block, exchange ideas and have fun in a vibrant community of researchers. All online events are designed to support you in completing your article, dissertation or whatever you are working on.

The next WCAM runs from 1st November to 1st of December 2020. Anyone interested in Central Asian Studies is encouraged to join. There are no participation fees.

Please write to Hikoyat Salimova ( for further details and to join.

“The marathon gave me a sense of community, where we can laugh and discuss important subjects” Gulzat Botoeva, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Roehampton

“I managed to submit one article and one grant application during the marathon” Dinara Abildenova, PhD candidate in Anthropology, University of Zurich

“I benefited a lot from our weekly workshops and coaching sessions, and our ability to learn from each other” Diana T. Kudaibergenova, Research Associate, University of Cambridge

“The marathon was excellent, it helped me to overcome writer’s block, regain my confidence and get back on track with writing-up my dissertation” Sofya Omarova-du Boulay, PhD candidate in Political Science, Oxford Brookes University

Вместе пишем о Центральной Азии!

Писать диссертацию или статью – занятие очень трудное, даже опытные авторы чувствуют себя одинокими. Участвуя в Писательском марафоне по Центральной Азии (WCAM), мы не только помогаем друг другу сохранять фокус, преодолеть творческий кризис, но и весело, и, главное, продуктивно проводим время в нашем академически-заряженном сообществе, обмениваясь идеями и обратной связью. Мы организуем онлайн встречи в поддержку наших задач по написанию и завершению статей, диссертаций или других целей, над которыми мы работаем.

Следующий Писательский марафон начинается 1 ноября и завершится 1 декабря 2020 года. Приглашаются все заинтересованные лица в изучении Центральной Азии. У нас нет членских взносов.

По всем дополнительным вопросам и для регистрации на марафон, пишите Хикоят Салимовой (

«Марафон подарил мне чувство общности, когда мы вместе смеялись и обсуждали сложные и важные темы», – Гульзат Ботоева, доцент криминологии Университета Рохэмптона.

«Во время марафона я смогла закончить и сдать статью, а также подать заявку на грант», – Динара Абилденова, докторант антропологии Цюрихского университета.

«Мне очень помогли наши еженедельные встречи и тренинги, и возможность учиться друг у друга», – Диана Т. Кудайбергенова, научный сотрудник Кембриджского университета.

«Марафон был отличным: он помог мне преодолеть писательский кризис, восстановить веру в себя и вернуться в активный ритм написания моей диссертации», – Софья Омарова-Боулу, докторант политологии Университета Оксфорд Брукс.

Орталық Азия жайлы бірге жазайық

Диссертация немесе мақала жазу әдетте тәжірибесі бар ғалымдарға да қиын  болып келеді.  Орталық Азия бойынша жазу марафоны (ОАЖМ) сізге белгіленген мақсатқа зейін қойып, жазуға кедергі келтіретін ойлардан арылуға әрі ашық-жарқын зерттеушілердің ортасында пікір алмасуға мүмкіндік береді. Барлық онлайн іс-шаралар сізді мақаланы, диссертацияны болмаса кез-келген жобаны аяқтауға көмектесу үшін арналған.

Келесі ОАЖМ 2020 жылдық 1-ші қарашасынан желтоқсан айының 1-і аралығында өтеді. Қызығушылық білдіргендерге ортамызға қосылуға шақырамыз. Қатысу тегін.

Көбірек ақпарат үшін Хикоят Салимоваға ( жазсаңыздар болады.

«Марафон маған көтеріңкі көңіл-күй әрі бірге маңызды тақырыптарды талқылайтын

Қауымдастық сезімін берді» Гулзат Ботоева Роегемтон Универсиетінде Криминология бойынша аға оқытушы.

«Марафон барысында бір мақала мен бір жобаның өтінішін аяқтай алдым» Динара Абилденова, Цюрих Университінді антропологиядан  PhD кандидат

«Апта сайын өтетін уоркшоптар мен коучпен өткен семинарлардан алғаным, бір-бірімізден үйренеріміз көп болды» Диана Кудайбергенова Кэмбридж Университетінде зерттеуші ғалым.

