Author Interview: Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence, by Shoshana Keller (Hamilton College)

Editor’s Note: This fall we are pleased to present again a series of some of the books shortlisted for awards in the Social Sciences and Humanities at CESS.  Our second installment features the work of Shoshana Keller, Russia and Central Asia: Coexistence, Conquest, Convergence, published by the University of Toronto Press.

“Russia and Central Asia provides an overview of the relationship between two dynamic regions, highlighting the ways in which Russia and Central Asia have influenced and been influenced by Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This readable synthesis, covering early coexistence in the seventeenth century to the present day, seeks to encourage new ways of thinking about how the modern world developed.

Shoshana Keller focuses on the five major “Stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Cultural and social history are interwoven with the military narrative to provide a sense of the people, their religion, and their practices – all of which were severely tested under Stalin.

The text includes a glossary as well as images and maps that help to highlight 500 years of changes, bringing Central Asia into the general narrative of Russian and world history and introducing a fresh perspective on colonialism and modernity” (press website).

Shoshana Keller recently spoke about her work with Nicholas Seay (the Ohio State University) for the New Books Network; you may listen to their conversation now:  interview can be accessed by clicking this hyperlink, re-posted here with permission from the author. 


Author Interview: Oceans of Milk, Oceans of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire, by Matthew King (University of California, Riverside)

Editor’s Note: This fall we are pleased to present again a series of some of the books shortlisted for awards in the Social Sciences and Humanities at CESS.  In this first installment, Daigengna Duoer (University of California, Santa Barbara) interviews Matthew King (University of California, Riverside), on his book Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire, published by Columbia University Press.

  • A polymath Buddhist monk from Khalkha Mongolia, Zava Damdin Lubsangdamdin (Tib. Blo bzang rta mgrin, 1867-1937), and his writings are the center of focus in your book. What led you to write about him and his hundreds of texts?

After I finished my undergraduate degree, on the invitation of a Tibetan lama who was going on a teaching tour of Gobi Desert villages, I began spending time in Buddhist revivalist communities in Mongolia sometime around 2006. Though I knew nothing about Zava Damdin when I embarked on that first trip (or about Mongolia… or really anything!), it happened that our host was the eminent Mongolian lama Guru Deva Rinpoché. Guru Deva had been at the heart of revival and preservation of Inner Asian monasticism for decades; first in the Tibetan diaspora in India during the 1960s, then in Nepal, and then, after 1991, in Mongolia. In the 1970s, Guru Deva Rinpoché had collected and published the seventeen-volume Collected Works (Tib. Gsung ‘bum) of Zava Damdin from his exile base in Kathmandu.

When I arrived in Ulaanbaatar in 2006, Guru Deva Rinpoché’s residence was a throughway for hundreds of people involved in reviving Buddhist institutions and public ritual traditions in Mongolia and the PRC, from visiting Tibetan lamas to sumo wrestlers, endless streams of monks and lay people, and funders and patrons from across Asia. One of the most prominent members of this entourage was a monk named Luwsandarjaa, considered to be the current incarnation of Zava Damdin. During that summer and over five or six subsequent trips, I spent a great deal of time with this lama and his monks in apartment temples in Ulaanbaatar, at his revived Gobi monastery, and in many town halls, grasslands, and sandy ruins across the Gobi all the way to the Chinese border.

“A religious ritual begins, Ulaanbaatar (1930s).(Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography, and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950]. EAP264/1/9/6/111.)

Appropriately enough, I suppose, I learned about Zava Damdin’s revolutionary-era historical writing from his current incarnation. During my first two visits, his community was widely distributing a modern Cyrillic Mongolian translation of his predecessor’s verse history of Mongolian Buddhism and world history from c. 1910 entitled the Sounding of the Auspicious Dharma Conch (Tib. Bkra shis chos dung bzhad pa’i sgra dbyangs). Though I had been studying classical Tibetan and Mongolian for a while at that point, in these early years I had not yet discovered the extent of Zava Damdin’s surviving writing, never mind the breadth of their content. That would take many, many (many) years of reading and translating. In the meantime, I completed a Master’s thesis based on ethnographic research about the Buddhist revival in the Gobi and then, for my doctoral studies, I turned to historical anthropology and spent several years reading and translating two or three of Zava Damdin’s histories. At that time my interest was not in the social history of knowledge of the late-and post-Qing, but in theoretical conversations about “non-Western historiography.”

Once I began my current job after graduate school, I spent a couple more years reading what amounts to about two thousand pages of Zava Damdin’s historical writing from c. 1900-1931 and two thousand more pages of autobiographical writing from c. 1910-1936. Collectively, I finally realized, these works contained an absolutely unique expression of scholastic interpretations of the Qing collapse and the rise of revolutionary modernism in Asia’s heartland. Inspired by works such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and formed by exchanges at Duke University and in a meeting at Chiangmai during a yearlong SSRC InterAsian fellowship, I decided to try and use Zava Damdin’s writing as the basis for a revisionist, even radical, microhistory of the Qing-socialist transition in Inner Asia and, more broadly, a critique of modernist presumptions beholden to the national subject in the plotting of post-imperial history in Eurasia. The sum of that exploration is Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.

