Don’t underestimate the potency of soft power grounded in education and people-to-people contact. Both are the backbone of deepened relationships, and the global community needs to invest in strengthening those ties with the Central Asia region.
Soft power is an axiom of international relations and multilateral ties. Within this framework, education and research is a key part of the soft-power apparatus. Their value is recognised among policy makers, educational institutions, students, and laypeople alike. The cornerstone of network-building alongside regional improvements is particularly pertinent in developing countries joining the global community, like the Central Asian countries. It has been with rapt attention that the world followed these countries’ development and exchanges with the near and far abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, practitioners of the region should work to cultivate this interest to ensure Central Asia thrives.
The Central Asian region—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—are old cultures but young countries. They evolved shaped by nation-building under the Soviet Union, and were limited to the periphery, a supportive role to an empire. Their physical separation, enforced by large tracts of steppe, some of the biggest landlocked masses in the world, water, and mountains, heightened the experience of isolation. The collapse of the Soviet Union created new challenges for these nascent countries. Independence was multi-faceted—it came with autonomy, but also with uncertainty. At the forefront of policy dilemmas was the paradox of creating a domestic system to maintain cohesion while striking out to craft an international personality. A secondary question was whether it was better to act in isolation or together, as a regional bloc. These questions have had a significant impact on the relationships that the Central Asian countries have forged with other nations.

This legacy and development interplay is evident in academic exchange. As part of the centre-periphery relationship, Central Asian countries were accustomed to sending their students and researchers abroad to educational institutions in the Russian area of the Soviet Union. In the post-Soviet era, the space of opportunity has widened to include countries outside the post-Soviet sphere, from Osaka to Oxford or Cape Town to Calgary. Programmes from all over the globe are available to applicants from Central Asia. Likewise, the Central Asian countries opened their boarders to host researchers abroad. Networking, people-to-people contacts, and soft power possibilities are numerous, all playing a role in the region’s initiative to reach out and develop itself abroad while cultivating interest at home.
Discussion on the benefits of educational exchange for Central Asia is prescient. Countries comprising the region are facing a demographic shift to an overwhelmingly youthful majority: UN data estimates the population will grow from 70 million to 100 million by 2050. Aided by the boom, countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are marketing themselves as potential technology and start-up hubs for the region. China and the European Union have taken an interest in the area as a re-export hub and commerce zone. The governments in Central Asia need to be prepared, and part of that readiness is investment in education to ensure their own populations are adequately trained. It is a project that can be undertaken in isolation, but this seems neither the most strategic option nor the one the Central Asian countries favour—perhaps with the exception of Turkmenistan. Most have stepped out of the self-imposed isolation following the transition from the Soviet Union and have opened to increased cooperation; this is cooperation that the outside world is eager to accommodate. External organisations want to see the Central Asia countries prosper, their economics expand, and their development in good practices.
This eagerness is a natural extension of the abundance of outsider fascination in Central Asia. The region registers somewhere on the spectrum between intriguing and exotic. Academics and students are mesmerised by the Central Asian countries: their history, their legacy, their culture, economics, geography, geology, and so on. There is an allure in the region’s beautiful, multi-faceted past, romanticism in its wide expanse of literal and figurative space, and enthusiasm in the potential created by that space. The Central Asian countries can be a thesis topic, a fieldwork location, or a place for undertaking a long-term degree or short-term exchange programme. There is much to be learned from Central Asia, and academic interest in Central Asia is an asset to the region.

These two paths can be joined for a common trajectory. There is a role for Central Asian researchers abroad and at home, and a role for foreign researchers to do work in Central Asian countries. The seamless exchange of academics and students to the benefit of both communities is ideal. Yet, there are complications and places for improvement. Where education is concerned, there are problems not unique to the region, like information outreach and funding. There needs to be more dialogue, more openness, and more support for those interested in exchange programmes. There are places where the legacy of the Soviet experience seeps into academia, presenting challenges to access and transparency. These legacy challenges represent bigger questions of autonomy and cooperation, dependence, independence, and interdependence. Such issues must be addressed.

To find solutions, Central Asian countries need look not only to outsiders, but to their own: Central Asian students and researchers bring some of the best expertise to the discussion. Central Asians’ knowledge is vital to tackling pressing issues on the modern agenda, like water resources, hydrocarbons, IT, demographics, regional development, conflict management, and, of course, the effects of transition. Abroad, these researchers challenge norms and stereotypes and advance studies about the region with aplomb. Other problems ought to be jointly confronted by the Central Asian countries and their partners. Outsiders must recognise the importance of these academic ties to build networks domestically and in the international community. Central Asian countries and outside countries should invest in the axiom of soft power progress through academic exchange—the outcome is a win-win.

Text by Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek

Images courtesy of Antti Viktor Rauhala, a University of Oxford MPhil graduate who wrote his thesis on Kazakhstan. Antti travelled through Kyrgyzstan in 2015 and conducted fieldwork in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in autumn 2018. He previously hitchhik