«Бұл марафон өте тамаша болды, өзіме деген сенімділігімді көтеріп, қайтадан диссертациямды жазып бастауыма үлкен ықпалын тигізді» София Омарова-ду Боулей, Саясаттану ғалымдарының PhD кандидаты, Оксфорд Брук Университеті

Birgalashib Markaziy Osiyo bo’yicha yozaylik!

Ilmiy maqola yoki dissertasiya yozish oddatda qiyin va yolg’iz harakat, hattoki tajribali olimlar uchun. Markaziy Osiyo bo’yicha yozish marafoni (WCAM) sizga belgilangan maqsadlarga diqqatni jamlashda, yozuv to’siqlarini yengishda, fikr almashish va umuman tadqiqotchilarning jonli jamoasida maza qilishda yordam beradi.

Kelasi WCAM 1 noyabrdan 1 dekabrgacha mo’jalangan. Markaziy Osiyo bo’yicha tadqiqotlarga qiziqishi bo’lgan har kim qo’shilishga da’vat etilgan.  Marafonda ishtirok etish uchun to’lovlar yo’q.

Qo’shimcha ma’lumot va marafonga qo’shilish uchun, iltimos, Hikoyat Salimovaga ( yozing.


“Marafon menga jamoachilik sezgisini bergan: bu yerda biz muhim mavzularni kulgi bilan muhokama qilamiz” Gulzat Botoeva, Kriminologiya bo’yicha Katta Ma’ruzachi, Roehampton Universiteti, Buyuk Britaniya

“Marafon davomida bitta maqola va bitta grant arizasini topshirishga muvaffaq bo’ldim” Dinara Abildenova, antropologiya bo’yicha PhD kandidati, Zurix Universiteti

“Haftalik mashg’ulotlarimiz va murabbiylik mashg’ulotlari, bir-birimizdan o’rganish qobiliyatimiz menga katta foyda keltirdi” Diana T. Kudaibergenova, Ilmiy Hodim, Cambridge Universiteti.

“Marafon juda zo’r edi, bu menga yozuvchining to’siqlarini yengishga, o’zimga bo’lgan ishonchimni qaytarishga va dissertatsiyamni yozish bilan o’z yo’limga qaytishga yordam berdi.” Sofya Omarova-du Boulay, Siyosatshunoslik bo’yicha PhD kandidati, Oxford Brookes Universiteti.


Author Interview: Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan, by Romain Malejacq (Radboud University)

Editor’s note:  Here CESS Blog is pleased to present the fourth installment of our author interview series for those shortlisted for the annual CESS book award in social sciences and humanities this year.  Niamatullah Ibrahimi (La Trobe University), author of both Afghanistan: Politics and Economics in a Globalising State (Routledge 2019, with William Maley), and The Hazaras and the Afghan State: Rebellion, Exclusion, and the Struggle for Recognition (Hurst Publishers 2017) interviews Romain Malejacq (Radboud University) about his book Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan, published by Cornell University Press.

“How do warlords survive and even thrive in contexts that are explicitly set up to undermine them? How do they rise after each fall? Warlord Survival answers these questions. Drawing on hundreds of in-depth interviews in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2018, with ministers, governors, a former vice-president, warlords and their entourages, opposition leaders, diplomats, NGO workers, and local journalists and researchers, Romain Malejacq provides a full investigation of how warlords adapt and explains why weak states like Afghanistan allow it to happen.”  (from the press website)


Many congratulations on the publication of your excellent book, Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan. Can we begin by reflecting on your personal journey that led to the writing of this book? How did you get interested in Afghanistan and the phenomenon of ‘warlordism’ in particular?

