Back to Central Asia to Start

by Asher Kohn on 2/24/2010 · 1 comment

I had the opportunity to have a long talk (or to be technical, listen to three different talks) with a woman who does Law and Central Asia stuff for the US Government. I’m not going to get into specifics because I haven’t asked her if I can get into specifics on an internet forum, and I’m going to defer to being circumspect. If you’re interested in this sort of stuff, well, you can figure out how to find me. However, some of the more general issues are things worth talking about, and worth a whole lot of blog posts in the future to discuss these things in more detail.

The most important thing, that I think we all on the academic (instead of practice) side of things forget sometimes is…this stuff is COMPLICATED. I mean, obviously, there are no simple solutions. But it’s not like Nazarbayev doesn’t know how the Zhovtis Case looks on the outside, or that the Tajiks don’t realize how daunting Roghun would be. But personalities get in the way of decision making. It’s easy, from academia or think-tankistan, to forget that all of the NGOs are competing for grants, all the embassies are competing for favor, and all of the local civil servants are competing for raises. I’ve talked about the Rule of Law and how its not a monolith before, y’know. But even more than that, Rule of Man still exists. The entire culture in most governments, and I’d venture to say the same for the NGOs, is that the prevailing mindset isn’t “What would be the legal thing to do?” but rather “How can we make what we want to do legal?” It’s how groups and hierarchies tend to operate across developmental lines, and its an often-forgotten hurdle.

Another fun thing mentioned was the concept that the US things that it can throw money at any problem. This hasn’t just been shown to be untrue in the Terror/Security issues, but also in corruption and development. Kazakhstan has their oil money, and its a whole ‘nother thing. The woman spoke about how Norway’s sovereign oil wealth fund was a really unique way to combine resource wealth with Scandinavian socialism. But as attractive as he may be, Stoltenberg isn’t the sort of role model our republics are looking towards.

On that note, there’s also this idea of “who is a good role model for the Central Asian Republics?” to consider. Every embassy, of course, wants the host country to be just like them. But I can think of a good, non-Murray, reason why Uzbekistan can never be the United Kingdom. So instead, there’s this idea of stealing legal concepts from certain instances in history. For example, Italy’s anti-Cosa Nostra initiative is seen as a good way to deal with the Mafia connections in the Former Soviet Union. As much as context is important, and of course they are, parallels exist. As I would put it: the law nerds find the parallels, us regional nerds are needed to put it into context.

Of course, there are plenty of issues with all of this, and I’m sure you can all think of a half-dozen before I’ve finished this sentences. But the diplomatic relationships are complex, and the neo-imperialists are few and far between. They are loud, though. Boy, are they loud. But there’s plenty of stuff to chew on from an academic/research perspective. Even people doing sociology of the local level have to realize the context that their research is put in. The Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography is fantastic, of course, but its being used for less-than-purely-academic reasons. Which isn’t exactly a shock to anyone.

But that brings me back to the original point. In this field (at least from my current perspective) there is rarely a “pure” study of the issues. The various and multifarious folks at work at making their dream stan a real place aren’t always trying to make the legal, technically perfect, understanding a reality. They’re trying to get their dream made into reality the easiest, and preferably most legitimate, way possible. Which gets into questions of “what’s easy?” and “legitimate by who?” for the dreamer. So when the maddening stuff happens, and that Times article drives you to punchiness…it’s all just peoples’ dreams. I’m just curious how I expect mine to be so much different, more effective, and more actionable than Tom Friedman’s.


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– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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{ 1 comment }

KZBlog February 26, 2010 at 7:37 am

I’ve talked about the Rule of Law and how its not a monolith before, y’know. But even more than that, Rule of Man still exists. The entire culture in most governments, and I’d venture to say the same for the NGOs, is that the prevailing mindset isn’t “What would be the legal thing to do?” but rather “How can we make what we want to do legal?” It’s how groups and hierarchies tend to operate across developmental lines, and its an often-forgotten hurdle.

This is why most modern democracies are designed to prevent any one person from having too much control. I think you highlighted a major reason why people have a low opinion of the level of democracy in Central Asia; rather than acknowledging and trying to avoid weaknesses in the system, the governments tend to not acknowledge any mistakes and create systems that are susceptible to corruption and autocracy. Case in point: you note that Nazarbayev may know what the Zhovtis case looks like. Nazarbayev, as head of the executive branch and President of a whole country shouldn’t be worrying too much about a regional court case like a motor vehicle accident and should have absolutely no power to influence the case at all, except through making suggestions. The fact that the President has extensive official and unofficial power over the judicial system and most of the workings of the country is what is problematic. Even the most saintly person would be tempted by all that power. It’s also shortsighted. Maybe Nazarbayev is not a horrible person, but we don’t know who the next President will be and what his moral level will be. Yes, governing is complicated–and I have yet to see strong infrastructures in Central Asia to acknowledge that fact.

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