MARKETS Consortium meeting in Helsinki

The H2020-ITN-Markets fellows and supervisors held a two day workshop in the University of Helsinki just before the Annual Aleksanteri Conference, 23.-24.10.

The event was created jointly by the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki and Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, and organized by Eugenia Pesci, Giulio Benedetti and Aleksanteri Institute intern Irene Milani.  They had worked tirelessly to put together a program which started on Sunday with a visit to the Design Museum, giving our visitors  a chance to learn about the evolution of Finnish lifestyle in one hour.  Followed by an opportunity to enjoy Finnish Sauna and take a dip in the ocean, the arrival day ended with a cozy dinner in the center of Helsinki.

Design Museum in Helsinki. Photo by A-L Heusala

The workshop included a versatile two-day program addressing  topical issues such as the evolution of Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European studies and Aleksanteri Institute´s role in Finland by director Markku Kangaspuro, and a critical outlook on the politics of bad governance in contemporary Russia by professor Vladimir Gelman, also a supervisor in the MARKETS consortium.

Vladimir Gelman. Photo by A-L Heusala

Finland´s Ambassador to Central Asia, Ilkka Räisänen gave a lively talk about Finnish and EU cooperation in Central Asia, allowing us to have a view to the world of diplomacy and practical policy implementation. Ilkka Räisänen´s talk, based on his extensive experience in the region,  inspired a good number of questions that widened our understanding of critical challenges in Central Asia, as well as in transnational collaboration itself. 

Ambassador Ilkka Räisänen. Photo by A-L Heusala

The second part of the program included researcher training sessions.  Aleksanteri Institute´s Anna Tarasenko discussed policy studies and analysis, and the challenges of producing scientific or evidence-based knowledge for policy-makers. Her lecture was followed by Finnish Institute for International Affairs´ Kristiina Silvan and Margarita Zavadskaya who held a practice-oriented afternoon workshop on career planning, including a case study of think tank employment.

Margarita Zavadskaya with organizers Eugenia Pesci and Giulio Benedetti. Photo by A-L Heusala

As is customary in the MARKETS meetings, the fellows also gave short presentations of their doctoral projects.  Fieldwork and material collection are now completed, and manuscripts are on the way.  It is possible  to see how the variety of research topics within the MARKETS doctoral training network will create a unique foundation for future studies in our field after the consortium has ended its joint work.  Although Russia’s war in Ukraine has impacted the possibility to collect data for some of our fellows, they all found creative ways to adapt to the circumstances and carry out valuable research even in such times of crisis.

Faculty of Arts, Metsätalo building and lecture hall 4 where we had our meeting. Photo by A-L Heusala

The Faculty of Arts´ building “Metsätalo” where the meeting was held, is situated right in heart of Helsinki, within a few minutes walking distance from museums, main tourist sights and shopping streets. The fellows and supervisors had an opportunity to take advantage of the compact city center in their free time. We also enjoyed dinners in the hotel Arthur and in the restaurant Kolme Kruunua where we had more traditional Finnish cuisine.

Markku Kangaspuro and Abel Polese. Photo by A-L Heusala

The two day workshop was followed by the Annual Aleksanteri Conference 2023 “Decolonizing Space in the Global East” where several panels where organized or attended by our MARKETS people.  In the panel “The political economy of informality, public opinion and political changes: evidence from Central Asia“, Michael Rochlitz, Abel Polese and Madiana Gazieva gave presentations, with Yulia Brin as the chair and Anna-Liisa Heusala as the discussant.  Anni Kangas, from the University of Tampere acted as the chair and discussant in the panel “What´s in a Job? Rethinking Labour, Work, Employment and Migration in Central Asia“,  where Eugenia Pesci, Binazir Yusupova and Giulio Benedetti discussed their doctoral projects.  Our consortium coordinator, Abel Polese held a book event where he discussed the Scopus diaries and the illogics of academic survival.  In addition, Anna-Liisa Heusala participated in the book discussion on the Foundations of Russian Law (Hart, 2023), hosted by Jeffrey Kahn from the SMU Dedman School of Law. 

Overall, we were happy to host this MARKETS event in the University of Helsinki together with our partners from Riga,  and meet all the promising early career researchers again. 

Resting after an intense day. Photo by A-L Heusala

By Anna-Liisa Heusala



Understanding the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Finnish Immigration System through the lenses of the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

Erlin Trifoni from the University of Toronto spent his ten-week internship in the Aleksanteri Institute as a part of an exchange program. In May-July he conducted a research project on Finnish migration policy and its challenges in the current world situation.  

On April 24th, I started my 10-week internship at the Aleksanteri Institute as an intern from the University of Toronto. The time of my arrival coincided with the consequential decision of the Finnish Government to entirely abandon its policy of neutrality to join the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) as a result of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. However, the war in Ukraine did not only shape Finland’s foreign policy and security configuration; it also tested the ability of its immigration system to cope with a large influx of Ukrainian refugees in a relatively short time frame. At the same time, Finland was also facing the issue of Russian citizens escaping conscription, which caused a temporary spike in the number of asylum applications.

