Good conversation is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after
"Political Economy and Governance in Central Asia" – professor Jennifer Murtazashvili
Our guest is professor Jen Murtazashvili, we talked extensively about everything: the political economy in Central Asia, governance, the war in Afghanistan, good institutions, property rights protection, US - Uzbekistan relations, RCTs, customs and wedding tradition, authoritarian tendencies of humankind and so much more.
Behzod: Professor Murtazashvili, welcome to the show.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Behzod: Professor, Murtazashvili is one of the leading experts in Central Asia. She had long experience working as both as a public official here for the government. And then also being a researcher that studied region very extensively. She now is a professor at university of Pittsburgh where she's the director of Center for Governance and Markets. So why Central Asia?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: How did I get interested in Central Asia and why?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So when I was an undergraduate, actually I'll start back in high school.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I went to a high school in Pittsburgh, my native Pittsburgh and I studied Russian in high school.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: All the girls were setting French. I'm a bit of a contrarian and it was the time of Perestroika, Glasnost lots of interesting things were happening and I was always very interested in the news. My grandmother taught me how to read you on the newspaper. So I'd sit with my grandmother who lived with us and she taught me how to read the newspaper. And I was always interested in current events. So when we had a choice of languages in school, I chose Russian.
Behzod: Does it have anything to do with Perestroika is a movement towards freeing up certain communities, like Jewish communities to travel to the US and then there was some kind of assimilation programs that were in America.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I had the most amazing teacher of Russian in school, but she was not Russian. And she had no practice studying Russia. I mean, really speaking because there weren't many at that time it was very closed. And in the middle of my high school years, a huge diaspora came from the former Soviet Union that many of the Jewish families came to our community. And she really got into it.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I was tutoring many of them in English and then I was practicing Russian. And it was really interesting because I finally got to speak it for the first time. And it was one thing, I think in Uzbekistan is very similar. You have lots of English teachers who teach English, but they don't have practical experience speaking with someone, it was the very same thing for us with Russian. So I went to university, I went to Georgetown and I went to their foreign service program, which is like Diplomatia here.
Behzod: You know politics very well.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Diplomatia and we had to, in order to graduate, you have to be fluent in a foreign language.
Behzod: So what's the level of fluency do they ask for?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So like on a scale of one to five, probably four.
Behzod: I see.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: In order to get your diploma. And so I said, okay, I'll continue studying Russian. When I got to university and they said, well, you've studied four years of Russian in high school, we'll put you in second year Russian. So I get there and what I thought I knew in high school was not very much. So I was like failing my courses in Russian. And the Russian professors were really strict and was getting like really bad grades. And I thought I was going to fail out of university because of Russian.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So and we had this requirement to be fluent like in order to graduate, I said, "What am I going to do? Maybe I should go to another university." So I ended up setting abroad in Moscow and I was studying in Moscow in 1995.
Behzod: Which university was hosting you?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: It was, it's very interesting. It was a, it was a study abroad program in the former High Party School.
Behzod: Oh, okay. I see, I see like diplomatic university?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: Was before.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So this was the same thing. I was studying there during the time when the war in Chechnya began. And this was my third year in university. And so I had done two years of course work in things like post-Soviet studies, Russian politics, culture history and so forth. And I had never heard of Chechnya.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And I said, "What is this? What is this war?" I didn't understand it. And I said, "What a bad education I've gotten. So biased towards Russia." I learned about Catherine the great, Ivan the terrible, all of this. But to be fair, there wasn't much knowledge about Central Asia or the Muslim parts of the former Soviet Union. These were places that were not accessible.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I really enjoy this and I started getting very interested in sort of the Muslim parts of Central Asia. I studied Turkish, because I understood that many of the languages in Central Asia and the caucuses were Turkic. But at that time, this was '96, '97 you couldn't find anything about Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. It just wasn't available.
Behzod: And how did you end up in? Like tell us a little bit more.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Okay. So when I was finishing my undergraduate program I didn't know really what to do. And in fact, part of me wasn't sure I really wanted to continue working in the former Soviet space because my Russian professors were so mean.
Behzod: The language professors.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: The language professors. They were lovely. But there was no great inflation. Like they were really tough. And I started getting very interested in Africa actually. And there was a lot of very interesting things happening in-
Behzod: What part of Africa?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: West Africa. And I had a professor who was American and he was a former journalist and I took all of his courses on West Africa. And he was a Peace Corps volunteer. And when I was finishing my undergraduate, he was a mentor to me and I thought, "I don't really know what I want to do. Many of my classmates are going off to work in government, they're going to work in consulting. I just don't know what I want to do." And he says, well, have you thought about the Peace Corps? And I said, no. And he explained to me a little bit more about it. I mean, it's very famous in US we know what this is.
