Interview: Nathan Hamm
A bit of a change of pace this month, as I interview one of the most prominent and, dare I say, senior, Central Asia bloggers, Nathan Hamm.
Nathan founded Registan.net way back in 2003, when he was its only author. Since then, he’s expanded to create a group blog that is the blog to read if you want to know what’s going on in the ‘Stans.
Anyway, on with the interview. As Nathan’s area of expertise is Central Asia, rather than Mother Russia, the questions have all been Central Asia-fied.
I started after I agreed to do Central Asia news roundups for Winds of Change. I started blogging as a way of keeping track of the news that eventually was to make it into the roundups. For both my blog and for Winds of Change, my motivation was to bring more attention to Central Asia and to try to correct some of the inaccuracies and misconceptions common to the reporting on the region.
2. What are your goals for Registan.net?
They’ve changed over time. Like I mentioned above, one of my big goals was to try to correct indequacies in Western reporting on Central Asia. I’m less concerned about that now largely because there is far less reporting on the region. So, now one goal is to simply draw attention to Central Asia and to add context to news on the region. Also, I try to spur discussion and consideration of policy issues, especially of Western foreign policy in Central Asia. And finally, I hope to give people without an interest in Central Asia a reason to take an interest.
3. What have been your best and worst blogging experiences so far?
I can’t say that anything stands out either way. It’s been gratifying to see Registan.net referred to in the media and on academic websites. I’ve also had plenty of opportunities come my way because of Registan.net. But best of all, I’ve gotten to know some great people from all over the world as a result of blogging.
On the negative side, I’ve had people say some nasty things about me and had a few borderline threats hurled at me by members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. But I think dealing with technology headaches has bothered me more.
4. Which blogs about Russia and the former Soviet Union do you most enjoy reading?
Because of time constraints, it seems that all I ever read nowadays are Central Asia and Caucasus blogs as part of my duties at Global Voices Online. In that neck of the woods, some of my favorites are Oneworld Multimedia, neweurasia, The Roberts Report on Kazakhstan and Central Asia, KZblog, Candide (that’s what I call it anyway — candide.blogsome.com) and Peaceclog. Carpetblogger has moved on to Istanbul, but still is with us in spirit.
I used to read more Russian blogs, but I have little idea of what’s out there now. I read Siberian Light and White Sun of the Desert mostly. I’m thrilled to see that Scraps of Moscow is back.
I read far fewer Russian and Uzbek language blogs than I should. I blame having too many responsibilities in meatspace.
5. What first sparked your interest in Central Asia?
A paperwork mixup. Honestly.
When I interviewed for the Peace Corps, I had been promised a posting in Russia. When I got my invitation packet, it was for Uzbekistan. Both programs were about the same size and composition, so they got filled at the same time. One application went in one file and the next went into the other. I got Uzbekistan. After a few minutes of being dismayed, I got excited. I knew little about Uzbekistan, and figured it would be as good a place as any in the former Soviet Union to spend a couple years. Whaddayouknow? I ended up loving it.
6. What do you love about Central Asia? What do you hate?
It’s a beautiful part of the world with a fascinating history and great people. It shares qualities with neighboring countries and regions, but it is entirely unique.
What do I hate? The state and its hideous bureaucracy. Kyrgyzstan, to its great credit, eliminated the requirement to register with OVIR. But everywhere else that’s one pain in the ass that one still has to deal with. It’s especially annoying having to deal with police officers who insist that electronic tickets don’t exist and that the lack of a ticket indicates an intent to stay illegally.
(Can you tell I’ve had a particular experience?)
All of these countries could beneift from more tourism, but they haven’t quite figured out how to be welcoming yet at the official level. There has been quite a bit of improvement in most of the region, but it’d be nice to see more.