After consulting with my supervisor, Dr. Anna-Liisa Heusala, I decided to work on a report investigating the strengths and weaknesses of the Finnish immigration system within the context of the refugee crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. My paper’s objective was to dissect Finland’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. The analysis represented a point of departure for a more thorough comprehension of the features of the current mechanisms governing the immigration phenomenon in the country. In essence, what does the administration of the refugee crisis in Finland tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of its immigration and integration system? By looking at the issue comprehensively, it is possible to discern that the overall response of Finland to the refugee crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been positive in the pro-activeness of logistically and politically welcoming Ukrainian refugees. However, enhanced attention should be placed on service provision where the country has displayed difficulty meeting service demand. The country’s current performance indicates that it is necessary to increase cooperation with nonprofits and private entities.

Furthermore, the invasion of Ukraine promoted mobility among Russian citizens, particularly those escaping the forced conscription imposed by their Government. In this realm, my project started with the manifested preliminary intention of former Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto to develop a humanitarian visa program dedicated to Russian citizens escaping conscription. I built two arguments: one in favor and one against the proposal. Doing so required a thorough analysis of the historical and current dynamics of Finnish-Russian relations since the foreign policy of Finland often intersects with its immigration policy, especially within the context of immigration from Russia. Those are just two arguments I have made in my report.

I had the opportunity to interview academics from the Finnish Institute for International Affairs (FIIA), the Aleksanteri Institute, the Migration Institute of Finland, and the Cultura Foundation. Furthermore, considering that my project was centered around the response of the Finnish State to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, setting up interviews with Government officials represented a core component of my work. This aspect was undoubtedly one of the most challenging, as the accessibility between different governmental agencies varied considerably. However, one member of the Ministry of Interior agreed to participate in the project, and their interview provided valuable insight into the actions Finland has taken and aims to take in the future to further respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

By E. Trifoni 2023

Before starting my internship, I did not expect to be able to work on my own project and engage with various actors in Finnish society. Completing the paper has not been smooth sailing, however, as I encountered a few hardships along the way, especially during the process of scheduling interviews. Nevertheless, those moments were critical in comprehending that patience is a valuable friend and that regardless of how many rejections you may experience, results will materialize as long as you remain consistent in pursuing your objective. The trust and responsibility enshrined in the assignment of this project anchored me to the goal ahead and allowed for a successful completion of the task. It was an enriching and pivotal experience that cemented my desire to continue working in academia in the near future.  I want to use this occasion to reiterate my thankfulness to Dr. Heusala for her guidance and expertise, the Aleksanteri Institute, which welcomed me in its rigorous work environment and treated me like a colleague, and the various academics, organizations and Government officials for their valuable contribution to my project.

By Erlin Trifoni

Promoting Social Justice in Cities of Kazakhstan: Insights from ÄdilQala project

Kenzhekhan Kabdesov – PhD candidate at KIMEP university and  a former visiting fellow in Aleksanteri Institute writes about ÄdilQala (Just City,  a project supported by Friedrich Ebert Fund and Urbanforum, aimed to promote a new, humane urban development paradigm in Kazakhstan.

ÄdilQala is about a Fair-Shared/Just City and is an umbrella concept for inclusive and human-centric policies, quality decision making, and environmentally conscious planning, ultimately aiming at reaching the UN sustainable development goals on a city level. Through discussions, exchange of experience, and publications, ÄdilQala aims to create a platform for a broad public dialogue about the priority of the human dimension in urban policies and practices.

Mereilim Kalen and Adil Nurmakov – ÄdilQala project coordinators
Source –

September 2022, ÄdilQala announced a call for papers; it was planned to create a large publication consisting of several chapters. Since my research interest is about commuting and public transportation in Almaty, I applied without hesitation. Selected authors then were invited to participate in discussions and seminars held at the end of October 2022. There was a networking session, where all interested individuals participated to collaborate and most importantly discuss the topics linked to the concept of Just City. Moreover, there was a seminar conducted by Serik Beyssembayev on writing policy papers and developing appealing topics for the articles, which was very helpful for authors.

After these sessions, authors started their research: organizing interviews with local experts and citizens, conducting surveys etc. In the meantime, we had online meetings to discuss the current status of our studies. Within my research, I conducted several interviews with experts in the field of transportation and representatives of the Almaty City Mobility Department.

Photo from ÄdilQala Networking session. Source –

From October 2022 to January 2023 authors were working on their research and in January submitted the finalized version of their papers. While the ÄdilQala team had been preparing the book, the team also organized the “Ädil Qala Women” discussion in December 2022.  Event’s participants discussed various topics, which anyways linked to the problem of insufficient representation of women’s interests in the city. Zhauken Khanshaiym opened the evening with a speech about gender issues in the urban area. Afterwards, the participants discussed the problem of harassment, the urban environment for women with disabilities, and the onomastics of Kazakhstan cities.

Photo from Ädil Qala Women event. Source –

In July 2023 ÄdilQala finally presented a book consisting of 15 articles written by 17 authors. The articles were about different aspects of social justice in cities of Kazakhstan: politics and civil society, safe city, environment, rights to education and health, inclusive city, infrastructure. All articles published in the book present unique research which contribute to the promotion of the Just City concept among citizens.