Behzod: Especially in like places like Georgetown. Right? I'm sure it's like one of the important parts?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. Sending people off to the Peace Corps. And so I applied and they said, "Well, you speak Russian?" I said, "Well, maybe." "Because you speak Russian, we'll send you anywhere you want in the former Soviet Union."
Behzod: And how did you choose Uzbekistan?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So they said, "Tomorrow you can go to Poland." I said, "That's not the Soviet Union." "Lithuania, anywhere." And I said, "What about Central Asia?"
Behzod: So you came up with it?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I came up with it. And they said, "Oh, we have Turkmenistan in Uzbekistan." I said, "Wow, that would be great." They said, "Oh, well nobody wants to go there." I said, "What about Uzbekistan?" They said, "Sure." So I think I was the first person who asked.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: Wow, that is so cool.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I didn't know that much about Uzbekistan.
Behzod: I mean, even now, a lot of people don't know a lot of things about it. That's cool. So let me ask you more about your dissertation that became the book that you published this [inaudible 00:06:58] about Afghanistan. And when you were researching this topic, one of the questions like asking for a friend kind of question, is that, what was your priors when you were writing this book? I also tried to do some research and there is some kind of priors that you want to kind of fit into that. So when you were writing this book before you knew the results before they said before you even fly out to Afghanistan or something, what was your priors?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So after all of these years in the Peace Corps, I worked for USAID, the US Agency for International Development. And I worked on governance, promotion and community development.
Behzod: In Uzbekistan?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: In Uzbekistan, working in Mahallas. I loved about Uzbekistan and the heart of my research is on communities. And I was very inspired by what I saw here, about the ability of people without many financial resources to come up with very clever solutions to solve their own problems. But I also really believed in the power of external assistance and aid to help mobilize people.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So the book that I wrote on Afghanistan was on community governance. My prior was that I expected aid agencies to be able to harness the capabilities of Afghans. I expected Afghans to have very strong capabilities to organize themselves. Very similar to what I saw in Mahallas here. I expected the two of these to be able to work together and elevate the Afghan people. And I had very high expectations for these donor projects and I looked a lot at donor supported village government programs in rural Afghanistan.
Behzod: So in terms of if I would ask you what was the most surprising part of your study, you would probably tell me how your priors weren't confirmed.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Absolutely wrong.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I was absolutely wrong.
Behzod: So can you tell us a little bit more? What was the thing that you were absolutely surprised and were like, no way this is true. Like what was it?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So I expected aid to be effective and I found it to be completely ineffective. The other thing that I found that really surprised me was many people in Kabul and research community. You have written books or scholars had written books saying that the traditional or the customary system of governance, their Mahallas had broken down during the war. That over decades of war nothing was left. People had emigrated, villages were destroyed, all social capital was gone. And that was one prior. The other prior was that the aid would be effective. I found both to be really wrong.
Behzod: So just to recap, so they thought that the research committee thought that social capital is gone because of the war. Okay. So the war made sure that there's no social capital left.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: You know, you imagine Afghanistan is this place that's destroyed
Behzod: Stateless anarchy and of course?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Stateless anarchy nothing.
Behzod: But then you come and find out, there is a lot of social networks and order.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. So what I find is I started piloting my interview guides. So as a scholar when I do interviews are very systematic methodological way of doing it. And I started going to villages outside of Kabul where I could go during the morning and come back at night and talk to people to see if my understanding is correct. And it was very apparent to me in just a couple of villages outside of Kabul that the donors were really ineffective. All of these big, huge programs that I'd read so much about these wonderful success stories were not very effective. And they weren't really important to people.
Behzod: What do you mean by important, if I may ask?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So if you see the world as a foreigner, especially one who's working through aid programs and a lot of researchers get their data from these aid programs, right? Because they're the main interlocutors. So I'm reading these about rural Afghanistan and the way I'm reading about rural Afghanistan is through the prism of donors. And the donors are saying villages are transformed, we've created new village councils and every village in rural Afghanistan, we have village elections and half men and half women are participating. We're giving them money, we're creating new village councils. It's replacing the old conservative backwards system...
