Curriculum: The Politics of Central Asia


Graduate Level

Jennifer Murtazashvili, PhD, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Despite the strategic importance of Central Asia, scholars had very little access to the region—until recently. As a result, the region has been quite poorly understood by policymakers and the public at-large.
This is an advanced research seminar that considers the politics of Central Asia. There is great debate over what constitutes the geographic contours of Central Asia. In recent years, the United States Department of State and most international organizations have moved their administration of Central Asia out of Eurasian or European bureaus to South Asian bureaus. The Department of State recently created the Bureau of Central and South Asia, for example. For the purposes of this course, I define Central Asia quite broadly to include the five former Soviet Republics in the region, as well as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Due to time limitations, however, we will focus primarily on Afghanistan and the five former Soviet Central Asian Republics. We will discuss Iranian and Pakistani politics throughout the semester.

The reading and workload in this class is commensurate with that of an advanced research seminar. The approach taken here is truly inter-disciplinary, drawing heavily from the fields of anthropology, political science, sociology, economics, and history. We will even read some first hand, primary source accounts in English. In terms of method, the course relies on a framework of comparative analysis. We will think seriously about dynamics in the countries in the region and seek to explain many of the divergent outcomes we witness.

In the past couple of decades, scholars and policymakers have had much better access to the countries of Central Asia. On the one hand, greater access to the region has promoted some truly outstanding scholarship and analysis. On the other hand, because the region is the site of international intervention and growing conflict, it has also attracted a fairly large group of “helicopter” journalists and scholars who draw broad conclusions about the region or particular countries based on either faulty assumptions or lack of understanding of the region. As a result, much of the contemporary discourse on Central Asia is fraught with inaccuracies or simple romanticizing. In this course, you will be exposed to some of the most important scholarly work on the region by people who have spent significant time on the ground in the region.

This course will not only introduce you to political issues in the region but will also show students how to approach politics through the lens of historical analysis and political economy. As such, we will spend significant time discussing the political, economic, and social history of the region to gain a more nuanced understanding of current affairs.

The first part of the course will focus on the emergence of states in the region. We will compare the trajectories of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, which found themselves first under the specter of Russian colonial rule and then under banners of Soviet Communism to that of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the few countries in the developing world that never fell—formally—under the control of a colonial power.
The second part of the course will explore the “long peace” in the region. This is the period of Central Asia under Soviet control and Afghanistan during the reign of the Musahiban dynasty (that ended just prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). The third and final portion of the course will focus on sources of conflict and other current issues in the region.