In order to present each published research ÄdilQala plans to organize series of events: ÄdilQala*ALMALY, ÄdilQala*WOMEN, ÄdilQala*QUEER, ÄdilQala*BOSTANDYQ, ÄdilQala*ALATAU, ÄdilQalaÄUEZ and events in other cities of Kazakhstan as well.

Photo from AdilQala*ALMALY book presentation event. Souce –

ÄdilQala helped me to disseminate my research via publication, video and comics. We produced the video to shed light on the problems of public transport accessibility in suburbs and rural areas of Almaty. The video shows commuters’ everyday routine: how travel time and distance affect their wellbeing and which problems they face during the commute. The video is available via the following link:

Screenshot from the video

I could never imagine I would be a character in comics and that my research could be presented in that way. Thanks to ÄdilQala and brilliant illustrator Diana (instagram account: @dianakual) this idea became reality. The comics were drawn according to the abovementioned video and available via the link:

Screenshots from the comics.

Overall, such initiatives as ÄdilQala are essential to shed light on the problems associated with social justice and cities, to provide the platform for researchers, experts and interested people to discuss and share ideas. I am grateful that I became a part of the project. I had a great opportunity to meet talented people and most importantly to share my own research!

By Kenzhekhan Kabdesov, KIMEP

First Visiting Fellows from KIMEP University

In the last week of May, the Aleksanteri Institute welcomed two PhD researchers, Ainur Samsayeva and Kenzhekhan Kabdesov from KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan for a 35-day visit at the research center. The young academics visited the Institute and the University of Helsinki to utilize the database provided by the Helsinki University Library and to get to know the local researchers specialized in the theme of Central Asian politics.

After the pandemic, this visit was the first incoming visit within the  EU Horizon 2020 RISE (Research, Innovation and Staff Exchange) program. The project called New Markets: an exploration into the changing nature of business environments, informal barriers and emerging markets in the post-Soviet region aims to provide tools to research new economic policies and  related political changes in Central Asia via international researcher mobility. It connects six European and three Central Asian universities.

Ainur Samsayeva and Kenzhekhan Kabdesov have both specialized in political administration and are currently working on their doctoral research projects on society in Kazakhstan: Kenzhekhan is delving into the effects of public transportation commute and Ainur is looking into effectiveness of local COVID policies. As part of the New Market project, they are looking into the local policy reforms to find out how the current practices are reflecting into their research subjects – how do economic policy transformations have affected public transportation, and how did they influence the measures taken during the pandemic.

The visit marked a beginning of more active research travelling between Helsinki and the New Markets Consortium partners. Plans are on the way to to send three scholars for secondments in Georgia and Kazakhstan in the spring 2024.

Read  more in the Aleksanteri News:  How networking helps researchers to better understand Central Asian economic reforms | Aleksanteri Institute | University of Helsinki

By Olga Kaijalainen and Anna-Liisa Heusala

How the project meeting became a journey into Georgia’s present and recent past

By Eugenia Pesci, doctoral researcher in the Horizon 2020 MSCA ITN Markets project, Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland.

Photos by Eugenia Pesci, Giulio Benedetti and Tommaso Aguzzi.

On 26 November – 3 December, thirteen early-stage researchers of the International Training Network Markets (MSCA ITN Markets), funded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions, were hosted by one of the ITN partners – the Center for Social Sciences (CSS) in Tbilisi, Georgia, for the second in-person project meeting. The five-day program included fellows’ presentations of their research progress, brainstorming on the concept of informality, a workshop on grant proposal writing, and three training sessions on both qualitative and quantitative research methods. The program was enriched by a visit to the Georgian Parliament, Q&A sessions with two Georgian politicians and a think tank expert to have a better understanding of the country’s current political situation, in particular vis-à-vis Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its domestic spillover effects. During our visit to the Parliament, we met with the Deputy Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, MP Giorgi Khalashvili of the ruling Georgian Dream faction. He highlighted Georgia’s difficult position as a small state, especially in a situation when the international rules-based order has been turned upside down by the war in Ukraine. Georgia did not join the Western sanctions against Russia and did not send weapons to Ukraine, though it continues providing humanitarian help and hosting Ukrainian refugees inside Georgia. The opposition and ordinary citizens have been criticizing the ambiguous position of the Georgian Dream-led government vis-à-vis Russia’s aggression and have been demanding more concrete actions against Russia, like introducing a visa regime to limit the inflow of Russians citizens fleeing mobilization.

Anti-Russian graffiti, Tbilisi. Photo by Eugenia Pesci.

Although talking to politicians and experts of international politics was eye opening for grasping the current political mood in the country, what really interested me was to observe how everyday life is being affected by the war in Ukraine and what people think about the situation. Walking around Tbilisi, it was impossible not to notice the abundance of anti-Russian slogans on the walls, the omnipresence of Ukrainian flags, as well as anti-propaganda campaigns addressed at Russian speakers. In Tbilisi, street walls, shop windows, bars and cafes have become a space where ordinary people engage in political debates, express their support for Ukraine, their condemnation of Putin’s regime, and irritation towards Russian ‘relocants’ (relokanty). The mass inflow of Russians after the announcement of the partial mobilization in September provoked an unprecedented housing crisis, with cases of tenants being evicted or ‘encouraged’ to move out because of the sudden increase of their rents.