Behzod: That system.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Okay. And now we have this wonderful thing in these villages and it's so great. And I read this coming from my aid and development background, I was like, "This is amazing. I can't wait to look at this." And then I get to a few villages outside of Kabul and I see like nobody knows anything about these programs. They have no importance to people. I'm asking women. So when people, when I would come to villages, they would see me as a foreign woman and expect that what I wanted to see was Afghan woman doing things.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So the man would say, "Oh, okay, okay, a foreign woman, bring out the woman, bring out the women's council." So the women would sit, I'd meet with them and I remember my research assistants, I trained a team of Afghan researchers because at the time that I was working about 10, 12 years ago, there was very small research capacity in Afghanistan. There were no masters programs, no PhD programs.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So one of my mandates with this local organization I worked for was to train Afghan researchers. And I'm working with these research assistants who are just brilliant. And I remember this one woman I worked with, she said, "These woman," she says, "Afghan"
Jennifer Murtazashvili: "They don't have any information. They don't know anything." And I said, "No, the fact that they don't have information about this means that this is useful. That they don't know anything is huge. It tells us that this program isn't very effective." And this negative information is very useful information because if they don't know it means it's not working.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And village after village after village Afghan…
Behzod: Nobody knows anything.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: So what was the least surprising part? Like what was any priors that you thought were true and then it happened to be true? Like was there any?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Vast poverty.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I mean, the poverty levels…
Behzod: You didn't know it was poor?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I knew it was poor. I mean maybe the level of poverty was shocking and surprising to me because I could just never imagine something like that. But the poverty levels are quite devastating.
Behzod: So let me ask you, like a tangential question about poverty. Because I think about this process quite a bit. There's one researcher named Sendhil Mullainathan. And he has this book called Scarcity. So he writes about poverty in, in developed countries like the US and he says, if you are a poor and you're barely like meeting your ends and it's really hard, you live check to check and you're barely surviving. It's like missing out lots of sleep. So your cognitive capabilities and making decisions that are rational are pretty bad.
Behzod: So a lot of people who are poor are making decisions as if they are not calculating this NPVs of whatever cash flows that they have. Do you think the same way about poverty in developing world? Like do you think that poverty makes people choose or make suboptimal decisions or not so much?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I don't know. It's hard to say. I think the choices that people have, I think their choice sets are very constrained.
Behzod: Correct? Yeah, that's for sure. Like poverty makes your choices very constrained. But also when you are kind of optimizing through our choice, I do think that they're not optimizing as well as they should have or is it too hard to say?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think it's hard me to say.
Behzod: Okay, cool. I wasn't sure about this part of the poverty.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I mean I think there's so much we don't understand, right? Like people here have big weddings. And people say, "Well, this is suboptimal."
Behzod: I don't think so though.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Exactly. Well I think there's so much we don't understand. Like it's not just about a party.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think a lot of times when outsiders come or there's a new decree about making wedding small, weddings or just more about more than just having a party.
Behzod: I agree.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Right. So tell me where do you agree?
Behzod: So I think the economics of weddings is absolutely rational. Think about it this way. Let's talk about conspicuous consumption from a not only in Uzbekistan, just think about cause biggest consumption in the United States. Who do you think spends more on signaling, on things that are useless? People who are in types of careers or types of communities in which is hard to understand people's social capabilities would spend more on because conspicuous consumption.
Behzod: So for example, if you go to Hollywood or something, people spend a lot more money on their cars and their houses and so on. Why? Because it's hard to know which actress or which rapper is more successful and the proxy for it is usually the consumption. But if you go to, I don't know, Cambridge, Massachusetts people are quite wealthy as probably in the Hollywood, but they don't spend a lot because their social capital is based on their H indexes or something like that.
Behzod: That is absolutely has nothing to do with conspicuous consumption. Same thing goes for like Silicon Valley, like people wear cheap t-shirts, but like investment bankers in New York or lawyers in New York have to buy expensive offices or they have to spend a lot more to signal to people of their capabilities.
Behzod: So when we come to Uzbekistan, because a lot of the things that we like in Uzbekistan, most of the careers are not very meritocratic. And it's hard to know whether the person is doing well for themselves or not. I mean you are meaning like a person here have to spend a lot more on their consumption to signal to people that they are actually high up.
Behzod: The second part that is very important in spending a lot of money in inaudible. By the way, when I'm saying this, I don't want people to like say and quote tomorrow that, "Bekhzod Hoshimov said or whatever. He thinks that people have to spend more on weddings." What I'm saying is not normative. What I'm saying is positive.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. You're explaining. He's explaining. He's not saying it's good or bad, he's just trying to explain.
Behzod: So what I'm saying, why people have to spend a lot on weddings is if they don't, people would assume they're not doing well for themselves. And the second thing that is very important is that a lot of money in Uzbekistan is made through connections, not through like free competition. The markets are not very free. So in that kind of places, your societal levels are even more important.
