Best Books on Central Asia in 2018

New publications on Central Asia have appeared in genres ranging from history—The Rise and Fall of Khokand, 1709-1876 by Scott Levy, and Laboratory of Socialist Development by Artemy Kalinovsky—to security studies—Critical Approaches to Security in Central Asia, a compilation republishing the main articles discussing the concept of security in the region (edited by Edward Lemon), and Kemel Toktomushev’s Kyrgyzstan: Regime Security and Foreign Policy—to international relations—The European Union’s Influence in Central Asia by Olga Spaiser—and political science—State-Building in Kazakhstan by Dina Sharipova.

As is often the case, anthropology offers us among the most insightful perspectives on today’s Central Asia: on legal and other modes of regulating everyday life—The Force of Customs by Judith Beyer.


The Rise and Fall of Khoqand, 1709-1876. Central Asia in the Global Age

By Scott Levi

This book analyzes how Central Asians actively engaged with the rapidly globalizing world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In presenting the first English-language history of the Khanate of Khoqand (1709–1876), Scott C. Levi examines the rise of that extraordinarily dynamic state in the Ferghana Valley. Levi reveals the many ways in which the Khanate’s integration with globalizing forces shaped political, economic, demographic, and environmental developments in the region, and he illustrates how these same forces contributed to the downfall of Khoqand.To demonstrate the major historical significance of this vibrant state and region, too often relegated to the periphery of early modern Eurasian history, Levi applies a “connected history” methodology showing in great detail how Central Asians actively influenced policies among their larger imperial neighbors—notably tsarist Russia and Qing China. This original study will appeal to a wide interdisciplinary audience, including scholars and students of Central Asian, Russian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and world history, as well as the study of comparative empire and the history of globalization.


Kyrgyzstan – Regime Security and Foreign Policy

By Kemel Toktomushev

Kyrgyzstan is an interesting example of a relatively weak state, which for its brief period of independence has already ousted two presidents, experienced two revolutions, survived two interethnic conflicts and yet remained intact. This book explores this apparent paradox and argues that the schism between domestic and international dimensions of state and regime security is key to understanding the nature of Kyrgyz politics. The book shows how the foreign policy links to the Manas Air Base, used by the US military and essential for supplying their forces in Afghanistan, the economic arrangements necessary for sustaining the base, both inside and outside Kyrgyzstan, and the myriad of different actors involved in all this, combined to overshadow points of friction to ensure stable continuance of the status quo. Overall, the book shows how broad geopolitical forces and complex local factors together have a huge impact on the formation of Kyrgyz foreign policy.


The Force of Custom. Law and the Ordering of Everyday Life in Kyrgyzstan

By Judith Beyer

The Force of Custom presents a finely textured ethnographic study that sheds new light on the legal and moral ordering of everyday life in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. Through her extensive fieldwork and firsthand experience, Judith Beyer reveals how Kyrgyz in Talas province negotiate proper behavior and regulate disputes by invoking custom, known to the locals as salt. While salt is presented as age-old tradition, its invocation is shown to be a highly developed and flexible rhetorical strategy that people adapt in order to meet the challenges of contemporary political, legal, economic, and religious environments. Officially, codified state law should take precedence when it comes to dispute resolution, yet the unwritten laws of salt and the increasing importance of Islamic law provide the standards for ordering everyday life. As Beyer further demonstrates, interpretations of both Islamic and state law are also intrinsically linked to salt. By interweaving case studies on kinship, legal negotiations, festive events, mourning rituals, and political and business dealings, Beyer shows how salt is the binding element in rural Kyrgyz social life and how it is used to explain and negotiate moral behavior and to postulate communal identity. In this way, salt provides a time-tested, sustainable source of authentication that defies changes in government and the shifting tides of religious movements.

Judith Beyer has done a magnificent job of unfolding current notions of legalism among the Kyrgyz of Talas province. Her prose is crystal clear, her ethnography is rich, and her theoretical engagement is stimulating and accessible. This book deserves a place on readers’ shelves alongside the best works on the anthropology of post-socialist Eurasia.

Paolo Sartori, Institute of Iranian Studies, Vienna


Critical Approaches to Security in Central Asia

Edited by Edward Lemon

Central Asia remains on the periphery, both spatially and in people’s imaginations. When the region does attract international attention, it is often related to security issues, including terrorism, ethnic conflict and drug trafficking.This book brings together leading specialists from a range of disciplines including geography, anthropology, sociology and political science to discuss how citizens and governments within Central Asia think about and practise security.