  • Your book points out that living and writing in Asia’s first socialist state in the early twentieth century, Zava Damdin’s Buddhist worldview was challenged by new ideologies inspired by Marx, Lenin, and Western sciences that saw the Buddhist institution as a “lama problem.” What was this perceived “problem” and the proposed “solutions” to it?

Against the enduring authority of the Qing-era Buddhist religious establishment, the fledgling socialist state in Mongolia (1921-1990) remained contingent; it occupied a liminal position between enacting direct military action against Buddhist monasteries and having the authority to impose the rule of law. A fundamental problem facing this first project at socialist state building in Asia was glossed by revolutionary cadres at the time as the “lama question” (Kh. Mong. lam narin asuudal).[1] While early revolutionary leaders worked closely with monastic leaders such as Zava Damdin, or else were themselves prominent Buddhist monks and lay Buddhist literati, the majority of monasteries and their elite prelates opposed the centrifugal forces of reform advanced by the government. Examples of reform initiatives range from public health campaigns and staging European theatre for (apparently unimpressed) rural Mongols, to secular education, Mongolian language publication, industrialization of agriculture, and taxing the rich monastic estates. Such reforms failed to provoke a mass awakening of class consciousness; the number of monks actually grew over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s.

“A view of Ganden monastery and its surrounding area, Ulaanbaatar.(Digital copies of glass plate negatives preserved in the Archives for Cinema, Photography, and Sound Recording, Mongolia [1910s-1950]. EAP264/1/9/2/71.)

At Stalin’s infamous behest in the 1937, General Choibalsan and the party leadership in Mongolia decided the enduring weakness of the socialist state and the enduring strength of monastic estates required a turn to legalized violence. In just over a year, at least 40,000 monks and other “counter-revolutionaries” were tried and shot. Hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned or disrobed. Mongolia’s over 700 monastic complexes and temples were reduced to rubble save three. Here was the final, blunt answer to the “lama question.”

  • How did Zava Damdin respond to these conversations and ruptures following “Asia’s first modern revolution” (coined by historian Urgunge Onon) in his Buddhist writings? What were his major topics of concern?

Though Zava Damdin was memorialized in Soviet-era histories as a unique, modernist outlier of an otherwise counter-revolutionary monastic establishment (because, they decided, he had adopted scientific methods in his historical writing), and though current revivalists in Mongolia remember him as a master of the imperial-era monastic tradition, my research shows that neither are true. During the Qing-socialist transition (c. 1900-1936), Zava Damdin and his conservative and trans-Asian milieu of monks and Chinggisid nobility understood their times in terms neither of the Qing nor the just invented revolutionary national subject.

“Zava Damdin, alias ‘The Spiritual Friend Who Please Mañjughoṣa’ (‘Jam dbyangs dgyes pa’i bshes gnyen).”(Blo-bzaṅ-rta-mgrin, Zhongguo Xi Bei Wen Xian Cong Shu / v. 143-157. 西北少数民族文字文獻; Byaṅ Phyogs Hor Gyi Yul Du Dam Pa’i Chos Rin Po Che “Byuṅ Tshul Gyi Gtam Rgyud Bkra Śis Chos Duṅ Dźad Pa”i Sgra Dbyaṅs, vol. 150 (Lanzhou: Zhongguo Lanzhou: Lanzhou gu ji shu dian, 1990), 25.)

In general, the conservative nobility and monastic elites such as Zava Damdin were overwhelmingly concerned with preserving the integrity and centrality of monasticism in revolutionary Inner Asia; over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, monastic networks became not only the major sedentary institution across eastern Tibet, all Mongolian societies, and Siberia, but also the dominant, nearly singular, site of medicine, literacy, printing, artistic production, and, of course, ritualism and philosophy.  However, in a more interesting and fundamental sense, what was at stake for Zava Damdin and his increasingly embattled milieu was the very mechanism of history and sovereignty itself: contact (Tib. mjal) with purifying, always masculine centers of social, political, and religious reproduction. Here we get to the enduring cultural and social legacies of the Qing imperial formation in Inner Asia that exceeded its political endings. Here too, we find a landscape of social, political, and religious imagination erased by the hegemony of the national subject and state violence. It is this landscape, with all of its revisionist implications for disciplinary treatments of modernization in Asia’s heartland, that I have tried to reconstruct in Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood.