Behzod: So if you are contrarian and you're like, "Hey, I'm going to do my wedding and KFC." People might think now that you're a contrarian, but people might think you're like pretty bad in terms of whatever you're doing.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: You're not successful.
Behzod: Yeah, you're not successful basically. So it signals to the community that you're not successful and they don't want to do business with you, so your social value, your social gap is going to shrink. So that's why you have to go overboard get dept or whatever to spend so much on wedding or other types of parties. So the people think that you are fine, you're doing fine.
Behzod: And second thing is that they want to deal with you. And I think we're in this equilibrium, not because people are inherently dumb where they cannot calculate their potential, but in fact it's because the way that economics is organized, we are forced to do that conspicuous consumption. It's not like we want it to, it's just we are forced to do that. That's my take. What do you think?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah, no, I think that makes absolute sense. Right? And there's also social dynamics to it, right? Within the family. You're talking about the external side of it and what it signals to the rest of the community. But I think there's also what it signals to the bride's family. So those other kinds of things as well. Or the groom's family.
Behzod: So when two people are making a match, for example, in the US they'll be like, the questions that people in America ask, "Where did you go to school? Harvard Where'd you go to school? Stanford." And they're like they know the social status. Here it's really hard. Like if you say I go to “Narxoz” it can mean a lot of things. There is a thing. So how to know that bride's family or groom's family are doing fine for themselves is to look at their consumption. So without that it's really hard to make sense of it.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: What about laws to limit the size of weddings?
Behzod: I think that the fact that we spend so much money on it or were you doing that is not because there wasn't a law.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Exactly.
Behzod: So the fact that people spend too much, they are pretty aware of it. Is just they can't help themselves. I would say the same thing with a New York lawyers, they all buy offices that looks at Central Park. They cost like millions of dollars. Does it help being a lawyer in a nicer office? I don't think so. But do they have to spend? Yes. Because how the firms would know if you are successful lawyer if your office doesn't have a Central Park view? I mean that's a bad equilibrium. Can we do something about it? I don't know. Probably not. In terms of the laws.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: It creates perverse incentives.
Behzod: Yeah. I mean the incentives are created I think by the rules in the economy rather than people. Like people didn't convene in one day and say like, "Hey guys, let's spend all of our savings on weddings." It wasn't just like that. So if it wasn't like that, then banning, that would be funny.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And people don't do it because they don't know better or they're stupid or something. I think sometimes, especially outsiders, they go, "They have these big weddings. Why are they doing this? Why are they wasting all this money?" And to me it's, there's an explanation for it. It's not a waste. There's a very specific meeting to it.
Behzod: Yeah. That's good. We agree on that. I want to ask a little bit about diversity in Afghanistan. Because Afghanistan, Oh by the way, one caveat I want to add is that Uzbeks don't know a lot about Afghanistan.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: I would ask you later why, but right now is Afghanistan is such a diverse country with a lot of languages and non-trivial number of minorities that have different cultures are very ethnically heterogeneous, maybe sometimes even a religiously heterogeneous.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: Do you think it helps or hurts Afghanistan's development? It's a hard question, I know.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think diversity helps. And I think one important thing that we should remember about Afghanistan is Afghanistan was founded in 1747.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: It's an old state.
Behzod: Do you mean Afhgan emirate right?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. The Durrani empire was founded in 1747 and that's the basis of what later became Afghanistan. And Afghanistan never fragmented since that period. And so when we think, I think most outsiders, we think of ethnic diversity, we think of this group here and this group there and, and this is a challenge because the country might split apart and won't stick together. Afghanistan is going to stick together.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Because it's been together and there's nowhere else to go. So actually one of my favorite scholar on Afghanistan is an anthropologist named Tom Barfield and he says, "What are the Uzbeks in Afghanistan going to go to Uzbekistan?" Well first of all, the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan don't want them. And secondly, Uzbeks in Afghanistan think the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan lost. They're losers. They lost, they got conquered and they drink vodka.
Behzod: I see.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: All right. So we don't want to hang out with them.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah, there's a huge difference. And they don't think of themselves. And the Pashtuns don't want to go to Pakistan. Who wants to go to Pakistan? And very interesting is that there's a Farsi speaking of Tajik community inside of Afghanistan, but they don't call themselves Tajik.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No, these Farsis Zaban like the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik Abdula Abdula. These were Tajiks, we call them Tajiks. They don't call themselves Tajiks. How do I know? Because when I lived in Samarkand, I learned Tajiki. And I have a very strong Samarkand accent when I speak. And when I lived in Afghanistan, I would speak to people in Farsi and they would say, "Oh, you speak like a Tajik."