The authors explore how governments use fears of instability to bolster their rule, and how securitized populations cope with (and resist) being labelled threats through strategies that are rarely associated with security, including marriage and changing their appearance. This collection examines a wide range of security issues including Islamic extremism, small arms, interethnic relations and border regions. While coverage of the region often departs from preconceived notions of the region as dangerous, obscure and volatile, the chapters in this book all place emphasis on the way local people understand security and harmony in their daily lives.

This book will be of interest to students and researchers of Central Asian Studies as well as Security Studies and Political Science. The chapters were originally published in the journal Central Asian Survey.

List of contributors: Nick Megoran, Natalie Koch, Galib Bashirov, Renat Shaykhutdinov, Madeleine Reeves, John Heathershaw, Neil MacFarlane and Stina Torjesen, Christine Bichsel, Marc von Boemcken, Hafiz Boboyorov, Nina Bagdasarova, Mei Ding, Nurbek Bekmurzaev, Philipp Lottholz, Joshua Meyer, Bert Cramer, Till Mostowlansky, Edward Lemon, and Hélène Thibault

Laboratory of Socialist Development. Cold War Politics and Decolonization in Soviet Tajikistan

By Artemy M. Kalinovsky

Artemy Kalinovsky’s Laboratory of Socialist Development investigates the Soviet effort to make promises of decolonization a reality by looking at the politics and practices of economic development in central Asia between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Focusing on the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, Kalinovsky places the Soviet development of central Asia in a global context.

Connecting high politics and intellectual debates with the life histories and experiences of peasants, workers, scholars, and engineers, Laboratory of Socialist Development shows how these men and women negotiated Soviet economic and cultural projects in the decades following Stalin’s death. Kalinovsky’s book investigates how people experienced new cities, the transformation of rural life, and the building of the world’s tallest dam. Kalinovsky connects these local and individual moments to the broader context of the Cold War, shedding new light on how paradigms of development change over time. Throughout the book, he offers comparisons with experiences in countries such as India, Iran, and Afghanistan, and considers the role of intermediaries who went to those countries as part of the Soviet effort to spread its vision of modernity to the postcolonial world.

Laboratory of Socialist Development offers a new way to think about the post-war Soviet Union, the relationship between Moscow and its internal periphery, and the interaction between Cold War politics and domestic development. Kalinovsky’s innovative research pushes readers to consider the similarities between socialist development and its more familiar capitalist version.

State-Building in Kazakhstan. Continuity and Transformation of Informal Institutions

By Dina Sharipova 

This book challenges the conventional wisdom that informal institutions—networks, clientelism, and connections—have to disappear in modern societies due to liberalization of the economy, rapid urbanization, and industrialization. The case of Kazakhstan shows that informal reciprocal institutions continue to play an important role in people’s everyday lives. Liberalization of the economy and state retrenchment from the social sphere decreased the provision of public goods and social support to the population in the post-independence period. Limited access to state benefits has, in turn, stimulated people’s engagement in informal reciprocal relations. The author investigates informal channels and mechanisms people use to gain access to quality public goods—education, housing, and healthcare. Comparing the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, the author shows that people are more likely to rely on family networks and clientelist relations rather than on help from the state to obtain scarce resources. The book provides an important contribution to the literature on informal institutions and explains the relationship between a formal welfare state and informal reciprocity


The European Union’s Influence in Central Asia. Geopolitical Challenges and Responses

Unknown yet highly strategic, Central Asia attracts the interest of major global powers due to its vast energy resources and crucial geographic position. Russia, China, and the European Union view this region as an indispensable springboard to enhance their political and economic influence on the Eurasian landmass. Thus, facing strong competition and working on low budget, the EU is attempting to establish itself as a relevant and influential actor in an environment in which its leadership role is far from certain. Unlike in other post-communist regions, the EU is not able to rely on the attractiveness of its political models, and risks being marginalized by other global powers. The crucial question then is: How does the EU exert influence in such a challenging geopolitical context? Which strategies does the EU apply to be an actor who counts? Through an analysis of the EU’s discourse, instruments, and the reception of its policies in Central Asia, this study argues that the EU consciously takes the position of a second-tier actor who acts as a “consultant” and projects a picture of itself as an honest broker with no geopolitical agenda. The EU’s influence is confined to niche domains in the security sphere that are nevertheless important for the regional security. The EU is not a great power in the region nor is it willing to become one. It does, however, have comparative advantages in being perceived as inoffensive and for occupying areas that are neglected by the other actors, such as governance and water security

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