Initially, I actually had no intention of working on Afghanistan. In fact, I had absolutely no prior connection to Afghanistan. I spent a year in South Africa as an undergraduate student and that’s really when I became interested in peace and conflict studies. I had also travelled quite extensively throughout Africa before and I continued to do so during that year. It’s almost naturally that I decided to focus my research on African conflicts. I became interested in warlords long before I even thought about studying Afghanistan. I became acquainted with ideas and theories about warlordism while writing my Master’s thesis, which had nothing to do with Afghanistan, but focused exclusively on Liberia and Sierra Leone. I was specifically looking at theories that emerged to describe and explain the Mano River conflicts. Warlordism was an important topic there and I decided to continue on this topic for my PhD. I started my PhD thinking my dissertation would be a comparative study of warlords in a few African countries. It’s only then, the very first month of my doctoral studies, that I had the opportunity to work on and go to Afghanistan for a completely unrelated research project. I jumped on the occasion. I spent that month in Kabul and immediately became fascinated by the place. My PhD advisor then suggested to include Afghanistan as one of my cases, which I did. And I went back to Afghanistan, again and again, every time falling more in love with the place. The more I learned about Afghanistan, the more I realized how complicated it was, the more I realized how little I actually knew. Almost fifteen years later, I still feel this way sometimes, and that’s part of what captivates me and motivates me to go back, time after time. For me, Afghan politics are truly fascinating. Anyway, I quickly understood that there was no point in spreading myself thin and trying to understand multiple places and societies that I knew nothing, or very little, about. I quickly dropped the other cases, and focused on Afghanistan and Afghanistan only. And that’s the story of how I came to study Afghan warlords. I don’t regret a thing.

The author interviewing Ismail Khan in his palace, Herat (photograph by friend of the author)

You have conducted extensive field research over so many years to write this book. Did you encounter any challenges and major surprises during the field work?

Yes! Many challenges and at least as many surprises! First, because Afghan culture is so different from my own. It takes a while for one to get acquainted with people’s traditions and ways of life, and make sure to behave appropriately in all circumstances. I clearly made many faux pas the first times I visited Afghanistan. And I’m sure I still do. Hopefully, less and less… But that’s somehow inevitable. Second, of course, fieldwork is challenging because of the current security situation in Afghanistan. Conducting fieldwork in conflict settings is always challenging but doing research in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly difficult. Especially research on non-state armed actors, such as warlords, militias, or insurgent groups. Access, transportation, accommodation… everything becomes challenging. Last, but maybe most importantly, being confronted with civil war destruction and suffering is something Western researchers are not prepared for. It is of course incomparable with what Afghan people have to go through, and we, foreign researchers, have the ability to leave the conflict behind once we’re done with fieldwork, but experiencing civil war is always traumatizing in one way or another. It is something that needs to be better acknowledged and dealt with, along with all the ethical and moral issues, and sometimes the sense of guilt, that come with doing what we do.[1]

Now, as far surprises go, I actually had quite a few. The first one came almost as soon as I set foot on Afghan soil. I had never been to a conflict zone. I had ideas about what to expect but I vividly remember being quite in shock and impressed by the visuals of foreign intervention. The checkpoints, the sandbags, the barbed wires, the T-walls, I had never seen anything like that before. To add to this, the streets were almost empty, apart for pick-ups filled with young men in arms. After a night of travelling, it made quite an impression on me. It was really something I had never experienced before. What I only realized later is that it was not always like that. We had landed on September 9, on the anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death, which was the reason for the empty streets and the men in arms. And then, a couple of days later, as my friend and I were driving back from a cultural evening at the French high school, I ended up with a green dot on my chest. Nothing happened, the driver slowly reversed the car and we turned around, but that was quite the first trip.

Portrait of Ahmad Shah Massoud with inscription “national hero” (graffiti adding “of Pakistan”), Kabul (photograph by author)

The word ‘warlord’ and its Dari translation jangsalar can have strong pejorative connotations. I remember, many in Afghanistan argued against using the term as they felt it was instrumentalised by some groups to delegitimise and even demonise their rivals. How do you think the practical use and abuse of the term may affect academic research on the topic?