As part of this pressing work to write the Qing ruins into place and time, cosmopolitan monastic elites across the Tibeto-Mongolian-Siberian frontiers such as Zava Damdin were very concerned to engage newly globalized intellectual traditions arriving from Europe. For example, while polyglot frontier scholastics in eastern Tibet and Mongolia had long engaged European mathematics, astronomy, cartography, and art via Jesuits at the Qing court, Zava Damdin is one of the first, to my knowledge, to engage European humanism.  In the pages of a secular newspaper entitled Shine Toli (The New Mirror) that circulated in the Autonomous Period (1911-1919) and in engagements with scholars ranging from Russian Buddhologists,
German diplomats, a member of the Bakhtin Circle, Agvan Dorjiev, and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Zava Damdin and many other Mongolian monastic leaders deeply engaged European arts and sciences. Unlike revolutionary intellectuals, however, these trans-Inner Asian monastic thinkers used the human sciences to extend or subvert received monastic histories from the Qing and also to re-interpret historical and spatial representations in Indian canonical works as varied as the Kālacakra-tantra and the Abhidharma. While I cannot get into the details here, the main takeaway for the social history of knowledge in the region is that this engagement had far less to do with the scientism privileged by the new revolutionary state than with a long narrative and interpretive tradition of frontier scholasticism forged in the polyglot, boundary crossing Tibeto-Mongolian frontiers of the Qing Empire.

  • A really fascinating idea in the book is “enchantment,” which is something that Zava Damdin attempted to historicize in his life’s works. What does this unique historiographic vision tell us about Buddhist views of time and space?

In Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood I use “enchantment” in a specific sense to name the dominant object of historical writing in Inner Asian monastic historiography for much of the last millennia: enlightened agents (buddhas and bodhisattvas) appearing upon the human stage in the bodies of monastic leaders and temporal rulers. This was a centuries-long project along the Sino-Tibetan-and Mongolian interface to historicize the enchantment of Eurasia. The event of history, the object of monastic historiography, was the periodic intervention of enlightened buddhas in the guise of emperors, khans, and monks upon the human stage. The result, as they saw it, was the abundance of social and salvific possibility manifest in forms as diverse as literacy, just law, sacred violence, and, of course, Buddhist monasticism and the promotion of
Buddhist forms of self-and community-cultivation. Turkic, Mongol, Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian communities were known in relation to one another through this lens; and in the early twentieth century treated by my book, so too was the collapse of the Qing and Tsarist Empire, the invasion of Tibet by the British, and the rise of revolutionary nationalism across Asia’s heartland. This orientation to place and time as moved by contact between enlightened
and human actors was, more pragmatically, a dominant language of diplomacy and, during the Qing Empire especially, a way of projecting imperial authority into the Inner Asian frontiers. This was articulated in the “Two Systems” model of a unified religious and political authority (Tib. lugs gnyis, chos srid zung ‘brel; Mong. qoyar yosu). The Two Systems was for Zava Damdin, as it had been for his monastic predecessors, perfected in the Qing-Géluk partnership according to a well-worn model in his late-imperial scholastic tradition. This was a golden age which he referred to regularly as the rising tide of a life-giving “ocean of milk” (Tib. ‘o ma’i rgya mtsho) sweeping across Eurasia’s heartland.

  • The other equally fascinating idea in the book is “disenchantment,” which is when Zava Damdin’s enchanting historiography becomes overtaken by “post-Qing anxiety.” What do his critiques of the disenchantment of post-imperial Inner Asia tell us about Buddhist views of modernity?

In the ruins of the Qing, Zava Damdin’s unenviable task was to “clarify” (Tib. gsal) and “order” (Tib. bkod) his revolutionary times. Occasionally he sought only to appropriately name (Tib. zer) ruptured temporalities, territories, communities, sovereignties, and religiosities. The range of his intellectual interests were vast, ranging from Chinese history to European mechanical sciences and astronomy, yet in all his writing he remained primarily focused on diagnosing the causes and conditions of what was elsewhere being called the revolutionary modern, but which he referred to regularly simply as a toxic, life-denying “ocean of blood” (Tib. khrag gi rgya mtsho).

“Delgeriin Choira, revived Gobi monastery of Zava Damdin near contemporary Delgertsogt, Dundgovi Province.” (photo by Matthew King).

My book contains an extensive presentation of Zava Damidin’s alternative historicization of not just Inner Asian but global history. I won’t give it away here, but in a general Zava Damdin and his trans-Asian milieu understood the Qing collapse as the product of events in 19th century Yeke-yin Küriy-e (modern Ulaanbaatar) and Beijing. After decades of investigation, Zava Damdin determined that the violence and upheavals of socialist state building around him were only symptoms of a grander world historical narrative of decline (one marked also by the authority of scientific empiricism and rule by the masses). Though deeply engaged with revolutionary forces and state narratives, Zava Damdin and his otherwise silent milieu  set the post-Qing world into time, place, and community without any reference to the empty, homogenous time of the nation, for example, or to contact with Europe as marking an epochal transition to modernity in Asia.

