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


Destabilization of human security in wider Europe and Central Asia

As a result of Russian attempt to change the borders in Europe, we witness the biggest flow of refugees since the WWII. The UN Secratary General has launched a 1.7 billion USD appeal to provide emergency assistance to Ukraine. Already today, March 2, almost 680 000 persons have fled Ukraine since the beginning of Russia´s invasion. The UNCHR is working with Ukraine´s neighboring countries and appealing to them to let refugess cross their borders freely. However, the flow of people has made the journey for many an arduous and hazardous one. We hear of eyewitness reports on families having to split to make it across the border and the rule of the strongest at borders. This indicates that the EU civilian crisis management should coordinate assistance in border crossing procedures in war times.

The current flow of refugees has created a very different political response from the 2015 situation when the Russian government was suspected of benefiting from the flow of people to European countries. Yet, if the war continues for a longer period, the question arises of integration of large Ukrainian communities into their temporary or even permanent new places of residence. This alone will make it difficult for European nations to gradually put the Ukrainian war in the background as it happened after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Ukrainians fleeing conflict. © Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Current attention is focused on the immediate and long-term economic effects on both sides of the EU-Russia border. But the war will also permanently shift the political landscape in Russia relations and sever practical connections between communities and organizations. This three decades long cross-border collaboration has been important for wider European security. Collaboration in various areas related to human security will be negatively affected – if not halted altogether. What remains to be seen is the effect on border security and international police cooperation, such as Russia’s membership in Interpol, for instance.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine will have lasting negative impact on stability and security in Central Asia as well. All five Central Asian republics, to different degrees, are dependent on Russia in almost all spheres of life.

First of all, Russia is by far the largest (or second largest after China) trade partner of Central Asian countries. The presence of Russian business in the region is significant. While experts believe that the Western sanctions imposed on Russia will have start to have a devastating effect in the mid to long run, the decline of Russian economy will eventually negatively affect development in Central Asia. Landlocked in the middle of Asia and neighbouring the war-torn Afghanistan in the south, the five countries of the region export the vast majority of their goods, although not in large quantity, through the Russian territory. As the most of transport routes between Russia and the rest of Europe will also be closed, it is not yet clear how Central Asian countries can diversify their export routes. We will also witness a hampered economic growth, inflation and the decline in living standards.

However, the most immediate effect of the Russian invasion will be felt through Central Asian labour migration to Russia. There are more than 2 million migrant workers from Uzbekistan, close to 1.6 million from Tajikistan and above 600,000 from Kyrgyzstan in Russia. While for Uzbekistan with a population of 35 million the number of migrant workers may not be comparably high, one in six citizens from nine-million Tajikistan work in Russia. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are highly dependent on remittances; earnings sent by Kyrgyz and Tajik migrant workers home constitute almost third of the gross domestic product of their respective countries. The sanctions have already tumbled the Russian ruble, cutting the value of savings and remittances of migrant workers. If the value of ruble continues to fall, there may be no reason for migrants to remain in Russia.

Moscow’s Kazansky station, one of entry points into Moscow’s labour market     © Sherzod Eraliev

In the past, when Russian economy faced crises, like during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 or following the western imposed sanctions for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 or even the recent pandemic, many migrant workers had to return home for the short period. Nevertheless, for lack of any job perspectives in their home countries, migrants gradually returned to Russia. Whether Russia will remain a hub for Central Asian migrant workers depends a lot on the resilience and resistance of Russian economy against the sanctions. As the confrontation between the West and Russia is quickly spiraling into the level of no return, it seems that the sanctions will hurt the Russian economy greatly if not in the coming months, then in the coming years. This, in turn, may make working in Russia unreasonable for migrant workers, thus blocking the pipeline of remittances greatly needed for Central Asian economies. A decline in remittances and a return of unemployed people in large numbers are likely to lead to economic and social pressures in Central Asian countries.