I would like to think that it doesn’t, that the way the term ‘warlord’ is used in the media and by people in general does not affect the analysis, but it does. Academic work on warlords tends to be overly normative. The term is used to vilify a certain category of political actors which, it is assumed, the international community should get rid of. Scholars have compared warlords to viruses and parasites, feeding or encroaching themselves on the population and the state. To hyenas even! Many use the term to evoke these individuals’ violent and criminal behavior, but eclipse anything else that they do or represent. Often with a hint of Orientalism.

There are definitely valid arguments in favor of dropping the term altogether. I personally went back and forth for while. In the end though, I kept the term because I believe that it has academic value. Not to delegitimize political rivals or designate non-state armed actors in sensationalist ways, but as a social science concept. It is often used improperly, normatively, politically even, but it describes a category of political actors that operate according to a very distinctive logic.

In the book, I define warlords as “astute political entrepreneurs with a proven ability to organize violence and control territory, who exert and transform authority across different spheres (ideological, economic, military, social, and political) and at different levels of political affairs (local, national, and international)” (p.4). I make absolutely no normative assumption about them. At least I try not to. I just try to focus on what they do rather than on what is assumed of them. It won’t prevent people from making conjectures about what I say about warlords. It goes both ways anyhow. Some will say I am pro-warlords, others that I am anti-warlords. But in fact, I’m neither. I’m just trying to understand and explain a particular phenomenon.

So, going back to your question, yes I believe that the way the term has been used (and abused) does affect academic research, and in a problematic way. It’s even more the case in Afghanistan, where political actors themselves have used it to vilify others, but it does not make the concept less relevant. We just have to be very careful not to use it normatively, and to really distinguish between the social science concept and the popular use of the term.

Soviet tank remnant, Panjshir Valley (photograph by the author)

In your book, you explore how warlords accumulate and project power to survive in highly volatile environments. Can you please explain how power projection by a warlord is different from power politics more generally?

Power projection is the mechanism through which political actors convince others that they are legitimate, and have authority. That’s how warlords remain indispensable in the eyes of those who need what they can provide, whether it is votes, security, or job opportunities. This is not necessarily unique to warlords though. Populist leaders and dictators, for example, use propaganda and other means to boost their image. Most political actors develop sophisticated communication strategies. What is unique about warlords is that have the ability to use violence, which they combine with the capacity to reach all levels of politics.

Thanks to their ability to use violence, not only can warlords supply goods and services that most other political actors cannot, but they can also create disorder. In places where state capacities are weak, like Afghanistan, this makes warlords very distinct from other political actors. It provides them with a lot of new opportunities. And, since a warlord’s power is extremely difficult to assess, it also makes them very difficult to get rid of. Those who would like to see warlords wither away have to deal with them quite conservatively, as they fear their capacity to foster instability.

What I really try to explain in the book is that there is a circular logic to how warlords perpetuate their power. The more powerful they look, the more their wishes will be accommodated, and the more powerful they will become. And the more powerful they are, the more powerful they look. In fact, they remain powerful as long as long as others believe they are. This brings us to the warlords’ second distinctive feature. They have the ability to exert power and make themselves indispensable at all levels of political affairs, from local communities, to political elites in the capital, to foreign state representatives, which, combined with their ability to use violence, allows them to perpetuate their power.

Some have argued that the so-called warlords may find it in their interest to work through state institutions and thus potentially become state builders. You argue that this is a delusion. Can you please explain why you think this is a delusion? 

Well, I don’t necessarily argue that warlord cannot become state builders, or that they cannot be integrated into some sort of state-building process. On the contrary, I conclude the book by saying that state building can only be successful if it involves the incorporation and absorption of the warlords’ social capital and networks on terms that are useful to the state. The delusion is to think that external state building aimed at centralizing and monopolizing political authority will work. Warlords are integral to the way states like Afghanistan actually work and they won’t go anywhere. There is also no reason to believe that they will turn into benevolent civil servants and just abandon their other sources of authority. This is not to say that there can be no state and that warlords cannot play their part in building it. They will if it serves their interests indeed. But they will maintain their ability to harness different sources of power outside of the state. So, yes, warlords can help the state extent its reach, but their power will endure no matter what, whether we like it or not. In fact, they use the state’s authority to increase their own and use their own to increase the state’s. What I’m truly saying in the book is that external state building in Afghanistan and other similar environments is impossible without significant concessions to these warlords. They will not be eliminated and replaced by the state. So yes, external interventions that aim at building centralized, bureaucratic states are doomed to fail and, in these conditions, lead to what I call the delusion of state building.