Current Time media outlet anti-propaganda campaign, Tbilisi. Photo by Eugenia Pesci.

A friend living in Tbilisi told me her rent went from an initial 400 US dollars to 800. Now that the contract needs to be renewed, the owner is asking for one thousand US dollars, an exorbitant sum for a one-room flat in Tbilisi. Property owners are confident they will find middle-class Russians willing to rent the flat at such price. In the old town quarter, fancy restaurants and hipster cafés with European prices – unaffordable for the majority of the local population – have popped up with the arrival of Russian digital nomads. According to official estimates, around 100 thousand Russian citizens arrived to Georgia since the beginning of the war, which corresponds to 3 percent of the country’s total population. In February and March, it was mostly members of the opposition and the ‘creative class’ from Moscow and Saint Petersburg who moved to Georgia because of their anti-war position. However, after the announcement of the ‘partial mobilization’ on 21 September, many ordinary Russians, even those who supported Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, decided to leave the country almost overnight to avoid the front.

Not all Russians are Putin. Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo by Giulio Benedetti.

The presence of young Russians in Tbilisi hardly goes unnoticed even at night, when outside the most popular bars and clubs of the capital you can hardly hear speaking Georgian. At a jazz bar in one of the central streets, a waiter gets annoyed when someone asks for the bill in a mix of English and Russian. “We do not speak Russian here”, she replies in English. Not everyone seems to appreciate that Russians feel ‘too much at home’ in Tbilisi. The question of which language to use when addressing someone in the street acquires new meanings under the current circumstances. When I sat on a taxi at the airport, the driver, a young man in his thirties – asked me in Russian where I was from. When I told him I am Italian, he started laughing and said: “It can’t be! You are Russian; I can see it from your face! Now all Russians say like that, that they come from other countries… I met many of you, you all pretend to come from another country, you do not want to say you are Russian!”.

The massive arrival of Russians is having a visible impact on Georgia’s economy, from inflation to the dramatic rise in rent prices. Besides the negative consequences, the National Bank of Georgia predicted that the arrival of Russians would contribute to an additional 500 million US dollars to the Georgian economy, revitalizing the tourism sector after two years of crisis due to the pandemic.

Street vendor at the Deserters’ bazaar, Tbilisi. Photo by Eugenia Pesci.

Even if this is true, the economic benefits of this consumption boost remain concentrated in the housing and service sectors of Tbilisi and Batumi, thus mostly benefiting business owners and the rentier class, leaving the majority of the ordinary people to cope with impoverishment and a shrinking labour market. Recent surveys show that more than 70 percent of Georgians are worried about unemployment and the rising living costs due inflation. By the end of 2022, average monthly earnings amounted 595 US dollars, though if we look at the median earnings provided by the National Statistics Committee of Georgia, wages are just above 330 US dollars. In 2021, unemployment rate surpassed 20 percent; by the end of 2022, despite the post-Covid recovery, it remained high at 15 percent. The situation is particularly grim for young people, as more than 34 percent of those aged 15-29 is considered to be not in employment, education or training (NEET). The lack of a stable employment and the impossibility to provide households for basic needs pushes many Georgians to seek employment abroad. Even if the streets of Tbilisi reflected quite well the overall mood in Georgia, I wanted to see how people leave in less isolated areas outside of the capital.

A barber shop in Akhmeta. Photo by Tommaso Aguzzi.

Together with other ITN Market fellows, I decided to embark on a three-day trip to the Pankisi Gorge, a three-hour ride from Tbilisi. It is a 20-km long valley in the Georgian region of Kakheti, near the border with the Russian Federation. The valley, which nowadays counts around 5 thousand inhabitants residing in a handful of villages, is home to the Kists, an ethnic group originating from the Chechens of the northern Caucasus. Our first stop was Akhmeta, the municipal center and entrance point to the valley. From there, wel planned to take a taxi and to visit the Kist villages of Jokolo and Duisi, home to ancient mosques. On our way, we decided to call our host in the village of Jokolo to inform her of our arrival time. We booked the place through a popular platform for short-term homestays and paid the entire sum in advance. To our surprise, the host said there was a mistake and that the guesthouse was closed. We tried to call other guesthouses, but they were all closed for the winter, a dead seasons for tourism in this rather isolated area. After many unsuccessful phone calls, we found a guesthouse in Akhmeta that agreed to host us. Our host Cicino, an old Georgian woman, spent more than 20 years working in Moscow and recently returned to her native village. Their children and grandchildren all live abroad or in the capital Tbilisi. She said we were lucky to find her there, and even though she admitted that heating the house only for us would cost her a lot, she agreed to switch on the heating in our rooms and in the bathroom. Though very polite, Cicino seemed a bit suspicious about our questions regarding the Pankisi gorge and even seemed offended when we asked whether there were ethnic Chechens in Akhmeta: “Why are you asking such questions? Why are you interested in that?”.

Asking for information, Duisi village. Photo by Tommaso Aguzzi.