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Even though they themselves are under this umbrella, what outsiders called Tajiks. They don't use this word. They say I'm Farsi Zaban like I speak Farsi or more common, they refer to the region that they're from. So they're Kerati, Kabul. People refer to the region or even the valley they're from. Panchuri. So this becomes much more important than any kind of ethnic identity.
Behzod: So you are saying, basically the heterogeneity in ethnic like the demography of Afghanistan is not necessarily it's weakness.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No, not at all.
Behzod: I see. But there is some research that some people argue that countries that were able to develop, they had a very homogeneous demographic basically.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Sure.
Behzod: What do you think of that kind of [crosstalk 00:24:07]?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So it really depends on how we describe demographics, right?
Behzod: I mean language and culture.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Language and culture. So one of the things I found in my book is that outsiders and many scholars make a big deal about differences between like Pashtuns and the rest of the country. What I found in my research looking at the traditional system of governance is that if you go from one village to the next, like a Turkmen village, will say, "We're so different from those Pashtuns."
Behzod: But in fact they aren't?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: But in fact they're not. Right? So yes, there are some differences. They might use different words to describe things, but I opened up like how communities are governed and I looked at the rules and the processes by how they make decisions and they very similar. And even I went to some like Uzbek villages and they're using Pashtun words to describe like instead of calling their village council Ashura, they're calling it a Jirga, which is a Pashtun…
Behzod: Pashtun word. Yeah.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So what is it, there's an expression in English, I can't remember. It's something about the about small differences we tend to make a huge, you know your neighbor better than anybody else. But from the outside you're actually kind of…
Behzod: Very similar.
Murtazashvili:...similar. So I think in Uzbekistan, very similar to Uzbeks and Tajiks, right?
Behzod: Well they're very similar, but they think they aren't?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think this is a really good comparison. If you think about, so I lived in Samakand, right? Afghan between Uzbeks and Tajiks are the same.
Behzod: Yes, I agree. But they don't think so.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: They don't think so. It's just a linguistic difference. And in the Samarkand for example, to rural urban difference, it's a wealth differential. So you know someone from the village who comes so other regions don't have this based on language. So in Tashkent, you know who's coming from Tashkent region, right?
Behzod: Yeah. It's pretty obvious. And I think that there's certain institutional problems to it too. Like during Soviet time, people from villages weren't able to come to cities as easily. And so there is like whole bunch of stereotypes that kind of followed out of those.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah, of course.
Behzod: So I think the fact that we kind of over overestimated the cultural differences is sad, but also like, I think there's some kind of artificial identity to it in terms of how it came to fruition.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And this gives me the way to understand Central Asia. Right? So like Afghanistan and Uzbekistan one of the things they share in common is very strong regional identities. So when we're asking about diversity, I don't think diversity undermines it because I don't think of the identities they're based on ethno linguistic basis.
Behzod: It's all about the place, right?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: It's regional differences. Just as it is here, someone from Korezam them versus someone from Anderjan are very different, especially linguistically. And they do have different cultural practices, right? And you see these identities on a spectrum. Now the challenge that Afghanistan has is actually a new one in terms of ethnic identity. Is that in the past 15 years, politicians at the national level have used ethnicity as a weapon.
Behzod: So they pivoted to it more.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: They pivoted and it's really unfortunate. Especially over the past 10 years we've seen a lot more ethnic politics at the national level. And that's creating, when politicians use this, it's very dangerous. And so that's…
Behzod: They artificially blows up?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: Like I write about the [inaudible 00:27:47] sometimes, and if you read comments, people are like, "Oh, how can you the [inaudible 00:27:50] those are different people." I hear sort of the same, "They're country man people from [inaudible 00:27:55]."
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: Depends upon a particular or like okay, it's military community in particular or politicians or different types of communities understand about Afghanistan. Their understanding about Afghanistan was bad or their judgment was bad. Do you think so or not?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: In the beginning.
Behzod: Okay. What exactly they got completely wrong, do you think?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think they got many things wrong. And I want to say something very, be very clear about this. It's so easy to criticize and I've changed my mind on many things, right? And I think when we look back, we understand what our mistakes are now and it's easy to, for me to point my finger and say, "They should have done this and they should have done that." But I also saw things differently and looking back.
