Theorizing Central Asian Politics—The state, ideology and power, edited by Rico Isaacs and Alessandro Frigerio

In: Inner Asia
Luca Anceschi University of Glasgow Glasgow UK

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Rico Isaacs and Alessandro Frigerio (eds), Theorizing Central Asian Politics—The state, ideology and power. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. 2019. 340 pp. Hardback. €103.99. ISBN 978-3-319-97355-5

Sifting through the voluminous programme of the latest annual conference of the International Studies Association, held in Toronto in late March 2019, the most perceptive reader may have noticed the inclusion of a panel controversially titled ‘Does International Relations need Area Studies?’ The panel’s overarching theme pointed to a problematic disjuncture in the contemporary production of Political Science knowledge. Disciplinary specialisation and area expertise intersect more and more sporadically in scholarly accounts of the key processes and issues at play in global and regional arenas, resulting in the publication of a compartmentalised literature that, in most cases, continues to explain these issues and processes in unsatisfactory fashion.

Theorizing Central Asian Politics frames a very sophisticated answer to this growing compartmentalisation of the Political Science debate. Rico Isaacs and Alessandro Frigerio opted to focus on one of the world’s most understudied regions—post-Soviet Central Asia—to address some of the most pressing issues in contemporary Political Theory, namely those that relate to governance, legitimacy, power and order. This fundamental editorial decision represents the book’s key strength, as Isaacs and Frigerio sought to overcome Central Asia’s marginality in global affairs by placing the region, its leaders and its politics at the epicentre of topical theoretical debates.

The book—which articulates its argument through contributions authored by emerging scholars, often hailing from the Central Asian region itself—is presented by its editors as an opportunity to theorise from and in Central Asia (p. 6). Isaacs and Frigerio are interested in approaching theoretically the inner functioning of the Central Asian state, articulating their investigation around three intersecting themes, which are individually addressed in each of the volume’s main sections. The first group of chapters (pp. 43–117) reflects on the constitution, legitimation and ultimate operation of Central Asia’s authoritarian power. Here, the reader is presented with four interesting chapters that tackle theoretically the region’s understanding of legitimacy and legitimation (du Boulay & Isaacs, pp. 17–42), the nexus between governmentality and governmentalisation (Tutumlu, pp. 42–64), the influence that neoliberalism continues to exert upon Central Asia’s development cooperation practices (Rudzite, pp. 65–94) and the complex interaction between liberalism and Islam in Central Asia (Zhussipbek & Moldashev, pp. 95–117).

The second section is, to this reviewer’s mind, the book’s most interesting segment, inasmuch as it features four very readable and stimulating chapters that endeavour to rethink the issues of legitimacy and state ideology in the authoritarian conceptualisations of power that have crystallised in Central Asia. Here, particularly remarkable is the analytical interaction between the chapters authored by Diana Kudaibergenova (pp. 145–66) and Adrien Fauve (pp. 167–88), who offer pertinent observations on the sacralisation of presidential power in Kazakhstan. Kudaibergenova focuses her attention on the presidential addresses delivered by Nursultan Nazarbaev during his long presidency, theorising about the emergence of a compartmentalised ideology, through which the Kazakhstani leader had managed to legitimise his hold on power at the expense of the wider society. Fauve, in turn, centres his contribution on the increasingly monarchical configuration of Nazarbaev’s power. Fauve’s understanding of the monarchical undertone of the Kazakhstani governance relates to the production of legitimacy discourses that transcend normal construction of personality cult—a non-concept, in the author’s views (pp. 171–6)—and make use of images, the imposition of everyday practices, and historical references to create a composite infrastructure of legitimacy that is both modern and traditional. This duo of chapters offers, in my view, the most enduring theoretical contribution framed in the book.

The volume’s third segment, ‘Reframing State & Order’, offers a series of multi-perspective analyses, which aim to tackle theoretically Central Asia’s international politics and some aspects of the region’s state–society relations. Selbi Hanova and Filippo Costa Buranelli ambitiously relate the foreign policies of the regional states to the critical IR debates. Hanova (pp. 213–36) applies the concept of routinisation to analysis of the foreign policy of the Central Asian states, while Costa Buranelli (pp. 237–62) expands on his prior work to locate Central Asia within the theoretical panoply intrinsic to the English School of International Relations. This segment also contains the volume’s most enjoyable chapter, in which Alessandro Frigerio (pp. 285–308) reflects on his experiences as a foreign driver in Almaty to advance further conclusions on the relationship between state and order in late Nazarbaev’s Kazakhstan.

Although it could have benefited from greater editorial attention—this reviewer detected many typographical blemishes while reading the book, including an amusing ‘pike Nursultan’ instead of ‘peak Nursultan’ at p. 178—Theorizing Central Asian Politics is a book that is destined to have a long shelf-life, due to its innovative approach that seeks to reframe theoretically the work of scholars with first-class knowledge of Central Asia, its languages, its politics and its societies.

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