[1] Malejacq, Romain and Dipali Mukhopadhyay. 2016. “The ‘Tribal Politics’ of Field Research: A Reflection on Power and Partiality in 21st-Century Warzones. Perspectives on Politics 14(4): 1011-1028.

Author Interview: Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity, by Tim Grose (Rose Hulman Institute of Technology)

Editor’s note:  In this, our third installment of the books shortlisted for the CESS annual prizes in social sciences and humanities, Mirshad Ghalip (Indiana University) interviews Tim Grose (Rose Hulman Institute of Technology) about his book Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity, published in 2019 by Hong Kong University Press:

“This is the first book-length study of graduates from the Xinjiang Class, a program that funds senior high school–aged students from Xinjiang, mostly ethnic Uyghur, to attend a four-year course in predominately Han-populated cities in eastern and coastal China. Based on longitudinal field research, Negotiating Inseparability in China: The Xinjiang Class and the Dynamics of Uyghur Identity offers a detailed picture of the multilayered identities of contemporary Uyghur youth and an assessment of the effectiveness of this program in meeting its political goals. The experiences of Xinjiang Class graduates reveal how young, educated Uyghurs strategically and selectively embrace elements of the corporate Chinese Zhonghua minzu identity in order to stretch the boundaries of a non state-defined Uyghur identity. Timothy Grose also argues that the impositions of Chinese Mandarin and secular Chinese Communist Party (CCP) values over ethnic minority languages and religion, and physically displacing young Uyghurs from their neighborhood and cultural environment do not lead to ethnic assimilation, as the CCP apparently expects. Despite pressure from state authorities to urge Xinjiang Class graduates to return after their formal education, the majority of the graduates choose to remain in inner China or to use their Xinjiang Class education as a springboard to seek global citizenship based upon membership in a transnational Islamic community. For those who return to Xinjiang, contrary to the political goal of the program, few intend to serve the CCP, their country, or even their hometown. Instead, their homecomings are marred by disappointment, frustration, and discontent” (from the publisher’s website).


How did you become interested in the Xinjiang Class? Why are these students important in the larger context of understanding the Uyghurs in China?

As is the case with many dissertation projects, which in this case was turned into the book, my research about the Xinjiang Class was a stroke of chance, or maybe luck. My original project sought to examine the development of bilingual education in rural Turpan. However, my host institution at the time, the Minzu University of China, as well as authorities in Xinjiang were making it increasingly difficult for me to stay in this town for extended periods. During a stint in Beijing—I traveled back and forth between the capital and Uyghur areas—I met a talented young woman whose command of Uyghur, Chinese, and English still amaze me to this day. When I remarked about her linguistic skills, she shrugged it off and said: “There are many [Uyghurs] like me. We went to high school in inner China (neidi).” She continued to explain the program, how many students were in her cohort, etc. The rest of the project snowballed from this chance encounter.

When I began my dissertation research, several books were either recently published or in the pipelines about “the Uyghurs.” Of course, these works inspired me as a graduate student and continue to inspire/inform my work today, but I felt as though the scope of these projects were very broad.  All along, I wanted to look more closely at a specific segment of the very diverse population of Uyghurs. Because travel within Xinjiang made it difficult to focus on village life, the Xinjiang Class, I felt, was an appropriate compromise: my work never intended to  speak about or for “the Uyghurs.”

Therefore, I consciously avoid generalizing the experiences of Uyghur Xinjiang Class graduates, and I hesitate to suggest they are somehow representative of young Uyghurs in the twenty-first century. My interlocutors’ understandings of Uyghurness, or Chineseness were informed by specific historical and political currents. If anything, I think the findings of my research demonstrate the unpredictability and “messiness” of identity construction.

