Philipp, you just published Post-Liberal Statebuilding in Central Asia. Imagineries, Discourses, and Practices of Social Ordering. Could you first tell why post-liberalism seems to you the right conceptual framework to discuss post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, which has been mainly analyzed through the paradigm of transition?
First of all, thank you for the kind invitation to this exchange. I think the post-liberal framework and wider approach to understanding political order has the advantage that it pushes beyond prevalent analytical categories and logics that are still informed by the transition paradigm or at least its underlying thinking that liberal-democratic forms of government are the only legitimate ones and somehow an ideal that countries across the world should strive towards. Even though many analyses are trying to move beyond grand narratives on transition and democratization, in most cases I think they end up reproducing and entrenching these and related frames on inherent cultural difference and societal and political under-development in the wider post-Soviet space. These are often related to and explained with the Soviet, ‘totalitarian’ past or with cultural features and historical developments in the respective societies. On the other hand, the co-construction of today’s “illiberal” and “authoritarian” regimes by the neoliberal global political economy with its free trade, extractivist and financialization agendas as well as offshore finance arrangements has mostly been left unaddressed, and with it the complicity of supposedly democratic and liberal states in the West in allowing regressive and violent political order to emerge, consolidate and reproduce itself.
On a more fundamental level, I propose to look at present and recent dynamics of world politics in a post-liberal lens, drawing on both on political thought and what could be called the imperial or colonial critique of liberalism, to provoke more thinking and debate on the fact that the policy recipes and standards prescribed by Western states to countries emerging from violent rule or conflict do not really correspond to the historical development paths of Western states themselves. For instance, principles like open and fully integrated commodity and financial markets are a fairly arbitrary demand on peripheral states and are mostly inspired by Western transnational companies’ thirst for new investment opportunities and retail markets. Therefore, while some criticism of what happens in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia or other marginal countries and regions may be absolutely justified, the overall approach to development assistance and political “transition” seems to be faulty if not intentionally entrenching political instability and economic under-development. Thus, the promise of reaching development through liberal democracy turns out empty and we have to conceive of the present world order as post-liberal, if it has (and had) anything to do with liberalism, at all.
We know discussions on post-liberalism for Western countries, especially the US. For Kyrgyzstan, more globally Central Asia and the Global South, how is post-liberalism connected to post-colonialism/post-colonial studies?
I think the previous answer already makes clear how post-liberalism does not concern single countries, regions or even hemispheres if it is approached from a critical global angle. There may be ways of “applying” this approach in a more formalistic framework that regards political change and development as processes conceivable or even measurable within single countries, but I’m sure that both historical and present-day research has de facto obliterated such a conception.
So, if we look more closely at the unpacking of liberalism’s entanglement with empire and colonialism, e.g. by Domenico Losurdo, Duncan Bell or earlier work by Singh Mehta and Sankar Muthu, we see that democracy and liberalism in the West cannot be thought as apart from colonialism and imperial dominance: the two are co-constitutive, as Western states could not have created the wealth, military might and corresponding claims to world-leading power without the immense apparatuses of exploitation and extraction of overseas colonies and imperial dominions.
The relations of dominance and dependence that emanate from this legacy and still decisively characterize developing countries’ predicament today are also one reason that many newly established post-colonial states have continuously faced instability, ongoing conflict and war. That is, even if decolonized countries’ political systems have (or had) developed towards democratic and inclusive decision-making, the lack or absence of high value-added industries and corresponding incomes has bred tension and conflict around resource extraction and other profitable sectors alongside a high dependence on labour migration. In many countries, the latter trends can also be said to have stood in the way of the former. Another inherent problem well covered in post-colonial thought is that of nationalism or, more precisely, rule based on identity and difference. Across the post-colonial and post-Socialist world, this phenomenon has led to large-scale conflict, civil war and even genocide. And yet, scholarship has shown how such rule has been decisively shaped by colonial powers and in many cases merely been continued or re-applied by newly emerging elites. Thus, racial and racializing rule through national(izing) projects presents another entanglement between colonialism and liberalism, notwithstanding the latter’s insistence on multiculturalism and inclusiveness.
It should also be mentioned that post-colonial scholarship has not appeared to be very receptive in recognizing, let alone talking about or conceptualizing, the commonalities and resonances of colonial and Soviet (imperial) rule. More has happened in East European and Eurasian studies where various attempts at establishing and deepening post-Socialist/post-colonial dialogues have been made and we hope that these will help advance a more global conversation.
It is such an important endeavor to reconnect Central Asia to the Global South. But how much should we also reconnect it with the Soviet experience? For instance, how much is the post-liberal order in Central Asia the answer to the failure of the so-called liberal order promised at the collapse of the Soviet Union? And linked to that, would you say that the West is the co-creator of this post-liberal or illiberal social order?