The next day, on our way to the village of Duisi, we walked past what seemed from the outside an abandoned hospital building. The building now hosts an ethnographic museum, the headquarters of Radio Pankisi, and an English language school. The museum turned out to be closed. An old woman living in the other wing of the building, noticing our surprise in finding the museum closed, took her address book and gave us the phone number of the museum director. After receiving no answer, we thanked the old woman and decide to come back on the next day. While were deciding what to do, a group of girls from the second floor was staring at us with curiosity. They had just attended an English language class at the one of Roddy’s Scoot Foundation schools, a charity named after Roddy Scott, a BBC journalist killed during the second Chechen war. The foundation teaches English to over 270 students from the entire valley. Besides English classes and judo lessons, there are very few activities that children in the valley can do.

While we were looking for the building of the ancient mosque in the village of Duisi, we run into a group of schoolchildren. When I asked them what language did they speak, one of them answered me in Russian: “we are Chechens, we speak Chechen at home but we learn Georgian at school. We come here to learn English, when we have nothing else to do”. The recent history of the Pankisi gorge has been shaped by the two Chechen wars in the neighboring Russian Federation, when the valley had the reputation of being a transit point for drug traffickers and arms smugglers to Chechen separatists. During the second Chechen war, the gorge became a crossing point for foreign fighters from the Middle East who wanted to join the Chechen separatists. In the early 2000’s, Russia claimed that Chechen armed groups were hiding in Pankisi and were using the mountain passes around the valley to return to Chechnya and carry out terrorist activities across Russia. In 2001 and 2002, Russia repeatedly bombed the gorge. Even though the Georgian government conducted an anti-terrorist operation after this episode, it did not put enough resources to improve the socio-economic situation in the region.

Girls studying English at the Roddy Scott Foundation, Duisi village. Photo by Eugenia Pesci.

Almost everyone we spoke to in the valley said the biggest problem was unemployment and the lack of education and career perspectives for young people. Over the last 20 years, the population in the valley has been steadily decreasing, as work-age population moves to other regions of Georgia or to Russia. Since 2017, when the EU introduced a visa-free regime with Georgia, countries like Italy and Germany are becoming increasingly popular destinations for labour migrants. In Pankisi, we met a couple of taxi drivers whose wives work in Italy as caretakers for the elderly. There are also those who see the recent tourism development as a chance to come back and open their own business. The owner of a hotel under construction in Akhmeta told us she came back from Israel after seven years and decided to invest her savings in the tourist sector. She proudly shows us the brand new hotel rooms and hopes the summer season will be a success.

Young men in the village of Jokolo, Pankis. Photo by Tommaso Aguzzi.

Only a decade ago, rampant unemployment and the lack of perspectives were among the reasons that led many Kist young men to join Islamist groups and travel to Syria to join ISIS, although the exact number is still unknown. Today, tourism and labour migration are seen by many locals as the only options to get out of poverty. Thanks to local initiatives for community development, the Pankisi gorge is an increasingly popular spot for hiking in the Tusheti mountain range. In summer, dozens of guesthouses in Pankisi’s villages of Jokolo and Duisi welcome tourists from all over the world. However, as our first-hand experience has taught us, tourism in Pankisi is a seasonal thing. In winter, those working in the tourist industry close their activities and move to Tbilisi to find temporary employment there. Others rely on remittances. According to recent data, Georgia’s remittances from EU countries, in particular from Italy, where caretakers are in high demand, have been steadily rising. Remittances are boosting domestic consumption and contributing to the country’s overall economic growth, but they are also emptying out villages and contributing to the rising of inequality. Though being quite short, our visit to the Pankisi Gorge opened us another Georgia that we did not know almost anything about, where the wounds from a recent past are still shaping its present.

Support for Ukraine, Duisi village. Photo by Giulio Benedetti.

The second in-person ITN Markets meeting was not only an occasion to engage in academic conversations and improve our research skills; it gave us the possibility to get acquainted with Georgian politics and to see with our eyes the spillover effects of the war in Ukraine and the many contradictions that characterize Georgian society. It was also an occasion to delve into Georgia’s recent history, ethnic and religious diversity, and cultural richness.


Markets and New Markets projects met in Istanbul

Anna-Liisa Heusala, university lecturer in Russian and Eurasian Studies,  is the academic supervisor and Eugenia Pesci is the doctoral researcher in the Horizon 2020 ITN MARKETS Doctoral Training Network at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki.

Finally, after two years of Zoom meetings, our Markets and New Markets people could meet each other in person! The joint meeting of these two ongoing Horizon 2020 projects took place in the warmth of Istanbul´s weather in 14-21 June, in the Marmara University Campus, located on the Asian side of the city.

The week long program had been put together by the doctoral researchers of the Markets project, and it included a variety of topics which are important in the development of research (and other expert) careers; such as methodological issues, publishing strategies, branding, and gender issues. The practical training  offered to the doctoral researchers included Professor Alena Ledeneva´s  Informality Game, which is a great way to learn about concrete challenges that outsiders (investors, managers, experts) may encounter while working in administrative cultures where informality is prevalent. At the end of the intensive week, we had an opportunity to listen to a panel of experts coming from Turkiye, Ireland, Georgia and Czech Republic to discuss the effects of the war in Ukraine on Eurasian economic development. 

