High Politics and Low Politics in Central AsiaHigh Politics and Low Politics in Central Asia

by Edward Schatz

schatzThe British historian Lord Acton once claimed that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and it is easy to find examples—historical and contemporary—that confirm our worst fears about politics and politicians. If it is a nasty game with sky-high stakes, then it logically follows that the most effective politician is one who flies high and plays nasty.by Edward Schatz

schatzThe British historian Lord Acton once claimed that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and it is easy to find examples—historical and contemporary—that confirm our worst fears about politics and politicians. If it is a nasty game with sky-high stakes, then it logically follows that the most effective politician is one who flies high and plays nasty.

After more than 15 years of conducting research in Central Asia, with sadness I can attest that individuals often think of politics in these ways and politicians rarely do much to undermine this public cynicism. In fact, my own research—based on years spent in the region and countless conversations, interviews, focus groups, and surveys—suggests that many Central Asians are more or less accustomed to viewing politics as theatre—that is, as a spectacle at which to gawk, rather than as a forum in which to participate.

But is this the only possible kind of politics and the only possible kind of politician? Not by a long shot.

Consider the possibility that an individual could join a political party, run for election, or serve in the bureaucracy out of a sense of public service. The phrase implies that people participate due to a genuine commitment to creating a better society. This is not the same as patriotism that celebrates the history, culture, and identity of a particular community. Whatever an individual might think about the flag, the hymn, or the version of history provided in school textbooks, she or he is deeply committed to doing his or her best to execute policy as a representative of, and therefore servant to, the general public. This is also not the same as serving the elite or the bureaucracy or the regime. Whatever this person might think about his or her colleagues or structures of power, he or she is not guided by a desire to remain in their good graces.

Of course, public servants across the globe receive benefits. They have jobs. Their jobs are often relatively secure. They usually enjoy nonmonetary benefits, as well. But, people who serve are not primarily motivated by the perquisites that come with service. In states with genuine traditions of public service, the benefits are enough to enable people to serve in the first place but also modest enough to prevent an essential divide from emerging between themselves and the public they serve. Public servants take this responsibility to produce effective policy for the public, rather than for themselves, extremely seriously.

Over the years, I have often heard the following syllogism. Politics is nasty. Mr. So-and-So was not very nasty. Therefore, he was a poor politician. With this seemingly unassailable logic, many Central Asians resolve to ignore politics altogether or to view it as theatre, as entertainment to be enjoyed from a safe distance. Why enter the fray and assume whatever risks this might bring? Yet, most people do not think about this simple fact: politics is not just what happens in the presidential administration, in the parliament, or in the hakim/akim’s apparatus. Politics happens everywhere.

When people across the region engage in small-scale community projects (ashar or hashar) to build a home, clean a local park, or modify an irrigation project, they are producing public goods with political import. Not only are they building homes, cleaning parks, and improving irrigation; their participation creates trust, affinity, and public spiritedness. When people engage in discussions about the state of their world, about the state of their livelihoods, about changes to their culture, or about their understanding of religion—whether in kitchens or tea-houses or gap sessions at people’s homes or religious institutions—this deliberation often has a political dimension that clarifies what is just and valuable and prescribes corresponding courses of action. When people approach community elders for advice or to adjudicate a dispute, they are also recognizing that authority and political wisdom can be effective at a quite local level. When people intervene to protect an individual in distress, they do because the existing power relations unfortunately have rendered that individual vulnerable. This politics of everyday life is often more palpable than what occurs among policymakers in the region’s capital cities.

Just as Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s famous play is surprised to learn that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, Central Asians may be surprised to learn that they have been behaving politically all their lives without thinking about it. In this sense, politics may not be quite as nasty a game as many people assume.

Click here to access the Uzbek version of this article on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Ed Schatz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Canada, where he studies social mobilization and the state in Central Asia. Publications include Political Ethnography (U. Chicago Press, 2009) and Modern Clan Politics (U. Washington Press, 2004). He is completing a book on the United States as a symbol and actor in Central Asia and is starting another book on authoritarianism in Central Asia.

After more than 15 years of conducting research in Central Asia, with sadness I can attest that individuals often think of politics in these ways and politicians rarely do much to undermine this public cynicism. In fact, my own research—based on years spent in the region and countless conversations, interviews, focus groups, and surveys—suggests that many Central Asians are more or less accustomed to viewing politics as theatre—that is, as a spectacle at which to gawk, rather than as a forum in which to participate.

But is this the only possible kind of politics and the only possible kind of politician? Not by a long shot.

Consider the possibility that an individual could join a political party, run for election, or serve in the bureaucracy out of a sense of public service. The phrase implies that people participate due to a genuine commitment to creating a better society. This is not the same as patriotism that celebrates the history, culture, and identity of a particular community. Whatever an individual might think about the flag, the hymn, or the version of history provided in school textbooks, she or he is deeply committed to doing his or her best to execute policy as a representative of, and therefore servant to, the general public. This is also not the same as serving the elite or the bureaucracy or the regime. Whatever this person might think about his or her colleagues or structures of power, he or she is not guided by a desire to remain in their good graces.

Of course, public servants across the globe receive benefits. They have jobs. Their jobs are often relatively secure. They usually enjoy nonmonetary benefits, as well. But, people who serve are not primarily motivated by the perquisites that come with service. In states with genuine traditions of public service, the benefits are enough to enable people to serve in the first place but also modest enough to prevent an essential divide from emerging between themselves and the public they serve. Public servants take this responsibility to produce effective policy for the public, rather than for themselves, extremely seriously.

Over the years, I have often heard the following syllogism. Politics is nasty. Mr. So-and-So was not very nasty. Therefore, he was a poor politician. With this seemingly unassailable logic, many Central Asians resolve to ignore politics altogether or to view it as theatre, as entertainment to be enjoyed from a safe distance. Why enter the fray and assume whatever risks this might bring? Yet, most people do not think about this simple fact: politics is not just what happens in the presidential administration, in the parliament, or in the hakim/akim’s apparatus. Politics happens everywhere.

When people across the region engage in small-scale community projects (ashar or hashar) to build a home, clean a local park, or modify an irrigation project, they are producing public goods with political import. Not only are they building homes, cleaning parks, and improving irrigation; their participation creates trust, affinity, and public spiritedness. When people engage in discussions about the state of their world, about the state of their livelihoods, about changes to their culture, or about their understanding of religion—whether in kitchens or tea-houses or gap sessions at people’s homes or religious institutions—this deliberation often has a political dimension that clarifies what is just and valuable and prescribes corresponding courses of action. When people approach community elders for advice or to adjudicate a dispute, they are also recognizing that authority and political wisdom can be effective at a quite local level. When people intervene to protect an individual in distress, they do because the existing power relations unfortunately have rendered that individual vulnerable. This politics of everyday life is often more palpable than what occurs among policymakers in the region’s capital cities.

Just as Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s famous play is surprised to learn that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, Central Asians may be surprised to learn that they have been behaving politically all their lives without thinking about it. In this sense, politics may not be quite as nasty a game as many people assume.

Click here to access the Uzbek version of this article on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Ed Schatz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Canada, where he studies social mobilization and the state in Central Asia. Publications include Political Ethnography (U. Chicago Press, 2009) and Modern Clan Politics (U. Washington Press, 2004). He is completing a book on the United States as a symbol and actor in Central Asia and is starting another book on authoritarianism in Central Asia.

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