Framing the Impact of Remittances from Labour Migrants in Central Asia, by Jakhongir Kakhkharov (Flinders University, Australia)

Labour migrants’ remittances are a rapidly growing phenomenon in the countries of the former Soviet Union (please see Figure 1). The size and growth of remittances in the countries of the recipients have brought the issue under the scrutiny of both researchers and policymakers alike. How can we use economic research to contribute to a deeper understanding of the interaction between the financial system, investment, remittances, household and firm behaviour, and migration? A focus on the determinants and economic impact of remittances from labor migrants allows us both to generate insights to inform theory as well as to inform real world decision makers in the areas of public policy. There may be a number of reasons why migrants send remittances, such as  ‘pure altruism’, ‘pure self-interest’, and ‘tempered altruism or enlightened self-interest’ (Lucas and Stark 1985). The case studies show that in various regions and countries different motives for sending remittances may dominate.

Figure 1. Inflows to Central and Eastern Europe, Mongolia, and the former Soviet Union (% of GDP), 2001-2012

Data source: World Development Indicators (World Bank)

The New Economics of Labour Migration (NELM), developed by Stark (1991) and others, links remittance behaviour to migration decisions. According to the NELM, migration decisions are a ‘calculated strategy’ of households aimed at improving the well-being of the whole family, and not an ‘act of desperation or boundless optimism’ (Stark, 1996, p. 26). According to the NELM, by sending a member of a household to migrate, the household aims to maximize joint income and status, and minimize risks. Thus, the NELM offers an important insight into migration decisions by linking labour migration with public policy and capital market failures in the labour-source countries. In making the decision on migration, households design their own strategy to cope with the absence of appropriate credit, insurance instruments and public protection. Remittances from a family member abroad provide an additional source of funding, insurance if the main source of family income falters, and financial protection in case of a rainy day. As such, migration and remittances associated with it can be viewed as a result of risk aversion on the part of a household that has insufficient income.

Applying NELM and testing its conclusions is difficult because frequently data on remittances is not segregated in terms of sources/origins of remittances. Therefore, having data on bilateral remittances flows from the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) is helpful. This CBR bilateral remittances dataset provides detailed information on remittances originating from Russia and flowing to countries receiving remittances from Russia. How can data on bilateral flows help us to understand the Central Asian remittance economy?  In order to answer this question, it is possible to analyse the relationships between formal remittances sent via Money Transfer Operators (MTOs), e.g. Western Union, MoneyGram, Contact and etc. alongside the fees for remitting money for a number of years using various empirical econometric approaches. In addition to macroeconomic, demographic, and financial data from World Development Indicators (World Bank), World Governance Indicators (World Bank), International Financial Statistics (IMF), and Balance of Payment Statistics (IMF) frequently employed in this area of research, this hand-picked dataset[i] used by Kakhkharov, Akimov, and Rhode (2017) includes statistics on annual transfers from Russia via MTOs to each of the remittance recipient countries, the flows of labour migrants from each country in the former USSR to Russia, the number of branches of money transfer operators in Russia, and money remittance fees charged by MTOs.

The econometric estimations show that the main factors behind the growing volume of remittances in the post-Soviet space are an income differential between Russian and post-Soviet states, a reduction in remittance transfer fees, and a depreciation of the Rouble in Russia The inverse relationship between remittance transfer fees and official remittances suggests that migrants switch from informal channels of transferring their hard-won earnings to formal/official channels to send remittances when remittance fees are low. Thus, lower remittance fees may help curb the proportion of informal flows (private, unrecorded channels) and lead to increased use of remittances in the formal/official economy. In contrast, if remittances flow through informal channels, the likelihood that they will end up in underground/informal economy increases. This is not beneficial to the society as most businesses that operate in underground economies are concealed from authorities to avoid paying taxes and meeting official market standards (e.g. safety, minimum wage) (Abdih and Medina, 2013; Buehn, Andreas, and Schneider, 2012). In addition, part of the shadow economy involves illegal activities, such as narcotics, prostitution, smuggling, and trafficking.

Despite trailing behind the top regions in the total volume of total remittances, transition economies of Europe and Central Asia lead the world in terms of remittances per capita as illustrated in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2. Inward remittances per capita, 2014

Source: World Bank, Migration and remittances factbook 2016, third edition.

Figure 3. Inward remittances per capita, 2014

Source: World Bank, Migration and remittances factbook 2016, third edition.

It is also important to understand the link between remittances and the financial system in transition countries, in particular, the link between remittances on one side, and bank credits and deposits on the other side. This issue is important for the region, as economic and finance theory documents the growth-enhancing and poverty-reducing effects of financial development. Recent research demonstrates a robust, significant, and positive link between remittances and financial development, a link that is especially strong in the Central Asian countries. This means that remittances do facilitate positive changes in the financial systems of migrant sending countries (Kakhkharov and Rhode 2019). In order to understand the broader national economic context of which remittances are a part, it is also important to consider the performance of financial systems in the less developed post-Communist economies of the former Soviet Union in fulfilling their vital functions, and to  compare this performance with more advanced transition economies, such as Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia as it is done by Bonin, John, and Wachtel (2003). In general, there is significant progress being made toward building contemporary financial systems in all groups of transition economies across Central Asia, although the gap between financial systems in the less-developed post-communist countries which include Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and their above mentioned advanced counterparts in Eastern Europe remains very large (Kakharov and Akimov 2018). Given these results, the governments in the region should undertake further actions to strengthen the ability of financial systems to deliver their core functions. This will aid the economic growth in Central Asia and close the gap between the levels of development among transition economies.