Understanding present-day Central Asian societies in connection with the Soviet past is key and a cornerstone of my book. There seems to be a tendency to call for moving beyond post-Socialist perspectives, which, amid all appreciation of a diversity of perspectives, I think demonstrates a lack of understanding of the lessons and potentials that the Soviet experience holds for the present and future. After all, large parts of the region’s population came of age during the Soviet era and thus makes sense of life through that past experience. And the situation is not completely different with people with little conscious memory of that period, including myself.
For many, if not most people in the “last Soviet generation” as Alexey Yurchak called it, already the promises and triumphalism of liberal-democratic transition presented a defeat and violent imposition by former geopolitical enemies. The failure and devastating consequences of the transition, which brought little to no benefits to many, and especially the older generation, will certainly have appeared to prove opponents of the new capitalist and democratic order right. Worse so, it has allowed nationalist and neo-traditionalist forces to emerge and take power. In this sense, it can be said that current post-liberal forms of ordering have emerged in reaction to the failure of liberal democracy and build upon tropes of inherent cultural difference and greatness of the respective nation or ethnos, which are often equally void of meaning as was the liberal-democratic narrative. This, and also the response to the first question, indicates how Western countries are inevitably entangled in the building up of not only post- but also illiberal states. Much of this trajectory is now irreversible, but also a result of self-interested and inconsequential actions of Western policy-makers during the “transition” years.
But the reading of post-liberal politics also applies to the early transition period up to perhaps the 2010s. It might be said that then there still was a, however naïve, popular belief that achieving democratic political and economic development for all of society was possible (even though many had given up early on or never believed in this). In Kyrgyzstan, in the later Akaev period or during Bakiev’s reign, I think we can see particular constellations of politics where governing elites claimed (and possibly even believed in) allegiance to liberal democracy while their practices of maintaining order and their economic conduct were already clearly situated in violent and authoritarian registers. This indicates how the co-existence and hybridity, or perhaps better the overlaying of different claims and practices has been at work throughout the transition, de facto from the constitution of independent Kyrgyzstan or other Central Asian states. Hence, the post-liberal politics that we see today, alongside the post-liberal social ordering and statebuilding I examine in the book, has to be understood as building upon and being entangled with these multiple layers of post-liberalism. This should make clear how forms of exclusion and symbolic violence that may fit clearly into a category of illiberal politics still need to be seen within their wider post-liberal context, in which people can justify or even legitimate certain problems and conflict with long-term ambitions and hopes as well as with individualized or micro-level explanations.
In your book, you delve into the three main imaginaries of the social order in Kyrgyzstan. Can you present them briefly and tell us how they are constructed? What is top-down, what is bottom-up, how are they embedded into grounded realities?
The key idea with imaginaries of social order is to capture ideas and thoughts that go unnoticed on an everyday level (or also in research interviews) but that nevertheless shape the way people perceive the world and act in it. In this sense, and as Cornelius Castoriadis, Charles Taylor and several cultural studies scholars have elaborated, imaginaries lie beneath discourses and narratives that much research bases its insights and conclusions on. They present, as Laclau and Mouffe say, “nodal points” that “fix meaning” in a more significant way which we need to inquire to get the full story. Imaginaries are grounded in reality via people’s first-hand experiences of that reality, and the relevance and truthfulness of a particular discourse or wider imaginary as it is demonstrated therein; or, alternatively, in stories, historiography and other forms of knowledge that validate, construct but also cast doubt on particular imaginaries. Thus, my conception of social imaginaries as being constituted by various discourses is useful for capturing disagreement and conflict, for instance, on whether liberal democracy and capitalism are suitable forms of ordering a country or on the differing opinions on tradition and culture.
The three imaginaries are the following: The “Tradition and Culture” imaginary refers to the perception of the rich cultural and historical heritage of the Kyrgyz and its crucial role in shaping understandings of social reality and ways of life. It traverses the highly politicized and constructed nature of any tradition, as is most obvious in the distinction between “traditional” and “foreign” Islam in Kyrgyzstan, and the continuous usage of traditional institutions in shaping and maintain social order to this day, as we can see with the kurultai or aksakal courts. On the other hand, it also captures the fundamental and existential importance of traditions as a bridge to and connection with ancestral and spiritual worlds as well as with nature and the non-human. These connections that are conceived and practiced in various religions, beliefs and rituals also make us aware of the immense forms of transformation that were wrought through the re-education and even erasure of peoples and their legacies, and through the exploitation and destruction of nature which Kyrgyzstan and the wider post-Soviet world have experienced.