At the same time, Central Asian governments fear of the growing pressure by Moscow. So far, the governments have expressed cautiously neutral voices calling the both Russian and Ukrainian sides to put an end to the military conflict (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), sympathized with Russian actions (Kyrgyzstan) or remained silent (Tajikistan and Turkmenistan). Criticizing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine will be harder and harder for Central Asian capitals as they are bound with Russia through politico-economic (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) and military (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) blocks. As Russia is getting isolated in international arena, remaining neutral for the five countries will be difficult and Moscow’s pressure on the region will only grow.

By Anna-Liisa Heusala and Sherzod Eraliev

Fieldwork notes from Istanbul


Sherzod Eraliev, Academy of Finland Post-doctoral Researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, shares his fieldwork experience in Istanbul, Turkey

Although the Covid-19 pandemic is still ongoing and some countries are already facing the fifth wave of the pandemic, restrictions in international travels have become less strict allowing the possibility of fieldworks for researchers. However, Turkey has since last year been one of the few countries to allow foreigners, albeit with certain restrictions, to visit the country in an attempt to compensate the losses to its tourism sector. And my first visit to Turkey for fieldwork was in early August of 2020, when there were still a lot of mobility restrictions induced by the pandemic. Back then, I was accompanying Rustamjon Urinboyev, who had already started his fieldwork in early 2019. We decided to conduct a fieldwork in the middle of the pandemic to find out the immediate effects of the pandemic on migrants, the most vulnerable population group during such crises.

This last fieldwork was the first one since I started my individual research project funded by the Academy of Finland. Started in September 2021, this project investigates the mutually transforming interactions between multiple actors and institutions on different levels and chains of migration governance in a comparative perspective in Russia and Turkey. I use Central Asian migrant workers in these countries as my case since they are the largest migrant groups in Russia and one of the largest and growing migrant groups in Turkey. Both Russia and Turkey share many similarities: they both have become large migration hubs in recent decades, share borders with the European Union, have become more and more autocratic in recent years, a large share of migrants is employed in informal sector, etc.

Kumkapi, an Uzbek café “Qo’qon” named after a city in Uzbekistan. Interestingly, most of Uzbek cafes in Kumkapi (or other parts of Istanbul) carry a name of a city or region in Uzbekistan, indicating hometown of migrant-entrepreneurs.

In Istanbul, my main fieldwork site is Kumkapi neighbourhood in the city’s central Fatih district. Historically one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in Istanbul, in the last decade Kumpaki has become a hub for migrant workers from different parts of the world. However, in the past decade it has mostly become an “Uzbek mahalla” due to a large number of cafés and restaurants serving Uzbek food, numerous cargo companies that ship clothes to Uzbekistan, many clothing stores and stalls selling Uzbek fashions suitable in the area. Walking through the streets of Kumkapi, you can spot hundreds of Uzbek migrants. This is probably one of the most important differences with Moscow, the largest destination for Uzbek migrants in Russia. Unlike in Istanbul, there are no ethnic enclaves in Moscow, meaning migrant communities are dispersed with migrants living in different parts of the city, with the small exception of some industrial zones and fruits/vegetable markets with higher concentration of Central Asian migrants.

A stall selling “Uzbek goods”, mostly brought by shuttle-traders from Uzbekistan. A carton with a handwritten text in Cyrillic Uzbek on top centre of the photo advertises services of helping with green-card applications, the most desired dream of migrants to immigrate to the USA.

Uzbeks who live in other districts of Istanbul come to Kumkapi during the weekends in order to meet and socialize with their friends in Uzbek cafés. Therefore, many newly arrived migrants stay in shared apartments in Kumkapi and undergo their initial introduction and adaptation to the Turkish labor market. The emergence of an Uzbek mahalla in Kumkapi can be explained by its vicinity to the shopping areas of Laleli (frequented by a large number of shuttle traders from Uzbekistan), with its informal employment possibilities and the availability of cheap housing and accommodation in the quarter. Unlike Moscow, where migrants have to minimize their presence in public space to avoid frequent police checks, Uzbek migrants in Istanbul usually are not afraid to walk freely in streets notwithstanding the fact that the majority of them do not possess documents that give right to reside and/or work.