Another major question related to the consequences of remittances on Central Asian economies is how remittances impact entrepreneurship in the region. As a matter of fact, transforming the remittances and savings of labour migrants into a source of financing for entrepreneurship and other development projects is the focus of many governments’ policies in migrant-sending countries. In the case of Uzbekistan, labour migrants’ remittances and savings facilitated the development of the country’s financial sector, but the degree to which these flows finance the needs of business enterprises is unclear (Kakhkharov 2018). This is a crucial issue because access to finance remains one of the most daunting obstacles to the growth of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in the developing world. Inquiries into this issue show that financial constraints are one of the biggest obstacles to the development of entrepreneurial activities among remittance-receiving households in Uzbekistan (Kakhkharov 2019).  The empirical investigation shows that households receiving remittances invest in family business only when this inflow is supplemented with sufficient income or savings (which remittances can provide) as illustrated in Figure 4. This graph shows that, at low levels of income, receipt of remittances does not increase the probability of a households’ engaging in a family business, possibly because household savings are not sufficient, and remittances must be used for necessities. This effect becomes statistically significant only at higher levels of income. In addition, a comparison of households with similar financial constraints at higher levels of income shows that remittance-recipient households are more likely to own a family business than are those that do not receive remittances. A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that remittance senders target their funds to be invested in a family business. This serves as evidence that part of remittance income goes to finance entrepreneurship. Therefore, by financing small businesses, remittances also facilitate for job creation and economic growth in Uzbekistan. Since other Central Asian countries share many of the economic conditions and parameters of Uzbekistan, perhaps this conclusion is relevant at the regional level as well.

Figure 4. Interaction effects of remittances and income vis a vis probability of having a family business in Uzbekistan at marginal means of control variables.

To sum up, one of the attractive characteristics of remittances is the fact that these transfers are unilateral and do not require an explicit payback. However, another broadly accepted consensus – that remittances are a relatively stable source of foreign exchange flow – may not hold. The recent drastic cutback in remittances as a result of the Russian economic slowdown hurt Central Asian economies that were dependent on the Russian remittances especially badly. This observation should warn against complacency among economic policymakers in the transition economies. As remittances might be rather volatile, policymakers should support remittances with sound macroeconomic policies and a favourable business environment in order to maximize the potential benefits of this inflow.

Another policy implication is that governments in transition countries of Europe and Central Asia may want to focus on financial sector development impact of remittances instead of viewing remittances as a survival strategy for households. Particularly, policymakers may consider facilitating and encouraging the flow of remittances to enhance their positive impact on development of the financial system. This could be done by encouraging further decreases in transactions costs associated with transferring remittances through financial system. Finally, given the noted weaker effect of remittances on deposits compared to credit instruments, policies that seek to improve institutional development and depositors’ trust may improve how recipients use the benefits of remittances in deposit expansion.

Framing the impact of remittances in Central Asia shows that remittances have the potential to be a vital investment source for MSMEs if they augmented with bank credit and/or an increase in the amount of remittances. To increase the positive effect of remittances, policymakers should consider strategies to reform the banking sector to boost its role in financing micro- and small businesses, encourage migrants’ families to invest remittances into MSMEs by educating them on how to run a business, and improve the business environment.

Dr Jakhongir Kakhkharov during the Research Seminar on “Remittances and Informal Sector” at Westminster International University in Tashkent in January 2020.

References

Abdih, Yasser, and Leandro Medina. (2013) Measuring the informal economy in the Caucasus and Central Asia. No. 13-137. International Monetary Fund.

Bonin, John, and Paul Wachtel. (2002) “Financial sector development in transition economies: Lessons from the first decade.” Financial Markets, Institutions & Instruments 12.1 (2003): 1-66.

Buehn, Andreas, and Friedrich Schneider. (2012) “Shadow economies around the world: novel insights, accepted knowledge, and new estimates.” International tax and public finance 19.1 (2012): 139-171.

Kakhkharov, Jakhongir. (2019) “Migrant remittances as a source of financing for entrepreneurship.” International Migration 57(5): 37-55.

Kakhkharov, J. (2018) “Remittances as a Source of Finance for Entrepreneurship in Uzbekistan,” in M. Laruelle, & C. Schenk (Eds.), Eurasia on the Move. Interdisciplinary Approaches to a Dynamic Migration Region. The George Washington University, Central Asia Program, 150-159.

Kakhkharov, J., & Akimov, A. (2018) Financial development in less-developed post-communist economies. Problems of Economic Transition60(7): 483-513.

Kakhkharov, J., Akimov, A., & Rohde, N. (2017) Transaction costs and recorded remittances in the post-Soviet economies: Evidence from a new dataset on bilateral flows. Economic Modelling 60: 98-107.

Kakhkharov, J., & Rohde, N. (2019) Remittances and financial development in transition economies. Empirical Economics, 1-33. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00181-019-01642-3

Lucas, R.E.B., Stark, O. (1985) Motivations to remit: evidence from Botswana. Journal of Political Economy 93 (5): 901–918.

Stark, O. (1991) The Migration of Labor. Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, MA.

Stark, O. (1996) On the Microeconomics of Return Migration. Universität Wien, Vienna.

[i] The research presented here uses data from the World Bank, IMF, Central Banks, and household surveys to test the impact of remittances and migration on various economic and financial parameters in the context of transition economies of the former Soviet Union and Central Asia.

Announcing the publication of Vol. 17 (2019) of The Silk Road, an open-access online journal published by the Silk Road House.

All articles for the latest issue can be accessed at: https://edspace.american.edu/silkroadjournal/volume-17-2019/

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Did Richthofen Really Coin “the Silk Road”?
Matthias Mertens

An Interview with Roderick Whitfield on the Stein Collection in the British Museum

Sonya S. Lee

Faces of the Buddha: Lorenzo Pullè and the Museo Indiano in Bologna, 1907-35

Luca Villa

Knotted Carpets from the Taklamakan: A Medium of Ideological and Aesthetic Exchange on the Silk Road, 700 BCE-700 CE

Zhang He

Some Notes on Sogdian Costume in Early Tang China

Sergey A. Yatsenko

An Analysis of Modern Chinese Colophons on the Dunhuang Manuscripts

Justin M. Jacobs

Camel Fairs in India: A Photo Essay

Harvey Follender

BOOK REVIEWS

Robert N. Spengler III, Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Food We Eat

Susan Whitfield

Thomas T. Allsen, The Steppe and the Sea: Pearls in the Mongol Empire

Samuel Rumschlag

Roman Hautala, Crusaders, Missionaries, and Eurasian Nomads in the 13th-14th Centuries

Charles J. Halperin

István Zimonyi, Medieval Nomads in Eastern Europe

Charles J. Halperin

Baumer and Novák, eds., Urban Cultures of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Karakhanids

Barbara Kaim

– Justin M. Jacobs, Editor (jjacobs@american.edu)

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.

