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Towards a post-liberal research agenda in Eurasia

Why researchers need to move beyond liberal assumptions about authoritarianism in Central Asia.

Phillip Lottholz
27 February 2019

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A former factory building in Min Kush, Northern Kyrgyzstan, December 2015. Photo: Yuri Boyanin. All rights reserved.

The global resurgence of authoritarian and anti-democratic forces, coupled with the austerity crisis of the past decade, have posed significant strain on liberal democratic regimes, highlighting a need to reconsider widespread assumptions about liberal democracy and the capitalist economic system.

In this light, recent trends towards “illiberal” and “authoritarian” forms of governance in Central Asian states should be framed in the context of the region’s “post-liberal” trajectory. The key point of the post-liberal approach is that national paths of development, reform and policy-making are not – and have rarely ever been – determined by free and collective decision-making as envisaged by liberal political and economic theories.

Rather, these developments are determined by international policy standards, economic wisdoms and conditionality regimes that enshrine principles such as free, deregulated commodity and financial markets. This new global regime, which international relations scholar David Chandler has called post-liberal governance, renders the adoption of neoliberal policies and liberal democratic rhetoric less a political choice than a logical consequence of integration into the international community. This is especially the case for Central Asian and other “young” states emerging from socialist or authoritarian regimes.

We can draw the implications of this post-liberal mode of governance for Central Asia by focusing on the fundamental changes brought by the post-socialist transition and the new, disembedded forms of collective decision-making and economic management they have created. As recent critical writing on Central Asia and other regions shows, understanding these changes and their implications for social mobilisation and political participation is key to making a realistic assessment of the region’s future development.

Bemoaning the lack of liberalism in a post-liberal world?

While both academic and non-academic research on post-socialist Central Asia have moved beyond the simple binaries of democracy and authoritarianism, the idea of building liberal democratic states and societies still lurks behind many critical analyses of the region.

A first case in point is the renewed attention towards the policies, practices and tactics of Central Asian dictatorial regimes. Analyses like Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw’s Dictators without borders provide vital insight into governments and other elites’ repressive apparatuses. But they draw on labels also found, for instance, in the recent BBC documentary Dictatorland, which sensationalises the “exotic” lives and traditions of Central Asia, including daily dealings with bureaucratic authorities and security services. The two genres are obviously different, with the latter being ethically problematic, too; yet, both share the same framing of Central Asia as dictatorial and authoritarian.

A second area where liberal democratic ideas are identifiable is research on “authoritarian” or “illiberal” forms of peace and conflict management. In their 2019 collection, Interrogating Illiberal Peace in Eurasia, Catherine Owen et al., for instance, define “illiberal peace” as the result of practices by which “local and regional actors contest or transform globally promoted norms of conflict management and promote alternative ones” which challenge “the western-led consensus known as the ‘liberal peace’”. David Lewis, John Heathershaw and Nick Megoran further elucidate this shift from liberal to illiberal peace, as they analyse authoritarian conflict management in terms of practices and methods that “eschew genuine negotiations among parties to the conflict, reject international mediation and constraints on the use of force, [and] disregard calls to address underlying structural causes of conflict”. Instead, they argue that authoritarian regimes “rely on instruments of state coercion and hierarchical structures of power” in their attempts to quell unrest and maintain peace and stability.

Critical inquiry into the discontents of nation- and peace-building projects is vital for an open debate on the nature of political regimes and living conditions of the peoples of Central Asia. But an ideal-type liberalism and democracy still inform the imaginary of many critical analyses of Central Asian politics, despite the fact that the liberalism prescribed to post-Soviet states as a model of social, political, and economic development in many ways never existed even in Western countries or anywhere else across the globe.

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The deserted mining town of Inylchek, Northeastern Kyrgyzstan, December 2015. Photo: Yuri Boyanin. All rights reserved.

This contradiction has been especially obvious in the many cases where Western states have either failed to effectively challenge autocracies, or have actually supported and enhanced them. The reluctant reactions to human rights abuses in countries like Saudi Arabia or Turkey (along with reliable weapons deliveries to them by the US, UK, France and Germany) are a case in point.