  • As you have argued in the book, the historiography of modern Inner Asia has overwhelmingly been driven by state-centric narratives and archives that tend to neatly organize the imperial period and its aftermath into stories of modernization. In addition, you also argue “that the situation is made worse by disciplinary fault lines in the professional study of social, political, and religious history along the Tibeto-Russian-Chinese-Mongolian interface…” So, how would Zava Damdin’s writings and other similar Buddhist responses to modernity offer a corrective to these issues?

I have much to say on this! (Much more than is possible to even summarize here.) Very briefly, my position in this book and in my broader scholarship on the social history of knowledge in the throughways of late-and post-imperial Inner Asia is that the story of modernization is organized too neatly between the imperial period and its aftermath, between Mongolian and Tibetan (and Chinese and European) sources and traditions, between the national subject and what it excludes, and between the arrival of the “modern”—progress, self-mastery, social emancipation, science, technology, socialism, academic institutions, democracy, Europe—and the retreat of the “traditional”—stasis, superstition, other-mastery, suppression, folk tradition, Buddhism and shamanism, scholasticism, monastic institutions, feudalism, Asia.

Such dualisms, like the West/Nonwest binary, the neutrality of the secular humanist gaze, or the modernist staging of the West as site and source of universal knowledge and History—are simply not tenable. For example, in the case study I examine in Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood, the social imagination and active lives of the majority of monastics across Inner Asia cannot be emplotted in the self-descriptive language of a state. Erstwhile cosmologies guided monastic lives during the modern formation of Inner Asia, yet we still know so little about them. Zava Damdin’s oeuvre is just one telling case study, remarkable not necessarily because of its content but because of being recorded and surviving a century of violence.   Here is a vast landscape of social and religious imagination quite apart from what is recorded in state archives, reducible to neither tradition nor the modern, religion, science, monasticism, feudalism, or revolutionary progress.


[1] Here I recommend Christopher Kaplosnki’s 2014 monograph The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia, about state strategies adopted by the people’s party to advance their claim to sovereignty through the analytical frame of Agamben’s use of the Roman legal concept of homo sacer; an exclusionary politics founded on legal exceptionalism and required state violence in perpetual states of emergency.


Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding by International Organizations and the Government in Kyrgyzstan, by Arzuu Sheranova (Corvinus University of Budapest)

This article has been reprinted with permission from The Central Asia Program; it was originally included in the collection:

The author would like to thank Aksana Ismailbekova and Philipp Lottholz for their valuable suggestions and comments on the draft of the article. Translation from Russian to English is made by Philipp Lottholz.  

Peace-Building and International Organizations in Kyrgyzstan

Since 2010, international organizations (IOs) in Kyrgyzstan have been working together with the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic (KR) to achieve sustainable peace and development of the country. International organizations conduct parallel work at the community and national levels, where they help and advise the government in creating a roadmap for the country’s development and raise questions about necessary reforms. In turn, the Kyrgyz government is open to international recommendations and strongly supports cooperation with them. Notwithstanding the efforts of rebuilding infrastructure undertaken by the State Directorate for the Reconstruction and Development of Osh and Jalal-Abad, government measures for peacebuilding and conflict prevention were more technical and institutional in nature, as for example state institutions were organised and reorganised and new concepts were adopted since 2010.

The work directly at the community level after the events of 2010 was mainly carried out as part of projects and grants of international organizations and agencies, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations (UN), which can be divided into three categories. The first category includes projects to alleviate the consequences of the conflict, which worked on the restoration of houses and documents, the allocation of internal refugees, and mediation and reconciliation of the parties. The second category includes projects to reduce tensions and prevent new conflicts, for example, projects focusing on building up capacity of the national and local governments, creating local networks for conflict prevention (early warning systems), training youth groups, women and community elders (Kyrgyz: aksakaldar), and creating networks of non-governmental organizations for effective advocacy and lobbying. Finally, the third category includes projects aiming at sustainable, long-term peace and at developing the country through mini-projects and social business projects implemented by communities (so-called ‘seed grants’), and reforms in public administration, for example, reforms of the police, judiciary and in other sectors.

Despite significant efforts on the part of both IOs and the government, in practice, almost all activities in the communities were carried out in the form of cultural events. Communities have hosted many theatre performances, festivals, competitions, concerts, film screenings, orsport events that have called communities to embrace friendship, tolerance, and diversity. Notwithstanding the fact that these projects were successful in and of themselves, they were also limited, because they were short-termist and unsustainable and theslogans they propagated were quickly misplaced. Therefore, I would like to argue that such cultural events are insufficient to achieve long-term peace and prevent conflicts. The state and international donors need to work on a longer-term solution, in particular on building a “new” civic nation through constructive clarification and promotion at the community level of the collective idea of“Kyrgyz Jarany” (“Kyrgyz citizen”).[i] So far, community-level efforts to explain and promote the idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany” have remained minimal, even though it was adopted in “The Concept for Strengthening the Unity of the People and Interethnic Relations in the Kyrgyz Republic” in 2013 (hereafter referred to as the Concept).