 

Presence is Dominance: The History of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Russia’s Influence in Post-Soviet Space, by Sara O’Connor (University of California Irvine)

A Brief History of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (SNTS)

The Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site was built by Kazakh prisoners as commissioned by Joseph Stalin from 1947 to 1949 near a town formerly known as Alash kala[i] and presently as Semey. The SNTS was a vast eighteen thousand square kilometers and was the site of 456 known nuclear weapons tests between its opening and its closure in 1991. Prior to being the home of the most active Soviet nuclear test site, Alash kala and its neighboring city of Karaganda were the home of a burgeoning literary and academic scene due to its role as a destination for Soviet exiles. Dostoevsky’s literary career  started during his time in Semipalatinsk, and its people are featured in Crime and Punishment.  The area is also well known as a native land of Abay Kunanbay uly, father of modern Kazakh poetry.

The climate has a dramatic range between -40 degrees Celsius in the winter and can reach over one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the summer. In the aftermath of the nuclear tests and the closure of the site, Russian scientists declared that they did not follow protocols to bury and protect nuclear material as they could not imagine that anyone would be in the area (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013). Yet it is difficult to imagine that the placement of this project which they wanted out of sight was coincidentally neighboring the village where political dissidents had been sent, and its remoteness circumspect as it has been determined that over 1.3 million people were impacted by the nuclear tests conducted at SNTS (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013).

Photograph from the first expedition of foreign interns to visit the sites at Kurchatov and Semey (2019) with the Center for International Security and Policy.  Photo credit: Oleg Butenko.

From the execution of the first test, the destructive impact of conducting a nuclear test was apparent. The town the Soviets  created as a test site was leveled and the live animals they brought there had all died or were burned and in shock (Kassenova, 2017). Between 1949 and 1963 with the implementation of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, at least twenty-five tests were conducted on the ground and eighty-six in the air, with the last two occurring immediately prior to the treaty signing and in public recollection citizens were only evacuated for one test (Vakulchuk et al, 2014) and otherwise people were informed by radio, or in towns in which there were no radios civilians were informed by letter (Kassenova, 2017); however then like now, many could not afford to relocate or evacuate. From 1963 until the closure of the site in 1991, two hundred and one were conducted tests underground which led to the contamination of ground water and the alteration of the surface ground in the area, yielding an explosive energy release equivalent to more than four-hundred Hiroshima bombs (Vakulchuk et al, 2014)  and  the creation of a new lake known as “Atomic Lake” and to this day unknown consequences in the atmosphere (Kassenova, 2017).

The Soviet government commissioned secret reports on the health and welfare of those within the vicinity of blasts, however when the health of this population became a topic of public debate, the Soviets attributed illnesses and conditions to poor hygiene and diet. A Kazakh institute was founded to further investigate the symptoms and impacts of radiation exposure on the population, and eventually coined “Kainar Syndrome”, named for a village in Kazakhstan where the people had been exposed to radiation due to the tests conducted at SNTS and were deficient in Vitamin C (Atchabarov, 2015). The early symptoms of this syndrome are hemorrhaging of orifices and internal organs, changes in skin, mucus, hair, nails, and extreme fatigue (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). In a report commissioned published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, authors Vakulchuk, Gjerde, Belikhina and Apsalikov categorize the symptoms into acute and early effects (one to ten years post-tests), early-long term (ten to twenty years post-tests) and late long term (twenty or more years post-tests); the early effects most prominently were infant mortality, malformations of the face and nervous system in infants and a doubled rate of leukemia. The early to long term effects include more than thrice-fold increased mortality from cancer, chromosome aberrations which debilitate the body’s ability to fight disease, early onset cardiovascular disease and thrice-fold malformations at birth. The long term effects which are in some cases experienced presently are thrice-fold rates of lung, bronchial and breast cancer and decreased life expectancy (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). This report also included a study conducted by Japanese researchers in Kazakhstan from 2002 to 2004 based on studies they conducted in communities near Hiroshima, and their report concluded that more than ninety-percent of persons within two hundred kilometers felt impacted by the tests, they were told the tests were military not nuclear, and seventy-percent recognized the impact on their community’s health (Kawano and Ohtaki 2006). These issues continuously impact the mental health of the population who while suffering from current known ailments  continue to fear for the future unknown effects.

While some of the land used for the nuclear test site may be restored, large swaths are unlikely to be revitalized and the continuous impacts of the contamination of the Shagan river are unknown (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). Numerous academic and media sources have expressed surprise at the lack of barriers to entry in these contaminated spaces which are both unsafe and have been looted for the leftover metal.

The lake created in 1963 on the Polygon as a result of an explosion that used 20 tons of conventional explosives (an imitation of a nuclear explosion) Photo Credit: Oleg Butenko, retrieved from Voices on Central Asia, “Humans of the Polygon: Travel Notes from the Land of Abai. Karaul, Znamenka (Kokentau), Sarzhal” by Togzhan Kassenova, published 10/9/2016. 