The doctoral researchers´ supervisors were asked to provide five minute pitches about their ongoing work. While preparing for this pitch at home (and it did require some preparation!), I realized how fitting the two Horizon 2020 funded projects (RISE and ITN) are for me personally, as I now have a venue to transfer the experience that I have gained over the past 30 years in Russian studies to the exploration of processes and flows in the Eurasian space. Although both projects have suffered from the Covid pandemic and are now affected by the war, their topic could not be more acutely important. The essential question of why altering laws and structures is not enough to shift an administrative culture remains at the center. I am hopeful that our new direction of expanding the Aleksanteri Institute´s  research focus geographically while focusing on global processes and flows transcending national borders will bear fruit in the works of Eugenia Pesci and Mirzokhid Karshiev, and others.

Text and photos by Anna-Liisa Heusala


Field research during the times of the pandemic

Mirzokhid Karshiev, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, was on a research trip to Uzbekistan in March-August 2020. His field trip was supported by H2020-MSCA-RISE-2018: New Markets project, funded by the European Commission.

Text and photos by Mirzokhid Karshiev

When I was planning my first research trip to Uzbekistan in December 2019, little did I know about a new virus that was seemingly disseminating in the Chinese city of Wuhan. What I was preoccupied with was planning ahead two full months of meetings, interviews, participant observation, visits to various regions of the country.

After getting necessary approvals from my supervisors, in January 2020 I booked my tickets to my destination, opting for only train travel from Helsinki to Termez, a city in the south of my Uzbekistan.  February was my last full month at office, where I would, inter alia, follow the news about the spread of the virus from China to other parts of the world. Still, one could count the number of new daily infections in Finland on one hand, and no covid-19 infections being reported in Uzbekistan.

International travel in times of the covid-19

Equipped with facemasks and hand sanitisers, I left Helsinki on 8 March, taking a fast-speed “Allegro” train from the city to Saint Petersburg (Russia) and from there to Moscow on a comfortable “Sapsan”. By the end of the day, I was on board a soviet-style Moscow-Tashkent train at the Kazanskiy station with my family, who joined me in this trip with plans to return to Helsinki in two weeks. We felt safer that we didn’t have to share our cabin with anyone and decided not to eat at the train restaurant. The train was almost empty. “It is predominantly used by seasonal migrants from Uzbekistan and in this time of the year the movement is usually to Russia not the other way round”, explained the train conductor, who had his face mask on. Colourful bulletins with instructions on covid-19 were hung around the train cars.

We crossed several countries and borders during our train trip. On Russia-Kazakhstan border, a Kazakh border guard took an interest in my recent travels through checking the stamps in my passport. I explained to him that since not all border passes are stamped into the passport, especially in the European Union, where I am traveling from, it might be a better idea if I would tell or write to him about my recent international travel destinations. He shrugged this off without any interest. As in many post-soviet countries, for him and his superiors, documents spoke louder than words.

Aktobe train station, March 2020

In two hours after we crossed the border, the train arrived in Aktobe, where a doctor was waiting for me at the train station. When the conductor directed her to my way, I couldn’t help noticing that she hastily put on her mask. She said that a couple days earlier, there was the first covid-19 case in Azerbaijan and she was summoned by the border guards from her work at a city health clinic to examine me. “I was said that you were in Azerbaijan in February. Even if you visited the country 20 days before, we have to be careful”, she continued. She asked me if I was in contact with other passengers in the train or if I had a fever recently. After finding out that I did not, she requested to continue my journey with safety precautions. I had no reason not to take her words seriously, besides, my mother, who occupied a similar position in a local clinic in Uzbekistan, told about similar sorts of things they do at the request of local and national authorities. Was it worth her 2 hours of work time to spend on me at the orders of the border guard and could this process be organized in a different, more efficient way? My research also partially tries to answer such questions through contextualising “the state” in local settings and trying to understand it through everyday interactions of local officials and street-level bureaucrats.

On 11 March, the day WHO characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic, our train crossed the Kazakh-Uzbek border. We were made to wait 4 hours in total on each side of the border. “This is a usual thing, not anyhow related to the covid-19 situation”, said our conductor, pointing towards the train schedule.

Access to the field

As a citizen of Uzbekistan, who has spent majority of his life in the country, I was better equipped to deal with the usual list of issues, faced by foreign researchers when visiting field sites for the first time. Uzbekistan has also made research visits significantly easier since 2016, after the new president took over the leadership of the country.

Besides, I was fortunate enough to enjoy support through several channels- the “New Markets” project had a local partner, which happened to be my alma mater-the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent. I also agreed with the local office of the United Nations Development Program to accompany them in their project activities, related to the analysis of public advisory councils in the regions. I could also see the benefits of “a snowball effect”, with one interview leading to another, but many people could be approached without prior introduction. Sometimes, you just have to write to them via Facebook.  Of course, my previous work experience in Uzbekistan provided me with a big pool of organizations and individuals that I could tap into, but I tried to avoid “selection bias” and search out for those, who could share their original and insider knowledge of the topics, I was interested in.