Delegates at the discussion of “Kyrgyz Zharany” at the Government Agency for Local Self-Government and Interethnic Relations in the Kyrgyz Republic 2018, as reported by news.

Some steps of the government to implement this idea do not receive support from communities and local governments, and both the idea and the Concept are perceived as generally seen as top-down measures that were decided without the population participating in their development and understandingtheir values (see Sheranova 2020). The lacking understanding of the importance of the civic idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany” precludes the solution of important socio-economic and political issues by the state, such as lacking economic opportunities and accessto justice, challenges to rule of law, and insufficient minority representation. Working closely with communities to clarify and promote the idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany”, especially from the state’s side, is today’s main priority in ensuring long-term peace,as it helps to shape relationships both among representatives of different ethnic groups and between the communitiesand the government. I will substantiate this argument with the following analysis of the peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts ofinternational organizations and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic as well as effects thereof.

What Happened Yesterday, is Forgotten Today: Celebration and Lack of Diversity

In 2010-2011 community-level peacebuilding projects worth 10 million USD were implemented with the support of the UN Peacebuilding Fund. These projects involved young people, women’s networks, and water user associations (Jantzi et al. 2017). In 2013-2016 the UN Peacebuilding Fund allocated another 15.1 million USD to support the second phase of peacebuilding. In the second stage, the UN has already introduced longer-term priorities for peace and development, such as the rule of law, respect for human rights, minority representation in governance, capacity-building of local government to prevent and resolve conflicts and support national cohesion (ibid.).

Furthermore, from 2010 to 2015 the OSCE and the EU provided assistance to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic to improve security in 63 communities, increase public confidence in the police and prevent crime by training 2,500 police officers (OSCE 2015). The EU allocated 5 million Euros to create a mapping of local resources and community needs for the effective distribution of humanitarian assistance (REACH 2014). From 2011 to 2013, the OSCE created local networks for conflict prevention, consisting mainly of women and youth, and trained them in mediation and conflict prevention methods (Winner 2012). In parallel, the OSCE worked with territorial youth councils in the cities of Osh, Jalalabad, Batken and Tokmok to increase tolerance and trust among young people of different ethnic groups and develop their capacities (2011-2016).

USAID ran its “Kyrgyz Republic Transition Initiative” (2010-2013) that supported 450 (mostly infrastructure) projects totaling 20 million USD to mitigate and prevent conflict and facilitate political transition (USAID 2014a). In 2010-2014 USAID also organized school youth theaters to build peace through theatrical performances (USAID 2014b), supported the creation and training of local early warning networks (USAID 2014a), and increased the role of women in peacebuilding by strengthening women’s initiative groups (USAID 2015a). USAID also allocated nearly 13 million US dollarsfor a program to improve public administration in Kyrgyzstan, implemented in 2013-2016. (USAID 2015b).

The author at consultancy work in the Kyrgyz Republic  (photo credit Akmal Mamadaliev).

My personal observations while working as a consultant in international organizations in the Kyrgyz Republic suggest that most of the international projects implemented at the community level were carried out primarily in the form of cultural events, namely, in the form of theatre performances, festivals, competitions, concerts, film screenings or sport events. Cultural events have become endorsed as tools for peacebuilding and conflict prevention on the ground. They were often carried out as part of mini-projects run by participating women and youth groups, such as women’s initiative groups, territorial youth councils and others. Mini-projects were aimed at promoting friendship, diversity and tolerance among local residents. In general, they can be described as successful, because, firstly, they have a large outreach to spread messages about friendship, diversity and tolerance among the audience. Secondly,they represent a joint organizational effort of representatives of various ethnic communities and the local government, during which representatives of ethnic groups get to know each other and develop friendly and trustful relations.

Nevertheless, cultural events are more eventually limited and inefficient. First, they are short-termist and unsustainable measures to achieve sustainable peace and development because they are one-off activities and are usually carried out only within of projects. After projects are completed, they are rarely held regularly by communities, with the exception of celebrations like Nooruz. Secondly, the messages spread by cultural events are quickly forgotten. Ideas of diversity or multiculturalism, tolerance and friendship quickly fade away in everyday life once cultural events and mini-projects are completed. The messages recede into the background of community life when unresolved socio-economic and political issues keep causing social tension. The peacebuilding efforts of international organizations were also assessed as ineffective by a group of researchers led by Nick Megoran (2014). According to them, many organizations duplicated trainings and seminars on mediation and tolerance for elders, women and youth within target communities, because such activities can be easily reported to donors while the root causes of the conflict remained unresolved.