The imaginary of “Politics of Sovereignty” unites discourses which can be attributed to Kyrgyztsanis’ striving for independence and various forms of purity, pride and greatness. I see this imaginary as carried forward from the Soviet era through discourses on Soviet modernity and civilizational achievements and a corresponding negative portrayal of “the West” as embodying an inferior societal model characterized by exploitation, moral weakness and decay. There is also a tension between the anti-colonial legacy shaping this imaginary that is expressed in widely popular stories of courage and patriotism of heroes like Kurmanjan datka who faced an encroaching Russian army in the 19th century to various Kyrgyz SSR First Secretaries exposing the colonial attitude of the Soviet leadership, and, on the other hand, the strong ethno-nationalist discourse evolving during the Soviet period and manifesting in large-scale ethnic conflict, including the 2010 “Osh events” and other forms of violence towards groups and people perceived as different and as threatening the interests of the Kyrgyz.
The third imaginary of the Western “liberal peace” embodies the idea that Kyrgyzstan should be reformed after the model of Western, liberal-democratic countries and according to ideas of free markets and free trade, privatization, rule of law and human rights; a model well captured in literature on the worldwide promotion of a “liberal peace” in countries emerging from civil war and large-scale conflict. Interestingly enough, there is ample material that shows how this imaginary is sustained through widely circulating discourses in Kyrgyzstan, including discourses on hard work and perseverance that resonate with traditional and religious worldviews or more patriotically inclined ones that can be grouped under the “Made in Kyrgyzstan” slogan. As a link back to the discussion of the Soviet experience, this imaginary is clearly rooted in what Yurchak called “Imaginary West,” i.e. a construction of an idealized elsewhere that even today is more imaginary than real for most of the country’s population. Аnd further, it is grounded in a teleological understanding of history where the old telos of Communism has been replaced with capitalism, as captured in the aphorism, “Capitalism as the highest stage of Socialism.”
As regards the issue of bottom-up vs. top-down dynamics or questions about agency, I side with scholarship on social imaginaries in being fairly (although not completely) pessimistic about the possibility of breaking out of or changing existing imaginaries and wider ideological formations and conflicts they are embedded in. For me, the main potential and interest lies in how more critical and self-reflected ideas and initiatives can establish themselves in the societal landscape and thus shift the political and wider epistemic framework, and of course change current policies and practices of social ordering.
Last but not least, many of Kyrgyzstan’s nationbuilding and political identity have been about territory—real and projected. What about the spatial aspect of social ordering?
This aspect is very important and the fact that the book was published with the Spaces of Peace, Security and Development Series of Bristol University Press gave me occasion to consider this in even more detail. In line with the imaginaries of social ordering, I would say that this aspect is key as the portrayal and construction of certain spaces, be it villages, city districts regions or border areas, is a main driver in shaping certain opinions, dynamics and actions in Kyrgyzstan as elsewhere. To illustrate this with the book’s empirical analysis: The state in the form of ministries and agencies tries to keep control over crime and conflict (or at least to create the impression that it does so) by running so-called Obshestvenno-profilakticheskie tsentry, widely translated as Local Crime Prevention Centers, which are supposed to bring together and coordinate the actions of local administrations, law enforcement organs, social institutions like aksakal courts, women’s or youth committees as well as the wider population. In the city of Osh and later in other places, an additional structure of Territorial Youth Councils was created and co-run with the OSCE and NGO Iret, in order to unite local youth and organize activities and support services for them and to thus prevent conflict and crime, among other things. Alongside these examples of structures created by the state, I also analyze the attempts of a civil society platform Civic Union “For Reforms and Result” that used the positive results from its pilot projects on its “Cooperative Security” (Russian, So-Bezopasnost) approach as evidence to demand more support and investment by authorities into actually putting legislation and policy plans for crime prevention into action. The activists suggest that the above-mentioned structures are very little or not at all functional across the country, which highlights the urgent need of doing something to address issues of conflict, insecurity and violence. So, overall, there is a contested spatial imaginary as to whether and how such challenges are to be addressed across the country.
To return to the above discussion on why a post-liberal approach is needed, another major spatial dimension affecting Kyrgyzstan and our understanding of it is the global political economy of knowledge production, which, in a somewhat paradoxical logic determines that this part of the world is only researched by a relatively small bunch of scholars, gets rather little institutional attention and financial support, similar to how the situation, including major events and violent conflicts, rarely make it into the news reporting and public awareness. At the same time, there seems a concentration around the study of bigger, more important countries and regions, not even to speak of the economy of media attention that revolves around certain events and spaces as if they were unique or of ever-superior importance. This geo-spatial politics of knowledge production and corresponding imaginaries of world politics provide plenty of more issues to be analyzed from a post-liberal perspective, and it seems to me that people from Central Asian studies (and from the region itself) have an important perspective to offer for this conversation.
Philipp Lottholz is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the DFG Collaborative Research Centre/Transregio 138 “Dynamics of Security” and Center for Conflict Studies, Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany. His research interests include: post-liberal statebuilding, decolonial thought, and security studies.