Behzod: But you are a researcher. But they are deciding on going to war. They did that. There's a huge difference of not understanding. Like the cost of like let's say you didn't understand that A doesn't work for example. Or it does work or whatever. And then you're like, "Hey, I have to write a new paper about it or something." For them, the cost of missing was just like blowing up the communities or like-
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So I think that the easy assumption was that the Taliban would sort of disappear with Al-Qaeda. Right? And that so the Taliban will just sort of go away and it could be defeated militarily.
Behzod: So there was this assumption, you think?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Oh, very strong assumption. Some of my colleagues have argued that the Taliban, the US had a real opportunity to include the Taliban at the very beginning and make them part of the negotiation process. But there was such a strong feeling after 911. "We don't want to negotiate with these people. They blew up all this stuff. We don't want to make them part of this process."
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And also sort of exaggerating the stereotypes of not exaggerating or misunderstanding the basis of legitimacy of the Taliban. So it's all from Pakistan, they're all foreigners and they're imposing these social norms that are completely alien. Right? And so I think that was a huge mistake.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: But I think the biggest, I'm not a military strategist. I can say a little bit about what I think about the military strategy, but I see as in the civilian side and how the aid worked really to undermine the Afghan state. And I think one of the biggest assumptions was, "All right, let's...
Behzod: Let's throw money on it.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: ... throw money on it." And for example, one of the first decisions that was made in 2001 in Ban was to make the 1964 constitution, the basis of Afghan law. So like, "Let's hurry up, let's quickly do this. We need a law. Like we don't want to spend all this money on state building." Remember George W. Bush, he came to power on the idea that, "I'm not doing nation building."
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Clinton did that. "I'm not doing it. We're going to focus on America first." Okay. So he ended up not doing that. And okay, "Let's just put that 1964 constitution as the interim constitution." And then a couple of years later, they adopted a new constitution in 2004 January at this loya jirga, which the new constitution was basically the 1964 constitution with some...
Behzod: Minor adjustments.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: ... minor adjustments, elections for president elections for parliament. But they kept the old administrative structure in place. And old administrative structure they had in Afghanistan was actually almost a carbon copy of Soviet model.
Behzod: Is is because Soviets taught them, or?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. 1955 Afghans, 1956, the first five-year plan in Afghanistan. In 1955, right after the death of Stalin to begin communist internationalism. And after this the Afghans were desperate for cash, they had monarchs who didn't really have any resources and so they started engaging more with the Soviet Union. It's a neighbor, it's natural, right? And so it's really interesting story and I'm actually writing a book on this right now.
Behzod: Wow. Okay.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And there's a really interesting story. If you contrast the Soviet model of state building to what the Americans have done. And what the Soviets did is they really focused on institution building. Getting inside ministries, creating new rules, creating new structures. So the Afghan government is based on a planning model.
Behzod: Very Soviet.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Heavily Soviet centralized model. All Hakims are appointed by the government in the center. All provincial governors, all district governors. Okay? They're appointed by the center. So when the US came in, everyone was in a rush. "Okay, let's do gender stuff.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah SDGs. Okay, they had this whole constitution, it seems okay, let's just keep all this because they have this bureaucracy in place. Let's not mess with it too much. Because we don't want to spend the time on this." The US didn't want to like get involved in all of this institutional engineering. But what it did, so if you were to ask me, why is the war continuing? It's because people had high expectations that their lives would change, that things would be different.
Behzod: People meaning Afghanistans?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Afghan citizens. We've been through 30 years of war. We have suffered so much. So you come back to your village. So many people come back. I was there like with people had such optimism. People really love the international community. Absolutely loved. I mean I remember seeing people praising Bush and praising Obama and it wasn't just to please me. Like you really felt this positive momentum and people were so hopeful in those early years.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And then what happened was they experienced the same kind of government they saw for decades with some governor who's appointed by Kabul. They have no say who that person is. They have a centralized planning system. All tax revenue that's collected at the local levels is remitted back to Kabul and then redistributed through a budget process. Okay and through line ministries. All right? It's very similar. It's exact same system.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And this is what I began to notice, but because I spent so much time here. When I saw it there, it was extremely familiar to me. It was like de ja vu. But I would tell this to people in the international community. I was like, "The problems here is because they have this communist system." And when you say communist, there's like, "What do you mean communists? They're not communists. No one's a communist." I said, "No, it's the institutional design."
Behzod: The centralization of institutions.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Heavily centralized. And people would say, "Oh no, that's just the monarchy." And it's basically these old institutional structures completely undermine people's faith because it increased opportunities for corruption because who wants to be a governor in Afghanistan? It's a very dangerous job. And so all of these governors became roving bandits.