Thirdly, at the community level, ideas about diversity and multiculturalism or tolerance and friendship are perceived more as another reason to participate in projects and use the opportunity to make profit, while not everyone understands and shares the meaning of these terms. For example, the UN Peacebuilding Fund’s program in order to achieve national cohesion mainly focused on promoting ideas of tolerance and cultural diversity and supported the implementation of multi-language education introduced by the government. However, in its report, the program recognized that activities aimed at civic cohesion seemed more interesting for local communities and partners from a business point of view, while they were less aware of importance ofthe roles youth and women had played in building peace and unity in diversity (Jantzi et al. 2017: 30). They noted that the understanding of the importance of diversity and multi-language education among young people, schoolchildren and their parents was high only in multi-ethnic communities (Jantzi et al. 2017: 22). According to the researchers, government officials and UN staff understood multilingualeducation in their own respective ways. The latter understood it in terms of diversity and tolerance, the former as a mechanism of assimilation. Similarly, in another, more in-depth analysis (Sheranova 2020) I have shown how measures to strengthen diversity and tolerance are perceived differently among different actors, including ordinary residents and employees of local government and national institutions. When it comes to multi-language education at the community level, for example, ambiguous understandings and even misunderstandings over the increase of Kyrgyz language education in schools seem to prevail (Sheranova 2020). In the absence of interpretation guidelines by the government, this could have negative consequences, whether international project support is involved or not.

Fourth, cultural events have become practical in the hands of both the IOs and communities because they are easy to pilot, execute and report. For example, in the framework of mini-projects (seeds grants) implemented by communities, festivals and concerts were considered practical because they did not require large expenditures, while the budgets allocated within the framework of the projects were limited and there was no significant support from local government.In turn, IOs also piloted and experimented with innovative cultural methods like ‘forum theatres’ or ‘Drama for conflict transformation’ (IREX n.d.) and participatory video methodology (Davidi 2019), which were adapted from the experience of other countries. However, the coverage and discussion of social problems and issues of concern to the young participants of these projects usually did not lead to more decisive actions by the authorities or did not even receive public attention at all.

Overall, since 2010, international projects in communities have been largely limited to cultural events, which in no way are sustainable and long-term solutions to achieve peace and development of the country. Their messages on tolerance and friendship are only temporarily present in the public sphere and quickly evaporate due to unresolved socio-economic and political issues. For example, although the UN program stated the goal of increasing representation of minorities in government, it recognized in its report that this was a politically sensitive issue and that the program did not affect the actual representation of minorities in the country (Jantzi et al. 2017: 40).

From Celebrations and Slogans to Action: Implementing the Civic Concept “Kyrgyz Jarany”

The peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts of the government of the Kyrgyz Republic can be generally regarded as technical and institutional (primarily, the development of new programs) and, judging by the events held, as cultural. In 2013, the Kyrgyz government, after consultation with the international community, adopted The Concept on strengthening of the national unity and inter-ethnic relations in the Kyrgyz Republic’.[ii]  The Concept identifies three main areas: (1) state and legal regulation of interethnic relations; (2) the unifying role of the state language and the development of linguistic diversity; (3) the formation of the civic identity “Kyrgyz Jarany”. According to the approved Concept Implementation Plan,[iii] under the first direction, trainings for employees of the State Agency for Local Self-Government and Interethnic Relations (Russian: GAMSUMO) were delivered, 23 public reception centres and a monitoring centre were established and local initiatives to strengthen unity were supported, with a special emphasis on the Assembly People of Kyrgyzstan (ANC). Work within the second direction aimed to facilitate the transition to multi-lingual education, which for the most part included the transformation of schools and kindergartens with instruction in the non-state languages into ones with multi-lingual instruction, that is, instruction in Kyrgyz, Uzbek or other languages. Another emphasis was also put on translating Kyrgyz literature into non-state languages. In the third direction, special events, initiatives and mini-projects aimed at civic integration were supported, alongside cultural events and competitions, as well as research and print publishing in different languages.

Building Tolerance Through Distributing Children’s Books, USAID Kyrgyz Republic

The ANC is engaged not only in issues of strengthening the unity of the people and consolidating the “Kyrgyz Jarany” identity, but also in protecting the interests of ethnic groups. However, in practice, the activities of the ANC do not significantly go beyond cultural events and celebrations, either. For example, in the ANC report for 2016-2017 (ANC 2018) the number of cultural events and celebrations prevails over other aspects. In its report for 2019, GAMSUMO also notes that it mainly held cultural events in conjunction with the ANC. In addition, the website states without further specification that Gamsumo carried out 1,011 preventive measures in 2019 and reviewed 242 reports submitted via the public reception centres or other mechanisms. [iv] An evaluation of the work of the Concept was carried out with support of the Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the OSCE. While the overall assessment was positive, the High Commissioner found that the government’s work on access to justice and minority representation in the country was insufficient (OSCE 2016). Already in 2018, on the part of GAMSUMO, a draft of the new “Concept of general integration of Kyrgyz Jarany in the Kyrgyz Republic for 2019-2023” was developed and discussed, which is currently under consideration by the Office of the President.