Pre-pandemic field research

The next morning after I arrived in Tashkent, I took off to Gulistan (Sirdaryo region), where I had several interviews planned. I was fortunate enough to have prior agreement with the UNDP project “Improved public service delivery and enhanced governance in rural Uzbekistan”. Covid-19 was a topic of small talk during the lunch breaks, but otherwise the life was as usual for many. One of my interlocutors in a local government office said that so far the impact of covid-19 was for investment projects. “Most of our projects have stalled, even those which are not with the Chinese. We had some projects with Middle Eastern and European investors, but these also stalled because some equipment had to be procured from China, or involved Chinese experts. In any case, in many areas China has become very important”, lamented the official. Many ordinary people that I met shared, in private, different conspiracy theories (“global elite trying to control the masses”) or taking it rather philosophically (“Gods penalty to the Chinese for the plight of Uighurs”). Some joked that Uzbeks’ diet, where beef and lamb have a special place, would make us immune to the virus. Jokes aside, you could sense that most were taking it seriously. Hand sanitizers or face masks were not readily available in the pharmacies or in the market.

Public services center in Karshi. March 2020

On 15 March, I was in the southern city of Karshi, preparing for the next round of interviews. On my way there, I travelled on a high-speed “Afrosiyob” train with a group of actors and actresses from the National Theatre of Uzbekistan, headed by their director (he died of coronavirus-related complications in August). They were to take part in a regional celebration of Navruz, a national holiday, in a local park, where thousands of people were waiting for them and for popular singers, as well as holiday dishes of sumalak, osh, and ko’ksomsa. At around 2 p.m., all of a sudden the people in the park were asked to leave. Earlier that day, at a meeting in Tashkent, Prime Minister Aripov, who also headed the special anti-coronavirus commission, established in January 2020, informed about the first case of covid-19 in Uzbekistan and the decision of the Commission to close external borders, universities, schools, and kindergartens and to cancel Navruz celebrations.

Local khokimiyat (administration building) in Dehqonobod district of Kashkadarya, March 2020.

Predicting that more limitations are on the way, I decided to continue with my interviews, keeping a safe distance from my interlocutors, wearing facemasks, frequently washing my hands. The local administrations that I visited have been continuing their work in the usual manner. It was quite surreal to see in one khokimiyat a gathering of around hundred people to discuss implementation of local covid-19 response.

Immediately after the announcement, people hurried to the bazaars and shops to stockpile for the coming quarantine. On my way from Kashkadarya to Surkhandarya, I met with a fellow traveler, who said he was going to visit his ailing mom, after a profitable day. “I sold almost 10 days of potatoes in one day, even the rotten ones, for double and triple the price”, he told me.

In Surkhandarya, I decided to stay at my uncle’s place. By now, covid-19 was the dominating the media and everyday life. There were numerous briefings per day on the TV, a dedicated telegram-channel Koronavirus info had over 1,2 million new subscribers in a couple days, the special commission introduced new restrictions almost on a daily basis.

This Special commission seemed to have wide, all-encompassing powers, while at the same time, the full text of its decisions were not available. Some people whined about last-minute restrictions that significantly hampered planned activities and in some cases, exacerbated the problem, but for many, this was a necessary thing to avoid imminent crisis, and the way the “government has always operated”.  My friend, who was planning to have a wedding ceremony on 24 March and invited up to 200 guests, found out on 22 March that the Commission decided to disallow all to’ys (weddings, and other big family celebrations).

At the same time, my family found out that there was no way they could return on 22 March as planned. The great uncertainty was looming as no one could tell what will happen next.

Soon I found out that inter-city trains were also cancelled, there were reports of cancellation of inter-city buses. Seeing the real possibility of being stuck in a small southern city, I hurried to make it back to Tashkent, for which I had to pay a hefty price. The taxi prices skyrocketed.

Everything has changed in ten days I was absent. The entrance to the city was turned into a fortress with soldiers and military vehicles, police officers, the National Guard and the epidemiology service people. At the block post, we were asked to come out of the car, the car was disinfected from the outside and inside, which made the driver swear privately.  Apparently, he didn’t like the new smell of the car.

It was clear that I had to reconsider my plans completely.

Field research during lockdown

By April 2020, Tashkent felt completely deserted. Public transportation was banned, followed by private vehicles. Only governmental and private vehicles with a special permit were allowed to be on the streets.

Most of interviews had to be rescheduled as well as conducted through other channels. Technologically advanced interlocutors opted for Zoom, I also conducted a couple of telephone interviews. With all cafes and restaurants closed, one of my interviews took place at the bus stop. The planned presentation at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy was also conducted online, as all universities had to switch to distant education.

For many residents of Uzbekistan, though, these movement restrictions had quite devastating consequences. With up to half of workforce in the informal sector and quite heavily reliant on daily wages, many found themselves in need of financial support. The government had initially played with many options for distributing aid, but could not offer a meaningful solution as fast as they introduced the restrictions. Many community self-help groups emerged both online and offline, collecting money and food from relatively better-offs and distributing to those in need. I noted that most of the aid was targeted towards traditional “in-need” category of pensioners, the disabled, the ill and so on, while the healthy, middle-aged taxi drivers, market sellers and restaurant workers found themselves neglected. The special commission saw another, more important problem with the self-help communities that they posed an epidemiological threat.

