Political Institutions & Interethic Relations in Central Asia


A review of Political Access, Legal Fairness, and Cross-Ethnic Trust in Central Asia, by Brent Hierman

Brent Hierman’s dissertation investigates an interesting and politically significant issue: interethnic relations in pluralist, multi-ethnic societies from the focal point of a comparative analysis of ethnic Uzbeks residing in Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic. The dissertation examines whether political institutions that structure social interactions have an effect on cross-ethnic trust. Given the conventional belief that interpersonal trust underpins cooperative behaviors, inter-ethic trust is vital to the communal peace in pluralist societies. An empirical puzzle and theoretical gaps in the institutional politics literature motivate the research question. Previous empirical research demonstrates that despite shared cultural preferences, historical patterns of colonization, cultural demography (Uzbeks constitute the largest, geographically-concentrated ethnic minority in both countries), and the existence of an external national homeland, Tajikistani Uzbeks exhibit higher levels of trust toward the dominant ethnic group than Uzbeks who live in Kyrgyz Republic. So why do levels of cross-ethnic trust on the part of the Uzbek minority vary across national borders?

The dissertation makes an important and original contribution to the study of cross-ethnic trust, exploring promising, albeit previously under-theorized, aspects of institutional politics. Hierman builds upon Sztompka’s work (Piotr Sztompka, Trust: A Sociological Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) to define trust as a “bet on the future contingent actions of others, made when the other is of an ethnicity that differs from the bettor’s” (p. 7). In Chapter 1 he develops a convincing theoretical framework that connects political institutions that structure behavioral patterns to the attitudes toward those of a different ethnic background. Based on this framework, Chapter 1 advances two theoretical arguments for how institutions of governance can facilitate or impede cross-ethnic trust. In the best tradition of social science research Dr. Hierman formulates his arguments as testable hypotheses with clear empirical implications.

The first argument concerns individual and societal experiences with the government institutions responsible for sanctioning untrustworthy behavior – courts and the police. The author proposes that when biased against particular ethnic groups, legal institutions will heighten ethnic distrust. Conversely, positive experiences of legal fairness toward one’s ethnic group can promote trust. The second line of argument builds upon research that has linked the political exclusion of ethnic party or elites to the increase in ethnic grievances and intensification of political contention (Kanchan Chandra, “Ethnic Parties and Democratic Stability.” Perspectives on Politics, 3 (2) 2005, 235-252; Jóhanna Birnir, Ethnicity and Electoral Politics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007; John Ishiyama, “Do Ethnic Parties Promote Minority Ethnic Conflict?” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 15 (1) 2009). Hierman’s adaptation of this logic to the analysis of cross-ethnic attitudes produces a powerful insight: political exclusion of ethnic elites can produce suspicion of foul play and increase distrust towards the dominant ethnicity.

The author organizes his dissertation in a way that enhances the clarity of his arguments and facilitates the presentation of substantive empirical evidence. Chapter 3 describes the research design, case selection, and data collection methods. Hierman makes a convincing case for comparing attitudes of the Uzbek minority residing in two neighboring Central Asian countries. Such approach “holds constant” many competing explanatory factors. The author generates valuable qualitative data on cross-ethnic relations through a series of interviews of elites, and local focus group discussions in eight carefully selected research sites in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The household survey conducted in Uzbek communities in two different countries provides the quantitative data for hypotheses testing. Through the combination of original qualitative and quantitative data, the dissertation makes an important contribution to the systematic study of interethnic relations. This theoretically informed and methodologically rigorous approach constitutes an exemplar in social science scholarship.

The empirical part of the dissertation consists of four chapters. For the author’s arguments to be valid, ethnic identities have to be socially salient –they have to provide meaningful cognitive categories for interpreting social reality. Chapter 3 aims at establishing this scope condition. The analysis of qualitative and quantitative data demonstrates that despite being “artificially” created in the processes of colonization and Soviet modernization, Uzbek ethnicity is generally a socially salient identity category in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Chapter 4 describes the first independent variable, legal fairness. The focus group discussions provide essential contextual details on how respondents form their attitudes toward courts and the police. Hierman’s powerful narrative supports the notion that attitudes toward legal institutions arise from both direct and indirect personal experiences with the police and judiciary. Chapter 5 turns to the analysis of ethnic elites’ political access, with a focus on the limitations present in Tajikistan. Unlike in Kyrgyz Republic, where limited political openness has permitted the emergence of nationally-recognized Uzbek politicians, Tajikistani hegemonic authoritarianism has prevented the political mobilization of the ethnic minority and the rise of prominent ethnic elites. Political exclusion, therefore, cannot be meaningfully operationalized in Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz case, on the contrary, presents a well-defined opportunity to explore how attitudes toward excluded ethnic elites affect cross-ethnic trust.

Chapter 6 presents a statistical analysis of the household survey data in order to evaluate two institutionally-conditioned sources of cross-ethnic trust. The author tests the institutional fairness hypothesis with the pulled sample of Tajikistani and Kyrgyzstani respondents. The political access argument, however, is tested on the Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks only. The author employs ordered logit models to investigate the effects of trust in legal institutions and in nationally-recognized Uzbek politicians in Kyrgyzstan on the specific and non-specific measures of trust. The analysis incorporates appropriate behavioral (past experience), demographic, and attitudinal control variables, employs standard statistical techniques for imputing missing values, and checks the results’ robustness to alternative model specifications and methods. The results strongly support the author’s theoretical expectations. Alternative explanations receive tenuous support.

Perhaps the most laudable feature of Hierman’s meticulous investigation is his creative response to the potential endogeneity concerns. This is where the dissertation exemplifies the best use of the mixed method approach. Transcripts of the focus group discussions help rule out the possibility that attitudes toward institutions are affected by ethnic identity. Qualitative data firmly root these attitudes in individual and collective experiences. The statistical analysis also reveals no correlation between trust in excluded and included ethnic politicians, suggesting that political preferences are not overdetermined by ethnically relevant beliefs. This latter piece of evidence addresses concerns over the inverse relationship between political inclusion and interethnic trust. The arguments and results of this neatly designed and masterfully executed dissertation will be of major interest to the scholars of inter-ethnic relations and Central Asia area studies.

Dinissa Duvanova
Department of Political Science
University at Buffalo

Primary sources
104 semi-structured elite interviews conducted in eight research sites in Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic. Respondents included public officials, journalists, academics, and community activists.
16 focus group discussions organized in eight communities (two rural and two urban communities in each country).
Household Survey of 480 respondents conducted in eight communities in Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic.

Dissertation Information
Indiana University, 2011. 260pp. Primary Advisor: Karen Rasler.

Image: Osh Bazaar, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, 2008. Photo by Steve Hierman.

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