The first chapter of the book talks about incubating loyalty or resistance in Chinese boarding schools. Why do the results of the boarding school system vary so much?

Truth be told, I don’t believe these boarding schools are meeting the political objectives set forth by the Chinese Communist Party—educating and molding Uyghur persons devoid of an ethno-national consciousness and religious sensibilities. In other words, and despite some variation on a very individual level, Uyghur graduates of the Xinjiang Class were not internalizing state-defined and mediated ideas of Uyghurness or Chineseness. In fact, I argue that the environments established by these boarding schools—Chinese mono-lingual language policies, strict restrictions on religious practice, limitations on contact with parents, etc.,–activated and strengthened a Uyghur ethno-national identity instead of a minzu (Chinese for ethnic group) identity. Put slightly differently, the boarding schools may have engendered a type of Uyghur ethno-nationalism that the CCP is attempting to contain and eliminate.

Beijing’s Madian Mosque, which was popular among several Xinjiang Class graduates.  (photo credit author)

What makes Uyghur students from the Xinjiang class  practice identity maintenance and interpret Islam in a way that is transnational yet also “mono-minzu”?

What I meant by this line is the tendency for young Uyghurs who began cultivating religious piety to look to sources of Islamic knowledge from international students who professed Islam, Islamic websites, especially from Turkey, even embassies of Muslim-majority countries, and reading books authored by foreign Muslims. Therefore, Uyghurs were looking towards and attempting to make connections (tangible and imagined) with the umma who lived beyond the borders of the Peoples Republic of China. Yet their enthusiasm to learn about Islam from outside Uyghur communities stopped at Hui people. Xinjiang Class graduates, similar to some non-Xinjiang Class Uyghur friends and contacts I have, were skeptical of the sincerity of Hui (another minzu in China) piety.

Why was the CCP so adamant about the return of Xinjiang Class to Xinjiang? What kind of expectation does the CCP have for the Xinjiang Class?

At one time, the CCP believed that Xinjiang Class graduates would serve as a stabilizing element to Uyghur society. They were supposed to be equipped with  the necessary deportment and skills of an upstanding Chinese citizens: patriotism, secularism, mastery of Chinese language, etc. The strategy was to use these individuals to fill low level vacancies in many public sectors, especially education, health care, and agricultural technology. Officials were extremely hopeful that Xinjiang Class graduates would return to rural communities and serve as teachers, which would help the Party carry-out its “bi-lingual” (mostly Chinese language) education program. The Party even offered Xinjiang Class graduates free college tuition if they agreed to serve as teachers for ten years. Perhaps as a surprise to the CCP, however, many Xinjiang Class graduates aspired to different paths, many which led to places other than Xinjiang. Certainly, few wanted to become teachers. Still, in the eyes of Party officials Xinjiang Class graduates had and still have two main responsibility: fill critical needs job while embodying/spreading Party values.

“Education Guidelines of the Party and Country,” Elementary School, Kashgar, 2013.  (photo credit author)

In the context of current reality, what kind of changes do you anticipate would happen to the Xinjiang Class? Would their resistance also be met with a brutal crackdown?

It’s hard to predict. I imagine that authorities will emphasize, even more so than in the recent past, the political ideology courses and ethnic unity activities. After the 2009 Urumchi demonstrations and ensuing violence, CCP officials doubled-down on the political content of the Xinjiang Class curriculum. When Xinjiang Class students return home for summer recess, they are required to attend regular “study sessions” held locally—sometimes jointly with college students who’ve returned home. To my surprise, we haven’t witnessed an increase in annual enrollment. In fact, I believe the number is still capped at just below 10,000 persons/year. However, and strangely, I haven’t found enrollment figures for 2019 and 2020—I just checked in October 2020, the websites had been deactivated.

I can’t imagine Xinjiang Class students—ages 15-18—would resist in a way that threatens the school or cities hosting these schools. Of course, and as do teenagers across the globe, Xinjiang Class students break rules and defy authority figures. Consistent insubordination and severe infractions are dealt with by expulsion.