In April, only food markets and shops were allowed to operate. They had to install disinfection tunnels and check the temperature of the visitors on entrance. Ecobazar shopping center, Tashkent. April 2020.

Surprisingly, new opportunities have also emerged for me. Some media outlets started to ask for my views and comparative analysis of responses to covid-19 in European countries and Uzbekistan. Consequently, I appeared in interview and wrote an article for, the two giants of Uzbek internet media.

By this time, a lockdown was also introduced in Helsinki and the University of Helsinki switched to distance education and teleworking. This allowed me to continue taking part in research seminars, attend work meetings. For a Zoom meeting, it made no difference whether I was at home in Helsinki or in Tashkent.

Final remarks

In mid-May the restrictions have been significantly reduced. Many embraced this easing as a positive development as it would, at least, allow them to earn for a living. While the special commission referred to the number of dropping new infections, for many, myself included, it was the policy reversal from the strategy of “quick eradication of the virus” as the state found itself overstretched and unable to deliver most of the conditions for its success. It also demonstrated that local practices of state policy implementation matter as well as a need for more evidence-based policymaking. I would be sharing my observations and a grounded analysis on an upcoming article, tentatively titled “The Covid-19 Pandemic and its Impact on Administrative Culture and Practices in Authoritarian Regimes: A Case Study of Post-Soviet Uzbekistan”.

Boys herding cattle on the outskirts of Denov, Surkhandarya region. June 2020






COVID-19 in Russia and Eurasia panel at Think Corner

On June 11, Aleksanteri Institute organized an online discussion panel at ThinkCorner oft he University of Helsinki on COVID-19 in Russia and Eurasia. The event hosted three speakers – postdoctoral researchers at the Institute – Margarita Zavadskaya, Sherzod Eraliev, and Olga Zeveleva.

Sherzod Eraliev, a member of the research project “Migration, Shadow Economy and Parallel Legal Orders in Russia,” discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the lives Central Asian migrant workers in Russia and their remittance-dependent countries in Central Asia. The full record of the online event is available at the Aleksanteri Institute’s channel on Youtube.

The life of a researcher – Sherzod Eraliev

As we start the year 2020 with a new blog-page “Global Process and Flows in the Eurasian Space”,  this blog will become a channel for all our projects. We start by introducing our researchers, to give you a glimpse of the hectic academic life in our field.

To get an understanding of the life of a post-doctoral researcher, our researcher Sherzod Eraliev is a good example. His career has already landed him on three different continents and several cities. There is no time to stop, if one wishes to stay in the game. And a lot, of course, also depends on good luck.

After leaving his home country, Uzbekistan, he arrived in the United Kingdom where he studied International Politics at the University of Manchester in MA programme of the Faculty of Humanities (2009). After having worked in several international organizations in his home country, he then continued to his doctoral studies in the University of Tsukuba, Japan, where he also defended his thesis “Securitized migration? Russian policies vis-à-vis Central Asian labour migrants” in 2018.

A post-doctoral career opened for Sherzod in the Migration, Shadow Economy and Parallel Legal Orders (MISHA) project, at the University of Helsinki. Our senior researcher Rustam Urinboyev was granted a Marie Curie Fellowship for 2018-2019, which meant that our project was able to open a position for a new team member. Currently, Sherzod works as a post-doctoral fellow, funded by the KONE Foundation grant. His background and research interests have allowed us to expand our activities in the Eurasian studies beyond the MISHA project.

Last year, Sherzod Eraliev participated in a two-month fellowship at the George Washington University – Elliott School of International Affairs’ Central Asia Program. He participated in tailor-made programs and was introduced to U.S. policy and expert communities in Washington, D.C. His research during the fellowship focused on the return migration of highly skilled Uzbek migrants. He delivered a speech at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on his research findings. He gave an interview to Voice of America’s Uzbek Service on Russia’s migration policies, Uzbek migrants in Russia, latest changes in Uzbekistan. Sherzod also published an op-ed at The Diplomat about the return perspectives of highly skilled Uzbek migrants. His research findings on this topic was later published in an e-book by the above-mentioned. In June, he participated in the Russian Readings at Oxford, where he delivered a lecture on the religiosity of migrants in Russia.

In the fall, Sherzod travelled to Moscow for a two-week fieldwork to interview both migrants and migration experts. He reported on his adventures in our project Facebook page, attracting interests in our page followers.

This year, life is getting busier still. He has ongoing works for several publications and plans to travel to conferences, workshops and meetings.  He is also the Coordinator for the Aleksanteri Conference 2020: Eurasia and Global Migration in October, which means working together with the organizing committee during the spring and fall.

And what about his personal life? Finland is now the third country where he has settled, this time with a family of two children. Finding an apartment, getting paper work in order, arranging children´s schools and day care, and language courses – it also takes time. On the first day of 2020, his family welcomed a new addition. So, there is certainly life outside of one´s work!