The Central Asianist Podcast

Top experts and journalists from around the world discuss the politics, economy, and culture of Central Asia. Hosted by Nate Schenkkan.
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The Central Asianist Podcast



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Nov 13, 2017

In this podcast, I speak with Regine A. Spector, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, about her book, Order at the Bazaar: Power and Trade in Central Asia, from Cornell University Press. 

Bazaars, including those in Central Asia, are often treated as sites of chaos –  emblematic of the failure to develop rule of law institutions and in need of state intervention to bring order. In her book, Spector uses extensive interviews and research –  focusing on the Dordoi and Osh bazaars in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – to document how the people who work in bazaars, and some owners of bazaars, have created islands of order. To do so, they draw on Soviet and pre-Soviet traditions to adapt to the disruptive transition from the Soviet system to capitalism. Order at the Bazaar offers a ground-up view on how citizens build order for themselves, and provides a critique of external approaches to institution-building.

Sep 26, 2017

In this episode, I speak with Nick Megoran, Reader in Political Geography at Newcastle University, about his new bookNationalism in Central Asia: A Biography of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan Boundary.

The book is an engaging and perspective-shifting account of how a new international border was formed where one had not previously existed before. Based on more than 20 years of fieldwork in both countries and along the border, it contributes to a deeper understanding of how discourse about the border has shaped national identities and nationalist politics. Among other topics, Nate and I discuss the role of nationalism in understanding politics in Central Asia, the political dynamics in Kyrgyzstan in advance of the presidential elections, the significance of the reopening of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border, and the names of Nick’s children.

Jul 25, 2017

In this episode, I speak with Yan Matusevich, a migration researcher with a focus on the post-Soviet space, about how the situation for labor migrants in Russia is changing in light of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Yan and I discuss a variety of developments now affecting labor migrants in Russia, including the economic crisis of the last several years, the creation of the EAEU and its new labor regulations for member state citizens, the impact of anti-terrorism policing in Russia, and how Russia’s presidential election campaign could affect migrants.

Jun 27, 2017

In this episode, I speak with Farruh Yusupov, the director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen service Azatlyk, about the burgeoning economic crisis in Turkmenistan and whether the government will be able to find a way out.

With both Russia and Iran having ended the purchase of Turkmen gas, and oil and gas prices declining yet again, dollars are scarce, wages are going unpaid, and subsidies for utilities have been cut. Even with the media under tight control, there is growing frustration with the government’s lack of response to the crisis. Is President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov able and willing to address the crisis? Or is a harder crash inevitable?

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May 24, 2017

In this episode, I spoke with Bakhtiyor Nishanov, the deputy director for Eurasia of the International Republican Institute (IRI), about whether Uzbekistan is experiencing a thaw since the death of Islam Karimov in August 2016.

Bakhti and I discuss Uzbekistan’s policies under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev: the release of a small number of high-profile political prisoners, relaxations on speech restrictions on social media, and improved relations with neighboring countries in Central Asia, among others. Do these changes constitute a genuine thaw, or are they just attempts by a new leader to shore up legitimacy using different tools than his predecessor? What kind of system is Mirziyoyev interested in creating, and what will it mean for Central Asia?

Special thanks to Eurasianet for its support that has made bringing back the podcast possible.

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Mar 23, 2017

In this episode, I spoke with Dr. John Heathershaw, Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter about his new book with Alexander A. Cooley, Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia, published this month by Yale University Press.

The book challenges the typical situating of post-Communist Central Asia as an isolated hinterland by illustrating the ways in which Central Asian authoritarian regimes use their “connectivity” with global financial and law enforcement mechanisms to stash national assets offshore and punish their opponents abroad. It builds its sophisticated critique of conventional wisdom on detailed and up to date case studies from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, drawing on the research compiled in the Central Asia Political Exiles database compiled by Exeter Central Asian Studies Network.

Key references:

J.C. Sharman, The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management: On the International Campaign against Grand Corruption

Stephen Kotkin, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics

Special thanks to Eurasianet for its support that has made bringing back the podcast possible.

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Mar 2, 2017

In this episode, I spoke with independent journalists Franco Galdini and Zukhra Iakupbaeva about “The Strange Case of Jaysh al-Mahdi and Mr. ISIS: How Kyrgyzstan’s Elites Manipulate the Threat of Terrorism for Their Own Benefit.” In this paper published by the Central Asia Program at George Washington University, Galdini and Iakupbaeva dissect in great detail a series of unusual alleged terrorist attacks in Kyrgyzstan from 2010 to 2016 that were blamed on the Islamic State and a supposed terrorist group called the Jaysh al-Mahdi.

Their paper situates these supposed terrorist attacks within a larger framework of the history of the management of Islam in Central Asia, state and elite insecurity in Kyrgyzstan, and American and Russian discourses about the war on terror.

Franco Galdini & Zukhra Iakupbaeva, The Strange Case of Jaysh al-Mahdi and Mr. ISIS: How Kyrgyzstan's Elites Manipulate the Threat of Terrorism, CAP Papers 179, October 2016

Sarah Kendzior, Inventing Akromiya: The Role of Uzbek Propagandists in the Andijon Massacre, Demokratizatsiya, September 2006


Special thanks to Eurasianet for its support that has made bringing back the podcast possible.