Behzod: So like a Michael Olson definition.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. Exactly. And so they just became very corrupt because they knew that they're going to be in this job for one or two years. They're going to rotate around. And the corruption is what alienated people. And the corruption is what drives the insurgency. So I tell people, "Look, the war in Afghanistan is not an ethnic problem. It's not a religious problem. It's a governance problem. And until the country solves the governance issue, the war will continue. Because people don't want this state.
Behzod: In the US you hear a lot about war in the Iraq being a mistake. Like almost all the politicians say this. But I rarely ever hear that people say that war in Afghanistan was a mistake.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Right.
Behzod: So what's your take on that?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No, I don't think it was. I think what is the war now? So the strategies changed over time, right? So at first the US came in with what this light footprint and there were such strong public support for the war in Afghanistan.
Behzod: In the US?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: In the US, only actually one Congresswoman from California voted against it. Unanimous. The US was attacked. It was a time of war. I was actually here in Tashkent on 911.
Behzod: So like, do you think that the invasion or like… when they were making decision, it wasn't necessarily as bad as Iraq decision?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No, because the UN was very supportive. There's huge international support. NATO made this decision.
Behzod: Have you watched the movie called War Machine? So let's talk about Uzbekistan, right? Why do you think that for so many Uzbeks, Afghanistan seems like a completely different place culturally in many ways that Uzbeks don't even think that we are neighbors. Like what do you think? What's the reason?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Because they don't know them. And also because…
Behzod: Why don't they know them?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Because they've not been able to go there.
Behzod: I see.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I mean it's, it's really amazing to me. I even met several Uzbek scholars of Afghanistan who've never been to Afghan- and they speak languages…
Behzod: Pretty good.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah. Amazing. But they don't have access.
Behzod: What do Afghans think about Uzbeks? Or like Uzbekistan Uzbeks.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So they kind of have, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan…
Behzod: In like one bucket?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: In one. And they'd probably know like Tajikistan a little better because there's a big Tajik speaking population that can access Tajik rock stars music.
Behzod: Oh, really?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So yeah. So it comes through music and culture and Tajik television and music videos. Because this is what's interesting. They just see it as very different culturally.
Behzod: Do they think they are different culturally?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Well, yes, because the way the women appear, I mean dancers.
Behzod: Too different.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah. The accent's a little different and Uzbekistan actually has a very positive reputation. I remember I was living in Kabul in the late 2000s, it was like 2008, 2009 when the first power lines were brought from Uzbekistan. And so all of a sudden Kabul had 24/7 power. Didn't have it before. And it was like thankful to the people of Uzbekistan. Apparently the power came like from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. But Uzbekistan got all the credit for this.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And so people see them as strong and developed. But also just as I think Afghans, Uzbeks, people form Uzbekistan sort of negative cultural stereotypes, so they're backwards... Well, I think the stereotype of Uzbeks and Tajiks in the former Soviet in Turkmens, right? Is that like they're corrupted, they drink vodka, they allow men and women to intermingle and like this isn't good.
Behzod: So they have their own sense of…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Oh yeah.
Behzod: Where do good institutions come from?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Your guess is as good as mine. So I don't believe in cultural explanations.
Behzod: I'm glad to hear that. I'm actually very relieved to hear that.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I actually kind of reject the entire term.
Behzod: What about geography?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No. Where are the good institutions coming from? Well, they're learning from what others have done, right?
Behzod: Yeah. But still, I mean, how can I say? When I was saying good institutions, I think Uzbekistan is lucky in other ways because we had our like we were part of the big country and then now it's like 15 small countries and some of those countries are pretty well. Like George or something. We were just like Georgia 25 years ago and they are so much better than us. We can relate.
Behzod: But if you are in some country like Afghanistan, not even Afghanistan like say Sub Saharan Africa or something that had better decisions all the time. They can't even relate to South Africa or North Africa. They basically are like kind of stuck in that place in terms of comparing themselves to someone.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Right. And I think that what we, so when I hear people say like Afghanistan always had bad institutions.
Behzod: So, all right. Then this is the question that we'll probably both of I like, I don't know…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Let's write a book.
Behzod: Okay. So when you read this development economics literature what they say is like if you have a poor country, throw money into it, build schools, build roads, build hospitals, wells and so on and the development will come. So if you are like Jeffrey Sachs, let's let's call a spade a spade, when you are Jeffrey Sachs he says basically, people [inaudible 00:40:40] they are like, people who are doing this Koolaid, they're like why countries are poor? Because they can't get their kids go to school.
Behzod: So they run like millions of RCTs. How to like make sure that kids go to school. And here I am, I'm like, I'm from Uzbekistan where everybody goes to school. Where schools aren't bad necessarily. To the level of our GDP is [crosstalk 00:41:04].