In 1989, a movement since named the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement in reference to the Nevada movement for denuclearization in the United States was launched by a Kazakh writer, Olzhas Suleimenov, in his national television announcement about leaks from the Semipalatinsk website (Cabasso, 2016). He called on Kazakhstanis to protest, and the following day it is reported that approximately one million people took to the streets in response. The Kazakhstani Soviet Socialist Republic government pled and negotiated for the closure of the site, and the USSR regime agreed to a slowing of testing limited to a few tests every few years (Vakulchuk et al, 2014). Upon the fall of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan’s independence, the Kazakh president closed the site and cancelled the two tests planned in 1991. Since that time, Kazakhstan has led a charge for global denuclearization and has been recognized for its efforts on the global stage. However, independence and the closing of this site in no way represented an end to its destructive power and the undue influence of the Russian government in the site’s management and the nation’s governance.

The Cleanup of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site and Remediation for the Effected

The closing of the site occurred in a pivotal moment for the new nation which became a nuclear free country and established with neighboring countries a nuclear free zone in Central Asia (Harrell & Hoffman, 2013). Kazakhstan returned the nuclear weapons to Russia; however, they did not have the resources to do so immediately, and so the Russian government de facto maintained nuclear sites in Kazakhstan until the weapons were repatriated in 1995. In addition to not having the resources to return or secure remaining materials, the Kazakh government did not have resources to care for the effected citizens. They created a program with the goal of providing assistance to the estimated 1.323 million persons within the vicinity of the site assigned “radiation passports” which have allowed them to access lump sums, high salaries, salary increases for government workers, additional paid leave, extended maternity leave, and free healthcare for the children of those effected. There are established judicial proceedings for those whose compensation does not meet their needs and thus far the cases have a 79.7% rate of success. However, the Kazakh government was not able to fulfill these obligations for years after they were made, and this compensation is not available to anyone who moved to the area after 1991 for the considerable industrial development here and in neighboring towns. Further, the site was not secured, and it is known that people have walked in and out of the area.

A faded radiation warning sign near a nuclear crater. Photo Credit: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Semipalatinsk in Pictures”, by John Mecklin 10/9/2016. Photos Copyright Magdalena Stawkowski.

The Project Managing the Atom (within Harvard University’s Belfer Center) released an extensive report on the cleanup process detailing a tri-lateral deal between the U.S., Kazakhstan and Russia (eventually and reluctantly), funded almost entirely by the United States. The Kazakhstanis conducted the fieldwork, and the Russian counterparts were needed as the experts on the facility, however refused to participate unless the Kazakhstanis agreed to not discuss the level of destruction publicly. The Russian government refused to repatriate all materials recovered and thus they were encased in cement and remain buried in Kazakhstan; the site will never be fully restored to nature and the contract to secure the area was awarded to a Russian company [ii] who is now reaping economic benefit from the continued contamination and lack of security of Kazakh land.

Continued Occupation

In The Right to Maim, social theorist Jasbir Puar describes the purposeful debilitation of bodies through injury, malnourishment, deprivation and exclusion of those deemed expendable or undesirable by the perpetrators. For example, the state’s refusal to address and remedy the water crisis in Flint, Michigan which resulted in sickness in the population is a deliberate maiming of that population. In maiming bodies, and destroying the landscapes those bodies reside in (spacioside) perpetrators avoid the rancor that comes with killing while continuously weakening and controlling a population. Puar posits the following points worth consideration in understanding the SNTS: first, environmental toxins as the result of imperialism, and second, and de facto settler colonialism as an ongoing debilitation (2017). The environmental toxins released into the society and remaining in the Kazakh land have led to the ongoing debilitation of an entire region. The effects may continue to be experienced for generations to come. Securing the remnants of the Soviet nuclear project has led to an ongoing security contract in which Kazakhstan pays a Russian security contractor to secure and surveil the only secure portion [iii]of the site essentially paying the perpetrator of this catastrophe and inviting them to surveil their former territory. The Kazakhstanis have not publicly rebuked the Russian state for the creation of the site, nor in public record asked for financial assistance in handling the consequences of the nuclear tests.

Further, in the creation of the nuclear site and the use of prisoners as laborers, we see a revival of the activity that Marx ascribed to the early days of capitalism being implemented in the state conceived theoretically by Marx’s design. In Capital, Marx describes the criminalization of poverty as a mechanism to create a prisoner class available for labor in the post-Feudal era, the poverty which resulted from the shift from a Feudal economy to an industrial capitalist economy. In the case of the former USSR, under land collectivization plans the implementation of an authoritarian regime Kazakhs whom had previously owned land and subsisted through agriculture were stripped of their land and in their critique of this system became criminals ripe for exploitation. These prisoners constituted the labor that built the nuclear site many of whom died in the process (Kassenova, 2017). This exploitation continued as the laborers who remained, and those occupied the area as merchants and service providers of the scientists the USSR moved to the area were subjected to the effects of the nuclear blasts, and in the case of the one evacuation, were asked to stay behind (Kassenova, 2017). Semipalatinsk and the surrounding region were similarly turned into a laboratory as to those who maintained control, it also appeared remote and the outcomes of the test subject were not only of no import, but on occasion embodied a perceived enemy.

Heating Plant, Kurchatov, Kazakhstan Nadav Kander/Courtesy of Flowers Gallery.  Photo Credit: Business Insider, “These Are The Secret Sites Where The Soviet Union Exploded Atomic Bombs And Tested Radiation On Unsuspecting Russians” by Harrison Jacobs, 9/19/2014

Conclusion: Future

Kazakhstan finds itself at another pivotal moment. Their second president since  independence was appointed then elected and the legitimacy of the results are questioned. The first election and all of those thereafter in which Nazarbayev was on the ballot were not considered free or fair by the international community, but in those first moments he responded to the desires of protestors and of a movement. Nazarbayev closed the Semipalatinsk nuclear site, cancelled the two remaining tests, and positioned Kazakhstan as a force in geopolitics through leadership in denuclearization. It is one of the only known instances of public Kazakh rebuke of Russia since independence in no doubt enabled by the auspices of the revolutionary moment. Yet as Kazakhstan is on the precipice of another new era, the opportunity of the occasion is in danger of passing. Tokayev has come to power, a savvy politician who as interim president chose Russia as the destination of his first official visit. Now that his presidency is official, Tokayev has an opportunity to strengthen alliances with other partners, and open up opportunities for the future of the Kazakh people. Through elevating new equitable relationships he can project strength and a commitment to future prosperity.