I do know with certainty, however, that Xinjiang Class graduates have not been immune from the recent state violence. My conclusion speaks of one close contact who was detained in 2017 and his whereabouts and well-being remain unknown. This startling reality says to me that the CCP realizes its own shortcomings in trying to engineer “loyal” and patriotic Chinese citizens out of young Uyghurs.

Statue of Uyghur playing the dap stands above the rubble created by “modernization” projects in Urumchi, 2013. (photo credit author)

New Publication: At Ahura Mazda’s Throne, by Vladimir Karasev

Editor’s note: We present here a brief overview of a new publication by Vladimir Karasev, currently available in Russian language:

“Среди величайших религий мира Зороастризм выделяется своей духовно-нравственной философией, которая вроде и присуща всем мировым религиям, но в тоже время настолько своеобразна, что покоряет мгновенно каждого, кто заинтересовано обратит на неё свой взор. Покоряет простотой понятия Добра и Зла, Правды и Лжи, Света и Тьмы. Ведь в глубине сознания каждого человека теплится невысказанная мысль о творении всего сущего на земле.” (description from the author’s website here, where the volume is also available for purchase).

Vladimir Karasev is one of the well-known archeologists active across the Central Asian and Altai regions as well as Crimea over the past three decades, who worked to excavate Soghdian and Scythian sites among others; his total work comprises over 150 expeditions.  Karasev has lived primarily in Uzbekistan, where he dedicated his career and work to the project of cultural heritage and sites protection.  This work was not always easy, nor supported by the state in either Soviet or post-Soviet times, either for ideological or practical financial reasons.  Karasev’s life-work has been to work beyond the boundaries of political limitations, to bring the rich and multi-faceted cultural history of Central Asia to a global stage.

Here we present the author’s prologue and introduction to At Ahura Mazda’s Throne, republished with permission.

We are grateful and give our special thanks to Ksenia Ilushina, in preparing these materials for the blog.







Азия! Самое будничное и обычное слово для всех жителей Старого Света. Рыбаки из аравийской Джидды, забрасывающие сети в Красное море и такие же ловцы Анадырского залива с Чукотского полуострова, их коллеги с острова Кюсю, Сингапура и цейлонского Коломбо обязательно скажут о себе: «Я азиат!». Потому, что для большей части всего человечества не существует другого мира, а только Азия – пространство, которое равно по площади обоим Америкам.

Менее пятисот лет назад, для любого азиата не существовало другого мира кроме Азии, да ещё ничтожного как по размерам, так и по значению придатка к ней  – Европы. По их мнению, Европа была  дикой, там  живут «варвары, делающие всё не так как у людей…».

Деление мира на Восток и Запад, как любят об этом муссировать европейские учёные и писатели, для азиата просто смешны. И с этим, пожалуй, нельзя не согласиться. Ведь для жителя Японии, Кореи или Камчатки   – Ближний Восток, это очень далёкий Запад.

Потому, что, даже прогрессивный израильтянин или турок, просто не имеют морального права утверждать, что он представитель «западной» – европейской культуры.

Несмотря на то, что самые древние цивилизации человечества, за исключением египетской,  родились и выросли в азиатской «колыбели», ещё всего-то сто лет назад, эта часть света считалась таинственной и загадочной для любого просвещённого и культурного европейца. Экспедиции, отправлявшиеся туда, обрекали себя на непреодолимые трудности, лишения и, подчас, гибель.

Но какое великое озарение охватывало исследователей, которые открывали для себя и «просвещённого мира» загадочную Азию! Закрытые аравийские, китайские, тибетские и индийские города потрясали воображение. Для исследователя открывалась иная философия, иной культурный облик, который казался знакомым и близким, как родные пенаты, взрастившие и воспитавшие первые представления о мире. От этого веяло такой изнывающей ностальгией, что европейские читатели и слушатели рассказов об этих открытиях, считали Азию очень понятной и духовно близкой. Именно это стало настоящей катастрофой для интеллектуальной Европы!