Ads in Turkish and Uzbek offering a job or accommodation in Istanbul.

In the conference that the Aleksanteri Institute organized in late October on migration issues, Anna-Liisa Heusala and Kaarina Aitamurto presented a paper “Authoritarian Context and Outsider Position in Fieldwork on Migration in Russia”, where the authors discussed, among others, the difficulties Western researchers may face in an authoritarian context, where not only authorities, but also research objects – migrants could perceive the work done by the researchers – that is, the data collection in the field as something that can cause trouble. Well, while it was relatively easier for me to establish contacts as a person sharing the same linguistic, identity, and cultural background and citizenship with migrants, it is never easy to gain trust of research informants. Uzbek migrants coming from an authoritarian context, who have heard or witnessed about their government’s persecution in foreign countries (especially during the previous president’s time), do not always trust other Uzbeks they don’t know in person. During my fieldwork trips to both Russia and Turkey I had to invest time and resources to gradually gain trust of migrants. Only after trusting you totally, are they eager to share their stories, grievances, and dreams as well as show their living and (if possible) working places.

Overall, this fieldwork proved to be a productive one in terms of data collection: interviews, observations and visual documentation.

2021 Aleksanteri Conference “Eurasia and Global Migration”

On October 27-29, 2021, the Aleksanteri Institute organized its annual multidisciplinary conference on “Eurasia and Global Migration”. Originally planned for October 2020, it had to be postponed to this year because of the restrictions induced by the still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The event was held completely online on a platform Liveto (, a Finnish company that hosts online events.

Screenshot from the Opening ceremony of the conference

This year, the 20th Annual Aleksanteri Conference brought together scholars to explore dimensions of global migration to, from and within the Eurasian space and to discuss these transformations. The conference participants, with different backgrounds and approaches, discussed a broad range of topics pertaining to migration from both historical and contemporary perspectives. 

The key note speakers of the conference  included Franklin Obeng-Odoom (University of Helsinki, Finland), Caress Schenk (Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan), Ulf Brunnbauer (Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Germany),  Madeleine Reeves (University of Manchester, UK), Marlene Laruelle (The George Washington University, USA) and Teivo Teivainen (University of Helsinki, Finland). 

All the key note presentations can be found in the Aleksanteri YouTube channel here. 

The online event brought together 263 participants from 39 countries, who explored migration and the agency of migrants in terms of social, political, cultural and historical processes and flows, which redefine the contours of national boundaries and affect societal development in both sending and receiving societies. The organizers had the luxury of putting together a  versatile program of high quality panels covering the topic.  For more inclusive conference attendance, the online version proved to be a good choice. The conference program is still available at the Institute website, please click here.

The conference was opened by the Minister of Interior, Dr. Maria Ohisalo, who emphasized the political topicality of the conference theme and encouraged researchers to take into account environmental issues linked to migration. During the conference, the Finnish Ministry of Interior, the government agency responsible for regulating migration issues in the country, hosted a workshop on the development of Finland´s migration policy and a round-table titled “Future Perspectives on Migration” with speakers from the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs and the University of Eastern Finland. The online conference also featured a series of podcasts – interviews with scholars on the issues related to different aspects of migration and its consequences for Eurasian development from societal, political, cultural and other perspectives. This is a link to the podcast episodes on our website, available with transcripts.

Although the organization of a three day international conference was a major undertaking for the Organizing committee, the end result was a success and worthy of the 20th annual conference. We had wonderful student assistants who worked tirelessly in the Aleksanteri Institute´s premises taking care of the panels.  Participants reacted positively to the conference platform and enjoyed the high level presentations. The original aim of the conference was to demonstrate the relevance of our region of interest (post-Soviet space) for the study of global processes and flows. But the conference also  showed the vast number of researchers who work on migration related issues either in cultural, historical, political or societal topics. We are encouraged to build this network also in the future!

By Sherzod Eraliev

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!

Policy expertise and media appearances

The year 2018 has included several tasks related to policy expertise and media contacts for the Migration, Shadow Economy and Parallel Legal Orders in Russia team.