As the above analysis of the activities of international organizations and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic has shown, the main peacebuilding and conflict prevention activities on the community level remained in the framework of cultural events. Despite their achievements, these efforts were limited by their short-termist and unsustainable nature. Furthermore, in the course of project implementation at the community level a lack of understanding of the ideas and goals of the events themselves often became visible; the messages they put forward were often quickly forgotten. Therefore, I would argue that these cultural events are insufficient to achieve effective conflict prevention and a long-lasting peace.

In the current period,the government and international donors need to work on a more long-term solution, in particular on building a “new” civic nation (nation-building). Even though “Kyrgyz Jarany” was adopted in 2013 as part of the Concept, no work has been done in communities to explain measures to implement this civic concept. Due to the lack of public information and interpretation guidelines on the measures to implement the Concept and the idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany”, the implementation steps taken by the Kyrgyz government have not been (and still are not) met with understanding and support from the communities and even from local government. Indeed, the lack of understanding about the importance of the civil idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany” precludes the solution of important socio-economic and political issues by the state, such as the lack of economic opportunities and of access to justice, challenges to the rule of law, and insufficient representation of minorities. Thus, in order to achieve a sustainable peace, it is necessary to build a new nation through the idea of “Kyrgyz Jarany”, which the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic and international organizations need to explain and promote among the population. Unless the nation realizes that all ethnic groups living in Kyrgyzstan are part of a bigger entity and have one common future, the risk of interethnic distrust and tension will remain.


Assambleia Naroda Kyrgyzstan [Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan] (2018) Report on the activities of the Assembly of the People of Kyrgyzstan for the period from April 30, 2016 to December 31, accessed May 25, 2020,отчёт-о-деятельности-ассамблеи-народ/

Davidi, Charlotte (ed.) (2019) Participatory video in peacebuilding: lessons learnt from occupied Palestinian territories and Kyrgyzstan,accessed 25 May 2020, (Accessed 25 May 2020).

IREX. (no date) Drama for Conflict Transformation Toolkit. Youth Theater for Peace. IREX. accessed May 25, 2020,

Jantzi, Terrence, Faria, Fernande and Anara Alymkulova (2017) Evaluation of the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) Project Portfolio In Kyrgyzstan (Evaluation Report), The Konterra Group & United Nations Peacebuilding, accessed 25 May 2020,

Megoran, Nick, Satybaldieva, Elmira, Lewis, David and John Heathershaw (2014) Evaluating peacebuilding interventions in southern Kyrgyzstan. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. accessed 25 May 2020,

OSCE (2015) OSCE concludes Community Security Initiative project in Kyrgyzstanaccessed 25 May 2020,

REACH (no date) REACH -Informing more effective humanitarian action, accessed 25 May 2020,

Sheranova, Arzuu (2020) Kyrgyzstan’s ‘uneasy’ diversity after 2010: Community analysis of post-conflict policy, The Journal on Ethnopolitcs and Minority Issues in Europe, 19(1): 58-81.

USAID. (2013) Kyrgyz Republic Transition Initiative. Case Studies, accessed 25 May 2020,

USAID. (2014a) Kyrgyz Republic Transition Initiative. Final Report, USAID, accessed 15 May 2020,

USAID (2014b) Youth Theater for Peace, accessed 25 May 2020,

USAID (2015a) Women’s Peace Banks, accessed 25 May 2020,

USAID (2015b)Good Governance & Public Administration Strengthening Project (GGPAS), Accessed 25 May 2020,

Winner, Victor (2012) “Messengers of peace prevent conflicts in southern Kyrgyzstan” in The Times of Central Asia, accessed 25 May 2020,


[i] “Kyrgyz citizen”, as defined in 2013 in the Concept.

[ii] The Concept (2013), all links accessed 25 May 2020,

[iii] Decree of the Kyrgyz Republic dated 30 October 2013 No 430-p on approving Concept Implementation Plan for 2013-2017 for realization of the Concept (2013),

[iv] Inter-Ethnic Relations, GAMSUMO (2020),

Report Announcement: Central Asia’s Horticulture Sector: Capitalizing on New Export Opportunities in Chinese and Russian Markets, by Kateryna Schroeder and Sergiy Zorya

(Editor’s note:  We are happy to re-share this blog with permission, which was originally posted at World Bank Blogs in both English and Russian, the links are here.  There are links here below to the original report on fruit exports in Central Asia.)