Подобно эпидемии беспощадного гриппа умы европейцев стали захватывать изотерические учения псевдо-восточных мудрецов. Бесчисленные сонмы новоявленных магов, просветлённых провидцев, духовных факиров заполонили богемные салоны, театры и дома добропорядочных граждан Европы. Даже великолепный Сэр Артур Конан Дойль, буквально сходил с ума в своих спиритических теориях и экспериментах. Во всех аристократических салонах «мудрой Европы» появлялись толпы толкователей и провидцев, спешащих поведать Истину, спрятанную между строк в священных писаниях самых разных народов. Библия становиться объектом занимательного и романтического чтения с последующими обсуждениями в кружках, где просто витала насыщенная и осязаемая атмосфера  изотерических спекуляций.

Потрясённые открывающимися громадами пространств восточной изотерики, лучшие представители интеллигенции тамошнего мира, опрометчиво, но в то же время и самоотверженно бросались в этот губительный океан. С упорством, которое под силу только параноикам, новоявленные «просветители и миссии», а, по сути, – банальные шарлатаны и ловкие мошенники, изображали из себя учителей (гуру), «познавших всю глубину философского наследия Востока». Конечно, это был обязательный этап, через который проходит каждая научная мысль во времени первоначального становления, в моменты появления грядущих научных эпох. Как любой коллекционер, начинает сбор вожделенных предметов с простого численного накопительства, постепенно обретая опыт и познавая ценность своего занятия, так и новые научные течения, пробиваются через труднопроходимые тернии к широким просторам чистых морей знания.

Прародиной всех крупнейших мировых религий – от иудаизма, с библейскими пророками просветлённых, до бурятских ламаистов со своей изощренной философией, все они были детищами необозримых просторов Азии.

Это, несомненно, должно было возбуждать любопытство и воображение экзальтированных «пифий» новомодных объединений и кружков в Европе. В то же время, для десятков учёных открывались новые и неведомые горизонты познания истории культуры человечества…

«Сердцем Азии» всегда считался Памир – горная система, которая, по мнению азиатов, была «Крышей мира». Он располагается в самой центральной области этой части света. Здесь же – у его подножья, раскинулась и Великая Туранская низменность, на которой сейчас уютно устроились современные Узбекистан и части Таджикистана, Киргизия, Казахстан и Туркменистан. Эти страны, образовались в результате политический коллизий, кипевших на этой территории в последнее столетие, хотя бурлящие потоки передвижения громадных масс народов «терзают» эти пространства уже более трёх тысячелетий.

Истинные пророки истинных религий родились в Азии, где и проповедовали свои откровения. Одной из таких величайших монотеистических религий человечества был Зороастризм.

Практически все учёные-религиоведы (О! Как уничижительно насмешливо звучит это определение – «вед»!) утверждали без сомнения, что эта религия зороастрийцев и её пророк родились в Иране. Но, как мы увидим, истины в этом не больше, чем в утверждениях известной в Х1Х веке мадам Елены фон Ган, ставшей впоследствии Блаватской, которая в новомодных салонах и домах российской аристократии, убеждала простофиль и экзальтированных истеричек в том, что именно она является последней реинкарнацией Гаутамы Просветлённого! Эта, пророчествующая «ведунья», не имела ни малейшего представления о буддийских философских  притчах, в одной из которых говориться: «Как-то, у ближайшего из учеников и последователей Будды спросили о том, что надо делать, если встретишь Будду на дороге? Мудрец ответил –  убей его, ибо истинный Будда находится всегда внутри тебя!». Но Европа, казалась ничтожной и не понимающей её великого «космического» учения. Устроившись в штате Вермонт, она в 1875 году создаёт первое в США теософское Общество. Затем, пишет книгу «Разоблачение Изиды», которая совершенно не потрясла прагматичных и целеустремлённых американцев. Обиженная изотеричка, собрав громадные чемоданы набитые «цивилизованным» барахлом, приплыла обратно в европейское «убожество».