7. If you could recommend one book about Central Asia, what would it be?
Goodness… I just looked at my shelf and there are at least five I think are superb. I’ll just have pick what is probably my favorite. I’m extremely partial to travel literature, so I’ll go with The Man Who Would Be King. It’s not exactly a travel account, but it is largely built on the memoirs of Josiah Harlan, the man on whom Kipling’s story of the same name is likely based.
8. What is your favourite place in Central Asia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?
Bukhara’s old city is my favorite except for when Samarkand is my favorite. They’re both great, and it is hard to pick which is better. I am quite partial to Samarkand’s proximity to the mountains, the Registan, Daniel’s Tomb, the other great monuments, and the pretty decent local beer. Bukhara’s great for the overall atmosphere though. The old city feels old.
I also think that anywhere in Kyrgyzstan is rather pleasant.
I’ve not been to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, or Mongolia. I’d love to go to all of them, especially Mongolia. I also want to see more of Kazakhstan than Almaty and the road to Bishkek.
9. If you could invite three Central Asians, past or present, to a dinner party, who would they be?
Temujin, because he has had such an enormous impact on Central Asia and there is so much unknown about him. Babur, the last Timurid and first Moghul. And Roxana ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roxana) because she probably has more than a few interesting stories to tell.
10. On balance, do you think the post-Soviet batch of leaders in Central Asia have been good or bad for their countries?
Bad, with the exception of Nursultan Nazarbaev. He’s no angel, but he’s at least kept his country on a track of economic reform and been able to attract investment. And he is trying to diversify the economy so it’s not dependent on the energy sector. It’s highly concentrated, but one is starting to see wealth created in Kazakhstan.
The rest of the region’s leaders have been pretty bad.
11. Do you think Central Asian states will ever embrace the style of representative democracy now favoured in (most of) the rest of Europe?
Probably not. I think that if anywhere is likely to more than superficially resemble Western democracy, it is Kazakhstan. Of all the countries in the region, it is the closest to Europe politically anyway. It was transformed far more than its neighbors during the Soviet period, and that’s really evident in its politics, as far as I’m concerned.
The rest of the region has potential for a more communal form of democracy. There is of course variation among the different peoples of Central Asia, but community involvement is fairly high. Villages and neighborhoods already come together to make certain decision, and I think this could become the basis for a more Central Asian type of representative democracy. There’s potential for abuse (both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are trying to use local community leadership bodies as instruments of central control), but I think there’s also potential for a type of democracy more grounded in Central Asian culture.
12. Do you think the average life in Central Asia today is better, or worse than it was in 1989? Why?
Better-ish. It’s really a mixed bag and depends on the country. There’s less security, and in much of the region, crumbling infrastructure is making life tougher. But there are some positives. Depending on where one happens to be, there are opportunities to make money going into business for oneself. Goods are more readily available.
I don’t know. I could make an enormous list of good and bad things about life now compared to life under the Soviet Union, and I don’t know how much it would really tell you. I met some people in Uzbekistan who were quite upset that the Soviet Union was gone because life was more stable and made more sense then. I met others, and this includes a man who was a physician under the Soviets and a kiosk operator now, who said that on balance they think things are better now. Some have won and some have lost. My feeling is that things are generally better now, but so much depends on the where you’re looking.
13. If you could advise Central Asian governments to do one thing, what would it be?
Give people the room and support to do business. The freedom to do business and make good use of land varies greatly across the region, but I don’t think that any of these countries will be truly successful until the average citizen has the ability to create wealth free from government interference.
14. Russia has developed a much more assertive and confrontational approach to foreign policy over the past couple of years, particularly in its near abroad. From Russia’s perspective, what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?
Are there benefits? Tim mentioned in his interview that it makes Russians feel better about themselves. I suppose that’s about right.
They have also made sure that other governments shy away from so much as looking Russia’s way cross-eyed for fear that folks in the Kremlin will become a tough apoplexed.
But even those are drawbacks I think. Nobody really looks up to the teenager who shakes down gradeschoolers for their milk money, and that is the kind of reputation Russia is building. And I am saying that as someone who thinks Russia makes a fair point on things like refusing to subsidize energy costs for its neighbors.