Acknowledgements:

Dr. Meruert Makhmutova, Director of the Public Policy Research in Almaty and Jenna Sweeney Jones provided crucial revisions to this piece.

This work would not have been possible without the crucial feedback and support provided by Dr. Meruert Makhmutova, Director of the Public Policy Research in Almaty and Jenna Sweeney Jones. The author also wishes to express her gratitude for the photos kindly provided by Oleg Butenko.

References

  1. Atchabarov A. (2015) “Kainar Syndrome: History of the First Epidemiological Case-control Study of the Effect of Radiation and Malnutrition.” Central Asian journal of global health, 4(1), 221. doi:10.5195/cajgh.2015.221
  2. Bahng, A. (2017) Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times. Durham, North Carolina:  Duke University Press. Chapter: Salt Fish Futures: The Irradiated Transpacific and the Financialization of the Human Genome Project
  3. Cabasso, J. (August, 2016). The Enduring Legacy of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement. Western States Legal Foundation. International Conference: Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Astana, Kazakhstan.
  4. Guillory, S. (Host) (2019, October 27) The Radioactive Mutants of Semipalatinsk. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from: https://srbpodcast.org/2019/10/27/the-radioactive-mutants-of-semipalatinsk/
  5. Harrell, E. & Hoffman, D.E. (2013) Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
  6. Kassenova, T. (2017) “Banning nuclear testing: lessons from the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site.” The Nonproliferation Review, 23:3-4, 329-344.
  7. Marx, K. (1887) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Book One: The Process of Production of Capital. Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR.
  8. Olcott, M. B. (2011) “Kazakhstan’s Soviet Legacy.” Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International peace.
  9. Puar, J. (2017) The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham: Duke University Press.
  10. Sisavath, D. (October, 2018) Global Costs of War: Military Waste Material in Post- Conflict Spaces. Presentation at the University of California, Irvine by invitation of the Global Studies Department.
  11. Vakulchuk, R., Gjerde, K., Belikhina, T., and Apsalikov, K. (2014) Semipalatinsk nuclear testing: the humanitarian consequences. (Report No. 1). Oslo, Norway. Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
  12. Scott, J.C. (1999) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Endnotes

[i] Alash kala was the capital of the autonomous state Alash autonomy, governed by Alash Orda who allied themselves with the Bolsheviks. The unrecognized existed from 1917 to 1918 in Karaganda and Semey on the territory of the current Republic of Kazakhstan.

[ii] Eben Harrell and David E. Hoffman, “Plutonium mountain: Inside the 17-year mission to secure a dangerous legacy of Soviet nuclear testing,” (Cambridge, Mass.: The Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, August 2013).

[iii] Only one-fifth of the site is secured, the rest is open and accessible by the public. (SRB interview with Magdalena Stawkowski https://soundcloud.com/srbpodcast/nf02)

 

Becoming an activist scholar: towards more politically engaged and socially accountable research practices in Central Asian studies, by Mohira Suyarkulova (American University of Central Asia)

Editor’s note:  Here we present the full text of one of the invited key note speeches at this year’s annual conference, which was held at George Washington University in October 2019.  We thank Mohira Suyarkulova for her permission to reprint this transcript of the speech here.

Becoming an activist scholar

It is a great honour and privilege for me to be here today and have this opportunity to address a room full of ‘Central Asianists’, people who have dedicated a significant period of their lives, their intellectual capacities and passions to the study of the region I call home.  I myself embody the dual identity of a Central Asian and a ‘Central Asianist’, a native researcher, a kind of a self-referential scholar, socialised and trained through a combination of home schooling and academic migrations.  I am a Central Asian in a truly transnational sense – in that I was born in Tajikistan, from where my family had to leave during the civil war. We then migrated to the hometown of my maternal grandparents – Bukhara – and then to Tashkent, the capital of the newly independent Uzbekistan, where I went to a Turkish high school and completed two years of undergraduate studies at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy; I then received a George Soros-funded scholarship to become an exchange student in Vermont for a year, and then transferred to the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. My postgraduate studies were all in the United Kingdom at St Andrews University, where Will famously met Kate. During my masters’ year funded by a Chevening scholarship, my family back in Uzbekistan were subjected to background checks and told they did not qualify for Uzbek citizenship – our citizenship was revoked, passports taken away, new identities of ‘persons without citizenship’ issued.  Since then I have received a Russian citizenship, and while the rest of my closest family members now reside in Kaliningrad (a curious geopolitical exclave of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania), I have moved back to Bishkek, where I teach at my alma mater. (I am telling you this personal life story not because my life has been extraordinary, but because it reflects some of the processes and events in the region which I tried to reflect on in my research.) My move to Bishkek for the second time signified another watershed moment in my life – I became an activist.

Illustration of the author, by Michael Feaux.

In this talk, based on my personal journey as a researcher, teacher and activist living and working in/on Central Asia, I will share my reflections on whether and how research done in and on the region of ‘Central Asia’ has an emancipatory potential.  Born out of the orientalist tradition and Cold War rivalry, and resurrected as part of the War on Terror, can area studies serve the interests of the “wretched of the earth”? Who is an academic accountable to? How can we engage in a more responsible intellectual labour under the conditions of permanent crises and precarity? What is at stake when we ask certain questions and pledge our energies to specific intellectual pursuits? These are some of the dilemmas that I would like to invite my fellow Central Asianists to reflect on.