Ask any tourist visiting Central Asia what they love about the region and, among other responses, you are likely to hear about their mouth-watering experience eating fresh, tasty fruits and berries. This is not surprising, as the region is home to some 300 wild fruit and nut species.

What is surprising is that the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan currently realize only about one-third of their export potential in cherries, grapes, apricots, and plums—fresh fruits in which they hold a comparative advantage.

There is enormous potential to increase Central Asian fruit exports, thus boosting economic growth, generating employment (horticulture requires at least twice as much labor as cereal crops!), and creating opportunities for income generation in rural areas. All of these would be very welcome developments amidst dwindling GDP growth across the region.

Exporting to China: large market, many hurdles

Chinese markets create a particularly lucrative opportunity for Central Asian fruit suppliers to grow their exports. The country’s increasingly more affluent and educated consumers continue to shift their dietary preferences to include more protein, fruit, and vegetables. This contributes to a rapid growth in fruit import demand, which by 2030 is expected to reach $2.7 billion——a huge opportunity for Central Asian farmers.

Although the Central Asian countries are well placed to be more competitive in satisfying China’s growing demand for fruit imports, entering the formidable Chinese fresh fruit markets is not  easy.

China has rather stringent food safety standards. Imported produce must be consistent in both quality and volume, which requires sophisticated quality and logistics systems that the Central Asian countries have yet to develop.

Moreover, Chinese fruit markets are highly fragmented and competitive, so importers need to have a close relationship with a Chinese counterpart on the ground. And Chinese consumers value attractive packaging and products with recognizable brands.

Most Central Asian fruit producers are small farmers with limited access to financial and knowledge resources, which results in constrained production volumes and inconsistent supply quality. Although perfectly adjusted to trading domestically, Central Asia’s small-scale producers lack the capacity necessary to meet the bureaucratic and procedural conformity of international markets.

At the government level, the quality and capacity of the region’s food and safety systems, customs control, and inspection bodies do not meet the requirements of Chinese markets, putting its exporters at a disadvantage vis-à-vis major suppliers to China, such as Chile or the United States. Moreover, Central Asian exporters are often unaware of the available opportunities provided by Chinese markets and of the requirements to enter them.

As a result, China still accounts for only a tiny, albeit growing, share of total Central Asian fruit exports. And those Central Asian exporters that do enter Chinese markets face significantly lower price premiums compared to their competitors.

Similar hurdles are emerging in the traditional markets

Currently, more than 85 percent of Central Asian exports of cherries, grapes, apricots, and plums are shipped to Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. However, even in these traditional markets, Central Asian exporters are losing out on existing opportunities, receiving prices 30 percent less than those enjoyed by the competitors.

Why is this happening?

Most Central Asian fruits are largely sold in open-air markets. Yet, sales of fruits through modern grocery store chains in Russia have been growing at an accelerated pace, often at the expense of traditional retail markets. Central Asian fruit suppliers are scarcely present in Russian formal retail stores, as they are often unable to provide produce with the quality, assortment, and packaging that is in accordance with Russian retailer needs and volumes.

Other factors that impede Central Asian farmers from receiving better prices in traditional markets are the high fragmentation of production, the informality and non-transparency of the region’s fruit supply chains, and both producers’ and exporters’ lack of knowledge of, and compliance with, retail requirements.

So what is the way forward?

To be competitive in Chinese and other evolving global fresh fruit markets, in which large modern retail chains play an ever-increasing role, Central Asian exporters need to be able to supply large volumes of fruit of consistently high quality in a timely manner.

National governments have a role to play in creating an enabling environment for the increased production and export capacity of horticulture products by tackling the most binding constraints that exist in the sector.

First, governments can provide a policy environment that facilitates cooperation among Central Asian smallholders. This way, the farmers will be able to consistently supply the large volumes of quality fruit required by importers.

Second, governments need to focus on promoting private investments in cold chain storage and post-harvest processing capacity and on investing in public goods, such as food safety and quality control systems, R&D, and export promotion.

Finally, the rapid growth of e-commerce around the world offers an opportunity for Central Asian exporters to penetrate new and growing markets in their region and beyond. Governments should do more, therefore, to promote the digital development of their respective agriculture sectors.

To learn more, read the World Bank report “Central Asia’s Horticulture Sector: Capitalizing on New Export Opportunities in Chinese and Russian Markets,” which analyzes opportunities for Central Asian fresh fruit exports in Chinese and higher-end Russian markets, and provides policy recommendations on how to take advantage of these opportunities.

The report is available in both English and Russian languages.

Publication announcement: “Sterilizations, IUDs, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birthrates in Xinjiang, by Adrien Zenz

We wish to share news of a new publication concerning the unfolding human rights crisis in Xinjiang, a new report on mandatory birth control among Uyghur communities.  The full report may be accessed here: