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Snapshots of Central Asia

This piece originally appeared in Issue 6/2016 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe now.

December 15, 2016 - Eimear O’Casey - Books and Reviews

postcards from stanland

Postcards from Stanland. By: David H. Mould. Publisher: Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, USA, 2016.

It is easy to be an expert on a region that no-one can place on a map. Or so goes the refrain directed at those of us who have devoted our professional, and a fair amount of our personal, energy to the relatively mysterious republics of the former Soviet Central Asia. Books providing a stimulating, readable survey of the five countries that straddle Europe and Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – targeted at those with little or no existing knowledge are few and far between. David H. Mould’s Postcards from Stanland promises to be a notable exception. Part memoir, part tour book, part commentary, it is a casual, hybrid book that recounts Mould’s experiences as a media trainer, academic and UNESCO and USAID consultant in Central Asia, first in the mid-1990s, and then moving back and forth up to only a few years ago.

Region of contrasts

Mould’s book is not a survey of the Central Asian region but rather focuses on two of its countries: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the only two in which the author has lived. Brief descriptions of several days spent in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are included, though Turkmenistan is barely mentioned. For a writer so intent on not broad-brushing a region and its peoples, the notion that his knowledge of only two of the five countries is sufficient to justify grander claims about the region (including the book’s title and blurb), is disappointing.

Still, Mould paints a picture of regional contrasts, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are a good embodiment of it. Vast oil and gas wealth has allowed Kazakhstan to knock on the door of the world’s largest economies and develop all the visual trappings of success in its largest cities. Less resource-blessed Kyrgyzstan, for its part, has enjoyed no such transformation: relying on remittances sent home by migrant workers in Russia to sustain its economy. The Dubai-Disneyesque Kazakh capital of Astana, with its glass pyramid structures designed by the world’s brightest architectural minds, is depicted in colourful, vivid detail by Mould and is pitched against the hardship and bleakness of the post-industrial and agricultural provinces of both countries.

Mould, when crafting his picture, also moves back in time. Moving accounts of the grotesque abuse of residents and environmental travesties in Kazakhstan’s Polygon nuclear test site region, the brutality of the forced population removals from Europe, to Kazakhstan’s steppe under Stalin, and the enduring identity crisis of the descendants of those migrations in modern-day Central Asia are all evocative. The governments’ efforts to preserve pre-Soviet and Soviet identities – in many cases reinventing them to fit the fundamentally artificial borders of the countries produced by the collapse of the Soviet Union – are particularly apparent. Mould’s historical context, both of the Soviet era and Central Asia’s medieval heyday, is well-drawn and appropriately pitched for those who are not strongly familiar with all these regions and their history.

Mould is at his best, however, when he delves into accounts of what he experienced first-hand in Kyrgyzstan’s and Kazakhstan’s higher education institutions and media landscapes. As is the case across the former Soviet states, some of the most startling manifestations of corruption, public mismanagement and the insidious hand of the powerful and rich are to be found in universities and colleges. Mould’s account of his immersion into these environments is a rare insight and an area where few foreigners dare go. For instance, there is the case of the dean of foreign languages at the Kyrgyz State National University, where Mould taught journalism in the 1990s. She was sacked from her position after students from her faculty attended a demonstration to protest against the loss of public transport subsidies for students. It was her response to the situation that really shocks Mould: “Perhaps I have not brought up my students well enough”, she said. It is hard to imagine the degree to which the university, nominally a forum for independent thinking, was in essence perceived to be a loyal-citizen-production unit. Mould’s account of a visit to the university by Askar Akayev, Kyrgyzstan’s president at the time, verges on the comical. New equipment was purchased, toilets were repaired and an entire TV studio was borrowed from another institution to meet the president’s misplaced expectations about the university’s facilities.

Little room for optimism

Improvements appear minimal in Mould’s more recent accounts. In 2010 he finds himself at the Eurasian National University in Astana, where students received phone calls in class requiring them to leave in order to attend a rally to show support for the country’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev, a Soviet-era authoritarian leader. In all, what we can understand from reading Mould’s account here is that there is an environment where questions are discouraged and admission and grades can be bought. The perception that it is better to invest money on shiny facilities than paying staff enough to allow them to survive without having to work several jobs at a time (or, indeed, having to take bribes), is perhaps the most pernicious element of this picture.

 Mould’s description of the behaviour of students at Kazakhstan’s prestigious Institute of Management, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Research (KIMEP), which gathers the best and brightest, is probably the most startling. In the late 2000s, the victorious party in the student elections is found to have hired a hacker to rig the electronic vote, and the student president hired two students to take his exams. Moreover elected student officers, we are told, appropriated 4,000 US dollars for a trip to Washington. This, in general, is one of the main reasons not to be optimistic about a sea change in these countries; such behaviour is already acquired and facilitated during education and the new generation shows little sign of shedding them. “If they can rig elections, steal money and cheat on exams,” Mould writes, “what will they do when they are in the parliament or running major corporations?”

Mould’s struggle with instilling the concept of critical thinking rather than rote learning in his students and faculty colleagues is consistent at all the institutions where he worked. As long as the institutions in the post-Soviet world strive only for the prestige of the western education system, and not the fundamental revolution required to change the understanding of what it is to learn, question and critique, a host of other improvements in the commercial and political spheres will remain out of reach. In other words, an authoritarian government thrives on, if not depends on, a rote learning mentality. The autocratic political regimes in the region, with Kyrgyzstan at least a partial exception as a result of the parliamentary system it instilled following the overthrow of the autocratic ruler in 2005, make any genuine move towards such an approach inconceivable for the foreseeable future.

Mould also has interesting insights to offer in relation to the role of western aid in encouraging freedom of expression in these countries. Critiques of western governments who blindly throw money at abstract concepts in authoritarian countries are well known, but Mould’s examples are specific and identifiable. One of Mould’s greatest frustrations occurred during his time at ENU and relates to the irritation of his sponsor, the US embassy. Mould attempts to question some of the more outlandish elements of the university system, including his being unable to grade students because the administrators feared he might dare to fail one of them. He was told that he was “causing a lot of trouble” by the embassy’s cultural affairs officer, thus reflecting what is essentially a conflict of interest for many western organisations in the region: namely, that preserving relationships with the domestic elite must trump consistent application of the principles that their very funding is supposed to cultivate.

Familiar trends

Mould’s experiences with the media are no better. In the 1990s, for example, the USAID’s claim that it only worked with independent, non-governmental journalists in Kyrgyzstan represented a gross misunderstanding of the media environment. Contrary to what the USAID stated, non-state-run media outlets were under pressure from powerful business figures and politicians who either owned the outlets or protected them from state interference in exchange for favourable coverage. In short, non-state-run media outlets had very small bargaining power. The USAID fixation with “classifying and counting” the number of independent media outlets in the country illustrates the worst example of a box-ticking culture. In the Kyrgyz city of Jalalabad, Mould finds that one of the four “independent” TV stations, as per the donor’s list, consisted of two students broadcasting pirated films from their home, two stations consisted solely of stories paid for by local businesses and a fourth did not even exist.

For those well-versed in the democratic transitions and the post-communist legacies of New Eastern Europe’s main countries of focus, many of the experiences and currents depicted in the book will be familiar: bureaucracy, intransigent public services, vested interests and, of course, corruption. On the latter point Mould, in particular, adds value. Too many writers satisfy themselves with vague, sensational allusions to endemic corruption in the region, offering a few descriptions of policemen trying to extract bribes over parking tickets or reports about presidents building lavish palaces. The real insight lies in the stories that are able to illustrate the precise mechanisms of this culture, the psychology that feeds it and the victims that it produces. Mould’s accounts of his interactions at universities and with media outlets are a worthy contribution in such a quest.

As much as the author wants to expose these shortcomings, he also wants to celebrate a region of great hospitality, natural beauty and dynamism. The book’s stylistic flexibility is a strength, allowing Mould to provide snapshots of ordinary life and bite-sized accounts of unusual encounters. His excitement and thrill in discovering a land about which so little is known, where geographical, cultural and even religious worlds collide, is evident. Yet the approach fails somewhat; it wanders too far into the journal entry genre. Mould’s detailed accounts of a trip up the Tian Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, as well as a lengthy description of his search for an apartment in the Kazakh capital of Astana add little to one’s understanding of the region.

Nevertheless, the western traveller to Central Asia is rare. One with the patience, enthusiasm and attention to detail to provide a considered and mostly vivid portrait – or set of postcards – of two of its countries is rarer still. For that reason, Postcards from Stanland is a valuable contribution to the literature on the region.

Eimear O’Casey is a political analyst focussing on Central Asia and the Caucasus, with a particular interest in democratisation and corruption. She is currently based at a political risk consultancy in London.

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