Kaarina and Anna-Liisa were invited to participate in the making of a Finnish government research report on Russia´s security developments. The insights which we have gained in the MISHA project have been utilized in the making of the part ”Internal security” in the report to be published by Finnish Ministry of Defence in early 2019. Russian migration and its connection to wider security issues are recognized as important matters for Finland as a neighbouring society.

Meanwhile, Rustam has been invited to serve as an expert on corruption and governance for the newly established Expert Council “Buyuk Kelajak” which aims to assist Uzbek government in designing the long-term development model of Uzbekistan until 2035. He participated in an international conference  “Uzbekistan 2035” in Tashkent on the 28-29th of June, where his talk on anti-corruption reforms prompted great interest by the Uzbek government, among others the Ministry of Justice and the Academy of General Prosecutor’s Office. It is very gratifying to see how our work bears fruit at this level of societal relevance!

Media has approached us several times this year. This has given us an opportunity to participate in wider societal and political discussions on Russia´s developments. The year started with an appearance in a Finnish broadcasting company YLE´s political talk show (5.4.2018, A-Studio:Talk, journalist Jan Andersson) in which Anna-Liisa discussed difficult Russia-EU relations.

Because of Mr Trump´s and Mr Putin´s Helsinki Summit on the 16th, July became a hot month – and not just because of the unusually long humid and hot weather in Scandinavia. During the summit, Anna-Liisa participated in the yearly SuomiAreena event, organized by the  Finnish broadcasting company MTV in the city of Pori. This was followed by commentaries in NBC Digital News (journalist Jon Allen), later used by several US and Canadian media outlets,  and in Finnish media outlet  STT (journalist Mari Areva), later used by Turun Sanomat, Lapin Kansa, Kotimaa and Keskisuomalainen. During Rustam´s  late July trip to Moscow, he participated in the BBC Uzbek direct sending and gave an interview for the Radio Free Europe. Finally, in the end of July, two delegations from Japan´s House of Representatives visited Aleksanteri Institute to discuss Russian security policy, hosted by the directors of the Institute and our project PI, Anna-Liisa. She was also invited to participate in the making of an article about Finland´s defence policy for the newspaper Tokyo Shimbun.

Media visibility and expert work have gained more importance in our work, and finding a right balance between fundamental research and other activities can be a challenge. ’Societal relevance’ takes time and energy away from reading, writing and thinking – and from holidays! Anyhow, there are hardly any dull moments or lack of surprises in this line of work.

Migration and Informality 360 degrees

On 26-27 of March, a new network of Migration and Informality in Central and Eastern Europe was launched in a workshop organized by Rustam Urinboyev, Rano Turaeva-Hoehne and Abel Polese.

The venue was in the beautiful city of Lund, at the Department of Legal Sociology of the Lund University. Altogether 29 scholars and experts gave presentations and participated in lively discussions on our topics. We covered governance of migration and politics, informality and legal system, economy, health and religion related to migration and informality, migration and displacement, and comparative aspects of informality in the post-socialist world.

Our team members gave presentations on the effects of the shadow economy on Russian security policy, smartphone transnationalism in the lives of Uzbek migrant workers and religious informal networks and solidarity among Moscow´s Central Asian migrants.

The two-day intensive event proved that there is a need for the continuation of this cooperation among people who are studying various sides of informality and migration in the globalized conditions of the post-Soviet space. We also need to include experts who work with migrants and tackle challenges of informal administrative cultures in professional capacity. Comprehensive outlook on these topics is necessary and timely.

The questions raised are not easy, and we don´t have simple solutions. What is the root cause of everyday corruption in the law enforcement, for instance? How to facilitate integration of migrants into the receiving societies? What type of criminal activities both the official and unofficial structures create around migration and displacement? How should we understand informality? Should we have new theoretical and empirical approaches in its examination?

We came back from the workshop with new inspiration, which will hopefully help us in our own project. The main bulk of our new empirical material, which we collected in Moscow last year has now been transcribed. It is time to look at what empirical and theoretical dimensions it contains.