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Jun 24, 2016

For this episode, I talked with Angela Stanzel of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) about the think tank's new report, Absorb & Conquer: An EU Approach to Russian & Chinese Integration in Eurasia. This episode is a follow-up to episode 16 on the same topic.

The podcast focuses on the Chinese perspective on OBOR and on Central Asia. Near the end, we get to the nub of what worries me about the plan--whether it is actually premised on economic development beyond China, or if it is just an outlet for Chinese overcapacity and excess foreign exchange reserves.

ECFR, Absorb & Conquer: An EU Approach to Russian & Chinese Integration in Eurasia, June 2016

World Bank, The Impact of China on Europe and Central Asia, April 2016

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Jun 20, 2016

For this episode, I spoke with Sarah Lain of the Royal United Services Institute about China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) plans in Central Asia--what they are and aren't, the assumptions behind them, and how different Central Asian countries have responded to them. This is the first of two consecutive episodes on OBOR and Central Asia. 

Sarah Lain, China's Silk Road in Central Asia: Transformative or Exploitative, Financial Times, 27 April 2016 

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Mar 14, 2016

This episode I spoke with Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher and Bishkek office director for Human Rights Watch. Mihra talked about the foreign agents and anti-gay legislation in Kyrgyzstan, about the pressure on civil society, the media, and opposition of the last five years in Kazakhstan, and about doing human rights work in Central Asia. 

Dec 11, 2015

In this episode, I spoke with Rilka Dragneva-Lewers of the University of Birmingham about the Eurasian Economic Union: what it really is, how it is developing, and whether the recent European Commission plan to use it as a tool of engagement with Russia makes sense. Rilka is the author of a new book with Kataryna Wolczuk, Ukraine Between the EU and Russia: The Integration Challenge.



EU's Juncker Dangles Trade Ties with Russia-led Bloc to PutinReuters, November 19, 2015.

Overview of Kazakhstan's Commitments to the WTO (Annex E)

Dragneva-Lewers and Wolczuk, "Trade and geopolitics: Should the EU engage with the Eurasian Economic Union?" European Policy Center, April 2, 2015.

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Oct 19, 2015

For this episode, the podcast talked with Chris Rickleton, Central Asia editor for Global Voices. We talked about the results of the parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan, what kind of coalition might form now, and what President Almazbek Atambaev might have in his plans for the last two years of his presidential term. 

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Sep 30, 2015

For this episode, I took a break from the news cycle to talk with Dennis Keen of the website Walking Almaty. Dennis has carved out a fascinating niche by paying attention to and taking pleasure in all sorts of small details that most of us walk right by in Almaty and around Kazakhstan. He has walked all over the city, to all sorts of places many of us never visit, and found hidden treasures everywhere.

We talked about urban design and architecture in Central Asia, the potential blossoming of new urbanism in Almaty, and whether Astana can be saved. This was a really enjoyable conversation and a fun change of pace from the usual doom and gloom of Central Asia.

Follow Walking Almaty on Twitter and Instagram @walkingalmaty.

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Sep 24, 2015

For this episode, I talked with Hélène Thibault, post-doctoral researcher at the Center for International Studies at the University of Montreal, about the crackdown on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), which the government banned in late August. In my opinion, the ban on the IRPT marks the complete consolidation of a one-party state in Tajikistan.

Hélène gave a thorough background on the evolution of the IRPT as well as her firsthand knowledge of the party in its current state, and we talked a little about what this means for what comes next in Tajikistan.


Hélène Thibault, The Islamic Renaissance Party's Downfall and Its Consequences for Tajikistan's Stability,

--, "The Soviet Secularization Project in Central Asia: Accommodation and Institutional Legacies," Eurostudia, V.10, n1, 2015, p. 11-31

Sep 8, 2015

For this episode I spoke with Erica Marat about the parliamentary elections coming up October 4 in Kyrgyzstan. The elections are the first since 2010, and feature a bewildering jumble of familiar faces from Kyrgyzstan's poltiical scene. All the major players have formed (sometimes contradictory) new alliances in in their efforts to overcome the increasingly dominant Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) that President Almazbek Atambaev no longer leads but still clearly favors. The SDPK, meanwhile, is seeking to strengthen its position in parliament, perhaps with the use of administrative resources and a controversial law on the use of biometric information to register voters. All this and more on the podcast. 

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Aug 27, 2015

In this episode, I spoke with Alex Nice of the Economist Intelligence Unit about Kazakhstan's decision to float its national currency after more than a year of trying to defend it against devaluation. We used the Kazakhstani decision as a launching point to discuss regional economic forecasts and the likelihood of other governments being forced to float or devalue.

Questions discussed in the podcast include: Is Kazakhstan truly floating the tenge? What vulnerabilities are their in other countries in the region? What are the likely consequences of the current economic crisis now that it is intensifying and becoming more clear?

