Riding the Rails From Newcastle to London, via Central Asia: Thoughts on Central Asian Studies Today After A Conference

Another weekend, another conference, it seems. As I write this, we’re jangling down the East Coast line on one of the hourly night trains that makes its way from Newcastle to King’s Cross. What the stories are of the rest of the motley crew aboard the 9:15 PM train to London are, I know not, but in my case, I’m returning from a productive weekend at the University of Newcastle, where I, along with about two dozen other graduate students and youngish post-docs and research fellows from the UK and Europe, gathered together to present our research (most anthropological and ethnographic, some historical) on Central Asia [here usually meaning the post-Soviet Central Asian states].

After this and my other recent jaunts to conferences and seminars around the UK and France, what do I think?

Following this most recent conference, I am struck by some potential project ideas and under-explored stories regarding Central Asia that might make for, if not ripe article or book ideas for historians, then for neat journalistic forays. What I’ll remember most from this Newcastle conference are talks like those by European researchers who have spent time in rural southern Tajikistan investigating Chinese state-led land investment, as well as the theoretical contributions of more established researchers like Dr John Heathershaw (who gave the keynote address at the conference, on ‘performance states’ in Central Asia).

What do I mean more specifically? To start with the facts, as several of the talks emphasized, post-Soviet Central Asia, and perhaps especially Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (the two states one might single out as ‘weak states’ or even ‘failed states’) features a lot of situations in which bigger, more powerful regional neighbors or global powers have taken ownership, in some sense, of traditional markers of national sovereignty. Perhaps most obviously, there’s the Manas Air Base outside of Bishkek, one of the United States’ most valuable properties in conducting operations in Afghanistan and a key transit point for troops, fuel, and military supplies going south to Kabul and provincial military bases in that country. Then again, foreign military bases are, if not a dime a dozen, then not a real novelty.

What’s perhaps more interesting is the way in which Russia, China, and Iran find ways to take over aspect of these states’ sovereignty – something between investment and protectorate status. State-owned Iranian and Chinese corporations have recently purchased either tracts of agricultural land or water rights from Tajikistan, interacting (especially in the case of land) in murky ways with the pre-existing, often highly indebted peasant communities in the impoverished southern reaches of Tajikistan near the Afghan border. Even in a part of the world where territory is tightly bound up with national identity and, in a region heavily dependent on agriculture, the national economy, in some cases states are willing to literally cede the ground their citizens stand upon to foreign corporations which then intend to connect marginal agricultural lands in Khatlon Province, for example, with the tables of consumers in Guangzhou (or the water bottles of those in Mashhad).

Moscow, meanwhile, ‘owned’ the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border from 1997 (the end of the Tajik Civil War) to 2005, running the border security and slowly training and hiring Tajikistan national border guards to monitor a the banks of the Amu-Darya River for drug smugglers, bandits, and other unsavory figures. Today, the Tajik state officially runs and operates the border, but only with the training and help of American, European, and Russian training, consulting, and advice, and according to one presenter, Moscow is eager to return to have Russian soldiers guard the banks of the river once more. We’re left with a picture that complicates our usual ideas of how states and borders work. Russian authorities (Yeltsin explicitly said so in the 1990s) claim that the Tajik-Afghan border – thousands of miles south of the Russian Federation’s international borders! – is also a Russian ‘international’ border that demands Russian state attention. (In neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, meanwhile, national state authorities police the line with Afghanistan.)

That’s interesting, suggested Heathershaw in the keynote address. And maybe it even helps us understand something about how ‘weak states’ function in our networked world where international expertise on ‘the rule of law’, ‘economic development’, or ‘governance’ may play as much of a role in the internal rule of countries as do voters in Dushanbe, Khujand, or Kulyab. As Heathershaw argued, go to Dushanbe today, and emblems of the state are all around you: you’ll find posters of President Emomali Rahmon donning a hard hat, helping to shovel dirt for the controversial (and massive) Rogun Dam project; and anyone who thinks that the dissolution of the Soviet empire has meant the end to overstaffed, corrupt, and annoying police agencies will soon be proven wrong if they walk along the main boulevard of the Tajik capital after, say, 7 PM. (Along they way, they’ll pass by ever-multiplying neo-Italianiate buildings housing Ministries or massive national libraries.) Yet drive outside of the capital or spend anytime living in one of these places, and the state seems incredibly weak and/or ineffective: one thinks of education, health care, or even the ability to project security outside of the capital. In the words of a former professor of mine, in other words, welcome to ‘Trashcanistan’ – a distinctly post-Soviet Eurasian world of enormous relative state size, but microscopic state capacity.

What’s still more interesting about this, however, suggested Heathershaw, is how our late 20th and early 21st century development institutions (NGOs, the World Bank, the UNDP, DFID, GIZ, and so on) insist on certain ‘performative’ (hence the term ‘performance state’) acts as key to being a real state. You need to be able to police your own border, so we give you money to build up a border service. You need to be able to issue passports and check-in people at your airport, so we train you how to do that, too. You need to have elections (complete with credentialed international observers from EU member countries and/or the OCSE, for example), so we’ll pay for the observers’ tickets, too. Throw in ‘study groups’ and ‘legal development’ teams and it soon becomes possible to outsource a lot of basic parts of state sovereignty to the ‘international community’ of the acronym soup of development organizations and NGOs.

The natural fear one has, however, emphasized Heathershaw, is that this kind of government-by-international technocracy may actually tend to reinforce authoritarianism and/or Trashcanistan than to erase it. Many of the kinds of interactions that official international visitors have with countries such as Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, he emphasized, take place with the executive branch of these countries. Whatever small role the legislature or popular will may play in such countries gets diluted not just by the presumed superior opinion of outside technocratic views, but also the fact that it’s usually the Prime Minister or President who gets to do most of the consultation. One is left with a confused picture of how sovereignty actually functions for these so-called weak states. Certain crucial elements of sovereignty are outsourced (borders to the Russians, the economy to the Europeans, rule of law to the Americans …), authoritarian local élites are able to nonetheless control the commanding heights of national industry and skirt the money out to the Cayman Islands or Switzerland, and the population ends up trapped inside national constructions the borders of which are increasingly securitized and professionally run thanks to said networks of expertise. ‘Reforms’ to decrease or ‘rationalize’ the size of the public sector, or to decentralize government don’t actually take place, so the result is a kind of low-rent, post-Soviet version of Ancien Régime France: in lieu of a secure investment climate, local thugs and businessmen compete to buy up offices to protect their own investments.

I’m not quite sure where to go from there, but I am left thinking that there still may be space for a critical study of how all of these Western (and Japanese) development agencies interact with the Iranians, Chinese, Russians, and others, in a dysfunctional state like Tajikistan. Since it would largely be ethnographic (and preposterously multilingual) the methodological challenges in terms of arranging, much less carrying out, interviews, would be significant. And yet seeing how small states function as a workshop for very different kinds of outside powers’ national interests (Russia’s and Washington’s interest in the drug trade, China and Iran’s interest in food security and regional stability, plus the various special roles that the Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and others see for themselves in more international projects) could be really cool.

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