When I received the invitation to give this keynote address, I had to fight an urge to decline due to a nasty flare-up of a condition called “imposter syndrome” – ‘chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence’, which makes me feel inadequate and undeserving of the position I occupy, despite the external proof of success and competence I may get.  I spent the months since in constant anxiety, pondering possible topics, takes, arguments. Despite all the doubts and concerns I might have, the most pressing matter to me today is to talk about my transition from a native researcher to an activist scholar. I am a queer woman, a communist and a feminist and my research and teaching reflect my politics. I teach courses on critical theory, discourse analysis and theories of sexuality. I am also one of the founding member of the “Queer Academics AUCA” initiative at the university, which organises public talks and serves as a peer support group. When I wrote my short bio for the announcement of this talk I wondered if such public self-representation was a smart career move.  Will I be taken seriously, I asked myself.  Is my recent focus on the politics of gender and sexuality a professional suicide? In this talk I am in search of myself and the particular position I occupy within the field of social sciences and Central Asian studies by researching and teaching on gender and sexuality.

Four years ago Sarah Kendzior delivered a keynote address to the Central Eurasian Studies Society at Indiana University and entitled it “The Future of Central Asian Studies: A Eulogy”.  With striking clarity and precision, she identified the key issues at stake and mapped out the landscape of a field in a state of crisis. “Our field is a great example of how funding impacts knowledge, and how without money and jobs, research on a region declines. Our field is also a cautionary tale on the dangers of linking independent academic research to military intelligence, and what happens to scholars when the wars that indirectly fund their training end. And our field is also a fine example of the challenges of research in authoritarian states, and the limitations of what scholars can do in restricted information environments,” she said. While all of these still very much hold true, in my talk I would like to present a different set of challenges as they are seen by me as an activist scholar living and working in the region, albeit, admittedly, I occupy a rather privileged position residing in Bishkek, the San Francisco of Central Asia, while teaching at the region’s most liberal university.

Kath Weston in her book Long Slow Burn (1998) makes a case for placing the study of sexuality at the center of social sciences, reclaiming its historical influence in shaping the intellectual foundations of all social science disciplines as we know them.  She argues that the formative debates in many a social science discipline relied on examples from the ‘realm’ of sexuality: “… consider, for one, that eminently contemporary and highly contentious debate on reflexivity in social science. As researchers ponder whether or not to use “I” in their work, they are in effect, grappling with aspects of cultural categories (narcissism, confession, self-indulgence, kiss-and-tell) that have become parcelled off, boxed up, and increasingly marketed under the rubric of sex” (4).

Billboard on a street in Bishkek reading ‘Folks, where are we going?'” Source: Kaktus.media

For all the attention recently garnered by studies of gender and sexuality in Central Asia (as evidenced, among other things, by the programme of CESS conferences in recent years), this subject remains marginalised and viewed as a soft-touch area of knowledge. Inspired by Weston’s call to overcome the ghettoization of the study of gender and sexuality in the social sciences, I want to also emphasize that one can never ‘just’ study gender and sexuality in a neat separation from the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues of concern to the social sciences/Central Asian studies – history, class, ethnicity, race, diaspora, migration, environment, urban politics, religion, electoral behaviour, community mobilisation, to name a few. Once you start deploying the gender and sexuality sensitive optics, you begin to perceive a myriad of phenomena and events in a new light.

My own work since I completed my PhD on Tajik-Uzbek relations in 2011 has evolved to examine the less ‘hard-core’ yet no less complex intersections of nationalism, gender and sexuality and dress, urban life, sociality and human-environment interactions. Nationalist movements in Central Asia have constructed certain conceptions of authenticity, pride and autonomy on the backs of local women and gender-and-sexually-variant-and-noncomforming people. Dress modestly. Clothe yourself to swim. No talking to men who are not mahram/ men of other ethnicities. Behave like a man. Control your women. I am interested in uncovering how these gendered beliefs and practices are implicated in larger structures of oppression, and whether and how a radical change is possible.

My contention is that not only do such studies enrich our field with invaluable empirical materials, but also that significant theoretical insights and methodological advances can be made. Most importantly, critical studies of gender and sexuality bear emancipatory potentiality – they are already generating a possibility of praxis – a process whereby theories and knowledge gained through research are enacted, embodied and realised through action aimed at advocacy, community mobilisation, education and political direct action.  Gender and sexuality scholarship in and on Central Asia is a budding curious “assemblage of paradigmatically dissimilar studies and academic practices” (Kondakov 2016, p. 114). As Alexander Kondakov beautifully put it in relation to the field of queer studies in Russia (but which also applies to Central Asian scholars of gender and sexuality),“It is activism and science at the same time, but even more, it is love in the form of scholarship” (115).

I am by no means a lone warrior in this army of lovers. I am preceded by pioneers of the field such as Marriane Kamp, Adrienne Lynne Edgar, Deniz Kendiyoti, Anna Temkina, Douglas Northrop and Collette Harris.  More recently, Juliette Clezou, Lucia Derenberg, Aksana Ismailbekova, Diana Kudaibergenova, Sophie Roche, Julie McBrien, Cai Wilkinson, and many others have made invaluable contributions. And walking along with me are faithful comrades, whose faces and names I recognise not only from the seminar rooms, conference halls and article pages, but who have been engaged in feminist and LGBTQ organising and activism in Central Asia –  Anara Moldosheva, Mehrigul Ablezova, Altyn Kapalova, Syinat Sultanalieva,  Zhanar Sekerbaeva, Dilya Mamadshoeva, Elena Kim, Nina Bagdasarova, Asel Myrzabekova, Georgy Mamedov, Joanna Hoare, and Anna Kirey.

Yet, though I do not feel lonely and isolated in my intellectual pursuits, the context my fellow gender and sexuality scholars function in is far from nurturing and encouraging. John D’Emilio once wrote in reference to university professors’ stance on LGBTQ issues, “Having been granted the extraordinary privilege of thinking critically as a way of life, we should be astute enough to recognize when a group of people is being systematically mistreated” (quoted in Kondakov 2016:108). This is not the case in Kyrgyzstan, supposedly the most liberal of the Central Asian states, and certainly not true for the rest of the countries in the region.  In many institutions of higher learning and research centers in Central Asia, the scholars fear the consequences of speaking out of turn and engage in self-censorship. Some even appoint themselves as mouthpieces of the ruling ideology, purporting to speak on behalf of the ‘common people’ and ‘national interest’.