Russia’s building a horrible reputation for itself, and I cannot see how this will help it out down the road.
15. How would you assess the EU’s approach to relations with Central Asia . Do you think they have any change of becoming as influential in the region as Russia, China and the US are today?
At the moment, my response would have to be, “What approach?” Various EU members have policies of sorts, but the EU as a whole does not seem to have too much going on in the region. Germany’s trying to change that, but I am skeptical that much will come of it. The only way I can imagine Europe becoming as influential in the region as Russia, China, or the US is to offer the same kind of investment and military assistance.
I think it makes little sense for Europe not to be more heavily involved. Europe needs to find energy that isn’t imported from Russia. Central Asian states need to find ways to export energy bypassing Russia. There seems to be all the makings of a happy partnership. …between the EU and Kazakhstan at least. Maybe with Turkmenistan as well.
16. You recently attended a conference on blogging in Kazakhstan. How do you see the future of blogging in Central Asia developing over the next couple of years? Are blogs widely read by people in Central Asia?
I’m not sure how many people read blogs, but I assume they are being read. The blogging community in Kazakhstan is pretty healthy, and there’s a small but active community in Kyrgyzstan. There is a growing community of bloggers in Uzbekistan too. I think it will continue to grow, and it will be interesting to see if governments start paying attention and try to interfere.
As someone who lives in a country where just about anything goes in print, I found it absolutely absurd how many people at the conference were extremely concerned with bloggers being held accountable for what they say. Most of those worried about the unwashed masses having their own digital printing press were those involved in established media enterprises and usually a bit older.
Thankfully the younger people who are already blogging consider their countries’ media to be similarly irresponsible. Why do I say thankfully? Well, because it seems like the same kind of conflicts that have already happened here in the United States. It seems that the Central Asian blogosphere is growing in a similar pattern. That’s great, but as I mentioned, the big difference is that the governments in the region may try to restrict the freedom to blog.
17. On balance, do you think Russia’s policy towards Central Asia and the Caucasus is a positive one for states there? What about the foreign policies of other actors in the region – for example, the USA, China, the EU?
For the states, I think it’s positive. It is fairly noncritical and does not make requests the states find unreasonable. But for the people, I think it is harder to say if Russia’s policy is good or bad. In places like Uzbekistan, it looks like Russian policy might encourage some limited economic liberalization. On the other hand, its energy policy discourages Uzbekistan from exploring other gas export options and gives the country’s leaders the opportunity to pocket tons of cash.
I think the others’ foreign policies are fairly good. I’m not convinced China has good intentions, especially given how its behavior in Kazakhstan’s oil sector makes it look like it is trying to snatch up all the available oil. But, its availability as a partner for these states increases their independence by giving them an alternative to Russia. The US and the EU offer similar possibilities in addition to technical assistance and financial support for reform projects. How Kazakhstan has taken advantage of Chinese, US, and EU interest in the region really shows how these countries, should they be willing to loosen up a bit economically, can benefit from having good relations with all outside powers.
18. You spent a year in Uzbekistan, working for the Peace Corps. Do you think your experience ‘on the ground’ has given you a different perspective to many analysts writing on Central Asia today?
To some of them, yes. But over time, I’d say my experience sets me apart less and less. There sadly seems to be less interest in Central Asia than there was a couple years back, but a good deal of that has to do with Uzbekistan keeping foreign journalists out of what is the most populous country in the region. There’s less fodder for all but those who know local languages or who follow the region full time. Many of those still commenting on the region have lived or traveled extensively in the region and generally know what they are talking about.
Also, what I — and I think most regional analysts — have been focusing on lately has been geopolitics. When the US was trying to get Uzbekistan to reform a few years back and there was more of a debate over what the best strategy for realizing reform, my ability to call on experience with what Uzbeks I knew said they wanted, believed, etc. was much more relevant than now.