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Aug 14, 2015

In this episode, I spoke with Obaid Ali, assistant country director & researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Obaid just returned from a research trip through northeastern Afghanistan, including Badakshan and Kunduz provinces on the border with Tajikistan, and we talked about his observations of the state of the insurgency in the north. The Taliban have pressed an offensive across the north this year in provinces traditionally thought outside of their main area of influence. Some reports stress their support from foreign fighter groups driven from Pakistan's tribal territories since June 2014 ("the North Waziristan operation").

Questions in this episode include: What is behind the success of the northern insurgency this year? How important are foreign fighters in the insurgency? How much are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other groups of foreign fighters dependent on the Taliban in northern Afghanistan? What is the prognosis for the northern insurgency this year? Will the insurgency take Kunduz city? 

PS - Apologies for some audio issues in this episode. It's been a couple months and I'm a little rusty.

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Jun 8, 2015

For this episode I talked with Christian Bleuer, a research fellow at the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. We discussed the recent insurgent gains in northern Afghanistan, and whether those pose any threat to the Central Asian republics. I also took advantage of Christian's extensive knowledge of Tajikistan to get his perspective on domestic politics in that country, especially to what extent the government has gained control over the state and its territory. We digressed a bit into Western policymakers' perspectives on Central Asia, and got philosophical about whether the region is collapsed, collapsing, or just stable. 



Christian Bleuer and Said Reza Kazemi, Between Co-operation and Insulation: Afghanistan's Relations with the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 2014

RFE/RL, Central Asian Militants Return to Northern Afghanistan, May 12, 2015

Bethany Matta, The Failed Pilot Test: Kunduz' Local Governance Crisis, Afghanistan Analysts Network, June 5, 2015


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May 15, 2015

For this episode, I talked with Muhammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen service, to get a briefing on the latest issues in Turkmenistan. 

What is the economic situation after the sudden devaluation in January of the national currency, the manat? What is happening on the border with Afghanistan? Are the new statements from Europe about receiving Turkmen gas by 2019 realistic?



Follow Muhammad Tahir on Twitter: @tahirmuh

Chris Rickleton, "Turkmenistan: Rumors Reign as Economic Crisis Grows," Eurasianet, February 1, 2015

"Afghan Turkmen Trapped near Border with Turkmenistan," RFE/RL April 22, 2015

"Russia's Woes to Hit C. Asia, North Caucasus Economies in 2015 - EBRD," Reuters May 14, 2015 

"European Union Sees Supplies of Natural Gas by 2019 from Turkmenistan," Reuters, May 2, 2015


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May 7, 2015

For this episode, I talked with Alex Nice of the Economist Intelligence Unit about the regional economic crisis in Central Asia caused by the Western sanctions on Russia and the decline in global oil prices. 

How are Central Asian governments and central banks responding to the crisis, and how effective are their policies? How could the crisis affect long-term economic integration trends? How bad will the crisis get?

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Follow Alex Nice on Twitter @AlexNicest

Nate Schenkkan, Impact of the Economic Crisis in Russia on Central AsiaRussian Analytical Digest No. 165

--, Eurasian Disunion: Why the Union Might Not Survive 2015,” Foreign Affairs, December 26, 2014



Apr 18, 2015

For this podcast, I talked with Luca Anceschi, Lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, about the implications of a potential Iran deal for Central Asia.

What would Iran opening for business mean for Central Asia, especially for energy exporters Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan? Can Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan benefit if Uzbekistan remains autarkic and closed? How would it affect the different Eurasian economic integration schemes that the US and China advocate for Central Asia? How would it affect pipeline projects like TANAP and TAPI?

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"An Enduring Vision for Central Asia" (New US State Department Policy Speech), March 31, 2015

"Does Nuclear Deal Presage a New Era for Iran-Central Asia Relations?" Qishloq Ovozi, RFE/RL, April 6, 2015

Luca Anceschi, "Dilemmas of Compatibility: GCC-Kazakhstani Relations," Journal of Arabian Studies, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2014 

Follow Luca Anceschi on Twitter: @anceschistan


Apr 6, 2015

For this episode I spoke with Joanna Lillis, Chief Central Asia correspondent for, about the recent presidential election in Uzbekistan and the one upcoming April 26 in Kazakhstan. What do elections in these closed countries look and feel like? How are they different? What are the key issues at stake in each election? How are these governments addressing the economic crisis?

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Resources: OSCE/ODIHR preliminary findings on presidential election in Uzbekistan



Apr 2, 2015
Episode 2 - The Myth of Radicalization with John Heathershaw

This is a follow-up to Episode 1 that I originally recorded thinking they would go together, then decided should appear as separate episodes. I spoke with John Heathershaw of Exeter University about his recent paper with David W. Montgomery The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian RepublicsWe discussed what we do and don’t know about radicalization, Islamic revival in Central Asia, and the use of Islam in the political sphere in the region by state and non-state actors.

See resources from Episode 1 for links. 

Audio for this episode may be a little rockier - I’m still learning the editing, and we did have some connection problems during the call. Bear with me as I learn the ropes of podcasting.

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Mar 28, 2015

We talk with expert Noah Tucker about how ISIS recruitment of Central Asians works online, and what ISIS means for Central Asians.