The co-production of non-liberal regimes via foreign policies and international regulatory frameworks is well documented in recent analyses of the networked character of Central Asian authoritarian regimes. Most significantly, a 2015 special issue of Central Asian Survey (“Offshore Central Asia”) detailed how tax havens and offshore financial centres – spaces and arrangements that came into being and keep operating thanks to the support and interests of Western countries – help Central Asian elites to siphon off revenues from private side-businesses and illicitly-acquired corporate assets of state utility companies. The concentration of illegal wealth and coercive capacities goes along with the recasting of corrupt elites as “respected businesspeople and philanthropic cosmopolitans”, or, put bluntly, the “normalization of ‘everyday kleptocracy’”.

It is clear that the factors of illiberal and authoritarian governance do not lie solely in Central Asia’s own institutional or social set-up. On the contrary, we need to investigate the “illiberal practices of liberal regimes”, as they are apparent, for instance, in Western humanitarian interventionism and border regimes, especially since 9/11. EU border policies in the context of the recent refugee crisis have clearly indicated the degree and scale of brutality member states are ready to accept when it comes to policing borders, whether by allowing violent abuse and “push backs” on the Croatian border or the drowning of people fleeing through the Mediterranean.

It is clear that the factors of illiberal and authoritarian governance do not lie solely in Central Asia’s own institutional or social set-up

The populist and xenophobic tones dominating public discourses in Western states, as well as their tendencies towards control and violence, bear testimony to the inherent authoritarian and nationalist potential of capitalist societies. An alternative political lens is needed to account for this inbuilt regressive and illiberal potential of liberal-democratic systems, which conceives of the trajectory of the contemporary late-modern “liberalism” – and of the Central Asian region’s place in it – as a “post-liberal” one.

As suggested by David Chandler, the key idea behind post-liberal governance is that the liberal character of particular states in the capitalist system has been either exhausted – given resource scarcity and intensified economic competition – or was a mirage all along, as the forms of exploitation and coercion on which liberal economies were built have simply remained hidden so far.

A post-liberal approach would help to understand contemporary developments as the result of neoliberal reform and policy programming since the breakup of the Soviet Union; decisions made as part of the transitional agenda of the 1990s led to the loss of certain opportunities, development paths and policy alternatives further down the line.

The missed opportunity and damage of the “transition”

Apart from the devastating dispossession and inequality that neoliberal transformation has caused in Central Asia and other post-Soviet countries, another failure of the “transition” orchestrated by Western donors, international organisations and local collaborators was the redistribution of corporate assets – including key industries, public utility companies and infrastructures – into the hands of politicians or criminal elites with little public scrutiny or accountability.

This has created an oligarchical hyper-neoliberalism, in which the elites’ power to dispose of assets and set agendas is in no way equalled by organised labour or the populace at large. In this perspective, the fact that international financial institutions and regulatory frameworks permitted the largely unchecked accumulation of wealth by elites is matched by the former’s advocacy for large-scale privatisation of corporate assets, while ignoring the ensuing criminalisation and violent logic that these processes spawned.

The Central Asian republic most receptive to the programmes and prescriptions of western donors, international financial institutions (IFIs), and multilateral organisations is Kyrgyzstan. But it has also suffered most from them. By 1995, the country’s rapid transition to a market economy, which included the dissolution of collective farms and privatisation of state assets and industries, had already caused a 50% collapse in GDP and a 35% decrease in industrial employment, compared to 1990 levels. As service and retail sectors could only partially compensate for the decline in industrial manufacturing, mining and agriculture, large parts of the population came to depend on labour migration to Russia, China, Turkey and other countries.

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"May the young generation be full of the spirit of patriotism and high citizenship!" - the building of a district election office in Karakol, Northwest Kyrgyzstan, September 2015. Photo: Philipp Lottholz. All rights reserved.

The suffering and precarity that people face in their new migrant condition between destitute homelands and hostile existence in exile have been well documented in the works of Paul Fryer, Emil Nasritdinov and Elmira Satybaldieva, as well as Madeleine Reeves. The internationally acclaimed movie Ayka – the tragic story of a Kyrgyz migrant in Moscow who leaves her newborn baby in a flat somewhere in the Russian capital in the hope of a better life for both – has also brought international audiences’ attention to the predicaments of Central Asian migrant workers.

Likewise, Mathijs Pelkmans and Elmira Satybaldieva document the social effects of de-industrialisation, de-development and the “shutting down” of entire towns in the name of the free market. Mining and industrial towns that once enjoyed Moscow provisioning and were seen as bastions of Soviet modernity, welfare and progress, have decayed into ruins and “ghost towns”. While this story applies to Tajikistan as well, the cases of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and especially Kazakhstan are characterised by more economic stability but largely similar levels of dispossession of rural and low-income populations.

Perhaps the most crucial outcome of the 1990s privatisation and hyper-neoliberal agenda has been the creation of proto or “cannibal” states which, whether due to the incapacity or unwillingness of policy makers, withdrew from the provision of public goods and cut access to collective decision-making mechanisms. This disconnect is conditioned by the neoliberal understanding of politics as a technocratic matter, as well as by the Soviet-era practice of not challenging the decisions of people at the top. As a consequence, citizen-activists have taken it upon themselves to mediate between the interests of society and those of elites and the state in order to address grievances and prevent conflict. However, rural, minority and other marginal populations have been shut out of the purview of public policy, so that their provisioning and development is outsourced to international NGOs or the charitable efforts of local politicians and civil society.

Large swathes of both Kyrgyzstan and its neighbouring states are thus entangled in a post-transitional state where under-development and the exclusion of certain localities and social groups are a fact of life. Tourism or other initiatives to advance production and trade may still be a source of hope for a few people who are savvy, entrepreneurial and hopeful enough, but the larger part of the rural population appears to be confining itself to subsistence livelihoods.

The impossibility of playing by the rules in a dysfunctional political system

What are the possibilities and scope for politics in a region where collective decision-making is largely dominated by powerful technocratic elites, who are all but unlikely to lead a structural shift towards more accountable institutions?

The most obvious reflex is to navigate and play the existing system, as attempts to improve institutions and practices become a secondary preoccupation which are usually advanced by external democratising actors (if at all). The ensuing grey area of politics and illicit practices has attracted most attention in terms of the deviation they present from the rule of law. Johan Engvall’s 2016 study, for instance, conceptualises the Kyrgyzstani state as an investment market, where people invest into buying political offices to try and yield a return on this investment by collecting additional revenues in embezzlement, extortion, bribes and preferential business opportunities.

However, recent political anthropological works on Central Asia demonstrate how botched outcomes and arrangements on the macro level need to be understood in their practical and micro-level dimensions. Most recently, Aksana Ismailbekova’s Blood ties and the native son: Poetics of patronage in Kyrgyzstan argues that patron-client relations do not forestall democracy but in fact “constitute the primary mechanism through which ‘liberal’ democracy has become embedded in local cultural and social practices”. The study gives unprecedented insight into the full spectrum between illicit and outright illegal activities of election manipulation, ranging from reminders to vote, to bending the rules for voter identification and even paying the head of the election commission to redistribute unused ballots.

It is striking that the various parties involved regard such practices – including blatant influence-mongering in which a local patron influences village-level decision-making – as morally acceptable because they invest hopes and expectations of economic betterment with their “native son” being elected into parliament. Similar to Ismailbekova, Judith Beyer analyses local politicians’ traditionalist-cum-opportunistic involvement in their home communities, for example in the form of financing construction of municipal buildings or handing out “money presents” in exchange for support during elections. These insights arguably present the first step towards a more grounded perspective on phenomena such as “electoral fraud”, “vote buying” and “clan politics”.

These have received attention in liberal-institutionalist accounts, but have limited analytical purchase because they do not take into account the important role of the social, cultural and economic context. Realistically, the “domestication” of ideas of democracy and representation promoted internationally is unlikely to fundamentally challenge the distorted, highly stratified and predatory institutions that Central Asian states have developed during the post-socialist transition. Nor will this be the case with recently emerging forms of participatory politics that analysts have documented in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the wider post-Soviet world, as they mostly represent symbolic adjustments to top-down technocratic politics.

In this sense, the criticism of authoritarian and illiberal governance in Central Asia and other post-Soviet countries should not be rejected. Rather, we should move beyond the liberal democratic framing of these critiques to a “post-liberal” approach, which would more decisively focus on the co-production of neo-liberal authoritarianism in Central Asia and beyond.

A post-liberal approach better captures the global networked character of authoritarian regimes, as well as the inbuilt authoritarian and nationalist tendencies of capitalism in its global historical constitution. It also presents a vantage point from which to imagine holistic alternatives that transcend the mere reproduction of liberal democratic ideals in well-known but superficial performances of participation and democratic elections. Instead, the focus could shift to livelihoods and forms of solidarity beyond political labels, cultural-civilisational frames, and nationalist and identitarian lines.

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