It would be easy to label Central Asian scholars as belonging to either ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’ camp, according to the place of their employment, their educational background, their working languages, where they publish their research and the names of the authors they cite in their texts. However, such classification would not be an accurate reflection of the complex institutional politics and contradictory personal positionings of individual scholars within these configurations of power and ideologies. Unfortunately, a PhD from a prestigious western university is not a very good predictor of one’s politics, as evidenced by one recent encounter I had with a professor at AUCA, who accused a former colleague of having ‘openly promoted LGBT among students’.  This was dropped into the conversation casually as an example of how one must not teach gender studies at the university during a discussion of a gender studies concentration offered to the students of the Liberal Arts department of the university.  The exact wording of this ‘casual’ remark in Russian was ‘открыто пропагандировал ЛГБТ’, which is a direct reference of the homophobic law adopted in the Russian Federation in 2013.

The ‘gay propaganda’ norm in Russia outlawed any positive or neutral discussion of the issue of homosexuality among minors. Propaganda of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ bill framed homosexuality as a menace to the whole nation brough from outside. Essentially, it gave a licence to discriminate against the LGBTQ people, has led to the dramatic increase in hate crimes and violence crimes against non-heterosexual and gender noncomforming people (Kondakov 2017).

A similar bill was proposed by some members of Kyrgyz parliament in 2014, but it went even further than the Russian version – criminalising any positive depictions of homosexuality regardless of the age of the audiences.  If passed, the law would amount to outlawing the work of LGBTQ organisations and would send to prison anyone who dared discuss this matter publicly.  A coalition of civil society actors united in opposition to the bill, galvanised further due to the fact that the ‘gay propaganda’ bill was being pushed through in conjuction with a sister-bill (also plagiarised from a Russian counterpart) on ‘foreign agents’ that in reality targetted all NGOs.  Although, thankfully, the bill has not been passed (it has been stuck in the pipeline after the second reading and no one has so far tried to resurrect it), it still has had a negative impact on the lives of LGBTQ people in Kyrgyzstan.

Despite not being an official law of the land, the homophobic norm already exists in the minds of people who enforce it in their interpersonal and professional relationships, leading to fear and (self-)censorship.  So now, even though I have a legitimate reason and right to discuss LGBTQ issues in my classroom and in my research, I can easily be labelled as having an agenda/engaging in propaganda, thus threatening my employment status and future. This is a case of a law which doesn’t exist becoming a part of the transnational shared media field and shaping everyday social relations and institutional arrangements. Despite bearing the proud title of an ‘associate professor’, I am not tenured or on a tenure-track, and like most of my colleagues I have a one-year contract, which means it is extremely easy for the administration to terminate my employment.  Along with many other academics in the world, I am part of the growing class of precariat.

Nevertheless, feminists and queers have persisted and the past several years have been remarkably prolific.  Despite the increased vigilantism and violence of nationalist groups, paranoia of the authorities, police harassment, secret services’ surveillance and the media hype that accompanied and followed the debates regarding the ‘propaganda’ bill, the past several years have been really productive. For instance, Labrys, one of the region’s oldest LGBTQ organisations (founded in 2004), succeeded in advocating for the adoption of a manual for medical and social workers regarding assistance for transgender people. This means that people are no  longer required to undergo surgery in order to receive new identity documents.

Image from the call for applications to become a co-researcher in the participatory action study of LGBTQ lives in Bishkek (Labrys 2018) led by Mohira Suyarkulova.

Additionally, Central Asia has entered the European chapters of international LGBT organisations and advocacy groups like ILGA-Europe, TGEU and EL*C.  This means that now the region is viewed as part of the same political field as European and Caucasian former Soviet republics, aligning with the existing activist networks and funding streams. Initiative groups in other Central Asian countries, where it is impossible to officially register a feminist or LGBT organisation and to work openly, get supported by their Kyrgyz counterparts, who serve as fiscal sponsors, with Bishkek being the regional hub for training and meetings. Local LGBT organisations run community centers and a shelter, engage in hidden advocacy as well as open political action.

There is a sense of pride of what we have been through and what we have managed to accomplish despite the odds. And although international support and solidarity are key, local activists have increasingly sought to articulate specifically Central Asian agendas and visions, resisting the homogenizing influences of global identity politics whereby the loudest voices and concerns tend to be those of North American and Western European counterparts.  People in activist circles who have access to resources and educational opportunities have already started to write the history of the local feminist and LGBT movement through their PhD dissertation and publications. Yet once again, such opportunities are usually found far away from Central Asia and often do not reach the audiences they concern the most.

We want to write our own history and empower our communities through research and education. One such project is the ongoing participatory action study of sexual lives of LGBTQ people in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which I designed and led.  The study started in 2018 and involved co-researchers recruited from among the LGBTQ people in Bishkek, who were trained in research methods and conducted over 90 in-depth biographical interviews with their peers. The purpose of the study was to create a sex education curriculum that reflects the experiences and needs of LGBTQ people in Kyrgyzstan, not simply reproduce the heteronormative medicalised view of our sexuality. We have now transcribed over one hundred hours of audio recordings. The resulting data set is a unique archive of queer lives in Kyrgyzstan, which will become the basis for assessment of the needs of the community, inclusive and sensitive sex education curriculum, and advocacy efforts.

The study has already resulted in a series of public sessions on queer sex ed at a community center, which I teach each month.  Every lesson starts with a set of direct quotations from the interviews, we pose questions about our relationships, bodies, desires, practices and families, and I take my audience on a journey through the ideas and concepts I discovered when reviewing existing literature. These sessions have proven to be among the most popular and well-attended events at the community center. It has definitely been the most fulfilling teaching experience for me. We plan to make the knowledge generated by the project accessible as a book and/or a website.

Another noteworthy event took place this year in Bishkek. In collaboration with AUCA’s Center for Critical Gender Studies, Labrys organised a conference dedicated to LGBT lives and politics in Central Asia. My comrade Georgy Mamedov and myself were the connecting links between these two institutions and the chief organisers of the conference, as we are both AUCA faculty and LGBTQ activists (Georgy is the Chairman of Labrys’s board, while I am a member of the General Assembly of the organisation, also having worked in their Advocacy and Education Programme).  The conference title was “В теме”.  Non-heterosexual and gender nonconforming people in Kyrgyzstan mostly refer to themselves and others in the community as tema or v teme (Russian, literally ‘theme’ and ‘in the theme’). This code-word means people “in the know” or those with the insider knowledge.  The word has many derivatives (temnyi, tematicheskii, temshchik, etc) and is primarily used to refer to specific modes of queer sociality rather than sexual identity, desire or practice (Mamedov 2018). This word is used pretty universally in the post-Soviet space, as opposed to the ‘LGBT’ used in activist circles and kvir used also by some activists, scholars and people from the contemporary art scene. We chose such title deliberately – as a prompt and a provocation to start a conversation about LGBTQ lives in Central Asia.

Open call for submissions to participate in symposium “In the Know: Sex, politics and life of LGBT people in Central Asia”, 22-23 march, 2019, AUCA.

The conference took place in the central forum of AUCA’s new building, with conference presenters speaking into a microphone, in Russian, their presentation slides and videos projected on the large screen, so that despite it being the spring break it was a visible event.  Additionally, the conference program was published on Labrys’ web page, where it was picked up by local journalists, who then reprinted on their sites.  This was an important intellectual and activist event (even if I say so myself), where leading scholars and activists from Central Asian countries, Russian provinces, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as established scholars like Dan Healey, Elena Gapova, Julie Cassiday and Olga Sasunkevich spoke. It was very different from the usual formats of conferences where LGBTQ issues are discussed, where the main focus in usually on HIV prevention, human rights and psychological well being. The above issues are of course of great importance, but they do not reflect the entirety of queer existence in Central Asia.

We believe that social life can be recorded and made sense of in a variety of ways, which is why we encouraged a variety of formats – not only academic presentations, but also works of art, performances, poetic, journalistic and activist notes from the field. We talked about recording and valorising local queer histories and history writing methods, about LGBTQ (auto)ethnographies of the region, about queer cultures and institutions, about the influence of the global LGBTQ politics and agendas on us, and about how we could go beyond the politics of identity that we are offered as the ‘bright future’.  The conference also featured a series of cultural side events, which were held at the local LGBT club “London”, as well as an exhibition and a fashion show at the university.

What was remarkable to us, however, is that the reactions of our colleagues to the event fell into one of two positions, both devaluing the intellectual merit of the event although each in its own way. The first type of reaction was easy to confuse with admiration or a compliment. It went something like “You are so brave! I did not think such a thing would be possible here.” The second reaction pointed out the contentious nature of the subject matter in either an overt or covert form – “It is such a sensitive issue” or “Why don’t you go and discuss these disgusting things behind closed doors and away from children.”  Further, the university administration received calls from the authorities and warned us that in the future we should coordinate (read, seek permission for) such events with them.  Such concern was justified by the complex political situation in the country. “We do not want jigits (lads) on horseback to come to the campus and destroy everything here,” the polite warning was.

Just a couple of weeks prior to the symposium, feminist and LGBTQ groups participated in the march dedicated to the International Women’s Day, which this year attracted a record number of participants and a lot of media attention, due in part to the attempts by nationalist groups, secret police and city authorities’ to ban it and stop it happening.  March organisers published a manifesto listing a broad range of social and political issues, yet the detractors of the march chose the age-old strategy of trying to discredit the movement by pointing out its links to the ‘gay agenda’.  One local newspaper front page headline read “Fags and lezzos staged a coven gathering in the center of Bishkek” with pictures of my comrades and myself posing with rainbow and trans flags.  This, however, once again brought media and public attention to the feminist and LGBTQ agenda – journalists sought comments, live TV shows broadcast debates between nationalists and feminists, and major news sites reprinted Labrys’ statement on “What do the LGBTQ people have to do with it? Why Labrys marches on the 8th of March”, which I authored.  As many activists jokingly noted after the homophbic bill was introduced back in 2014, the attempt to ban propaganda had become the greatest propaganda for the LGBT movement since it sparked a public discussion on the matter.  Likewise, attempts to stop the Women’s march and to smear the protest by calling it a ‘gay pride’ brought into the relief the invisibility of lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer women (even for the international and local organisations whose mandate includes the defense of the rights of all women) and the affinity between the causes of feminism and LGBTQ people. And since the authorities are likely to continue this tactic, we are likely to get even more attention in the future, which we should use to our advantage.

Women’s Day march, 8 March, 2019, Bishkek. Source: Kloop.kg

My intention is to continue to unapologetically engage in ‘propaganda’ in the classroom as well as outside of it.  We must recognise that our work as scholars is always already implicated in politics, whether we intend it to be or not.  Being deliberate and self-conscious about our political and social positionings is what sets apart critical scholarship.  We are all already engaged in some kind of propaganda – the question is not whether you engage in politics, but rather what are your politics. Yet it is usually only those politics that are challenging the status quo that become visible, while the established views are naturalised as eternal, universal and ‘common sense’.

So I would like to conclude this talk by echoing the call from previous generations of radical and critical scholars – for Central Asianists of the world to unite in a praxis – action or engagement upon the world that seeks to create emancipatory change.  Social scientists must aim their research at the alleviation of social problems and must make their results available and informative to the people they concern (Osmond 1983: 50). Marx gave us the legacy of praxis most famously in his eleventh thesis on Fuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. This might not be an easy path to follow, I recognise that, but I believe it is the most meaningful and rewarding one.

i Mamedov, Georgy. 2018.  Unpublished conference paper, Indiana University.