Jennifer Murtazashvili: It's a huge accomplishment.
Behzod: Exactly. So we have schools, we have hospitals, we have roads, we have electricity and whatever. And we don't have economic growth. And for me that puzzle was so frustrating because I came to read econ literature primarily because I was from the country that wasn't very developed. And you read this through those papers and RCTs and whatever about vaccination, like everybody's vaccinated here. Like everybody goes…
Behzod: And I was like, all right, what, what do we do if in a country where everybody's vaccinated that goes to school, has roads, has transportation, has electoral commission. What do we do? And what's your take?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Unleash people.
Behzod: Okay. Open up.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Open up. And I think we're seeing this now, right?
Behzod: Yeah. Hopefully.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: We're seeing some of it. We're seeing growth is not so bad. There's some benefits from this opening up, but then not opening up this partial reform if it stalls could create real risks. Right.
Behzod: So you can go back or people might be frustrated with reforms they like…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Or it just stops.
Behzod: It stops.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And that could be a bad equilibrium.
Behzod: Yes. I agree. Yeah.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So I think just unleashing people's creativity here because you have all the ingredients.
Behzod: Yes, we have all the ingredients but I think like, in econ, they teach you to think about necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. So a lot of the times this development economics literature that I get a little bit frustrated about is they talk about those educations and so on as sufficient for growth. And I think Uzbekistan is a prime example that says…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No, it's the institutions.
Behzod: So yeah.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Of course.
Behzod: And you think that the fact that we weren't able to develop for last 30 years was that quality of our institutions didn't match up with the quality of [inaudible 00:42:57.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. Exactly. There was a mismatch. So this is where we disagree with people like Sachs, it's the institutions. It's not geography.
Behzod: So you are like more, you agree more with like [inaudible 00:43:09] kind of crowd.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Of course.
Behzod: Let's talk a little bit about professor Murtazashvili and the fact that you study Central Asia. How does your family reacted to it? And when you went to Afghanistan, like did people call you up and said, "Are you crazy?"
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I didn't tell my parents.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah. I'm one of five children. I told my siblings and I told them not to tell.
Behzod: Oh wow.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And then the first time I went, I told my mother after I came back.
Behzod: Wow. And do you have any regrets that you started studying in that kind of a very tumultuous region?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No. So I lived here for five years. From 1997 to 2002.
Behzod: In Uzbekistan?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: In Uzbekistan. I started this work as a Peace Corps volunteer. And so in the United States that Peace Corps is considered very prestigious. It's a very like, honored thing to do. And so I had the full support of my family to go. My parents were so proud of me that I got accepted and that I was going to do this thing. So it's considered.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think at that point, and then I stayed here for five years. My parents got used to this. My family got used to this, that I was in this stance someplace. And then the first time I went to Afghanistan, I didn't tell them. I told them when I came back and I explained what it was and why I was doing it and that it was okay. And I've been in these regions for a long time and I can navigate this and then I just kept going.
Behzod: Okay. And so they kind of got used to the fact that you are working in this kind of place?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: I see. When you're studying this region. And let me ask you a question on Uzbekistan one more time, I guess in a different framing.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Sure.
Behzod: Given that what I know about it. Do you think that the current reforms in Uzbekistan can make it a normal country? By normal, I mean the one with all existing courts, checks and balances, institutions and so on? Like the politics will defend the freedoms of people and so on. Like, does current reforms will lead there or asking differently, how long do you think it takes for Uzbekistan to become like a normal country by those indicators?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So let's first talk about our assumptions about Uzbekistan. I think Uzbekistan is a strong country. My views on Uzbekistan I think differ from many analysts because I've lived here on the ground for so long. Right?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And the state here is strong. It's not weak. It's purposeful. It can provide public goods and services. It's very capable and doing lots of things and provides a lot of things to its citizens. Unlike some other States in the region, like the government here during the Karimov years didn't take everything. It invested quite a lot. I think this is a common misconception. So there's a lot of investment in public goods.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And I honestly, I don't think that the changes here will have to be that hard. It's getting there and making the political decisions to make those changes. So will the current reforms? First, we don't really know what the current reforms are. The president made a speech a couple of days ago and talked about democracy, all human rights and all of these things. But those changes haven't been made yet. Right?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So are those the reforms that will actually happen or these plans or what is this? And there's the development strategy, we see some kind of roadmap, but even if we look at that strategy, what's happened is very different. So the current reforms, I think if they keep going, yes, the country will be successful. But they have to keep going and there's big risks along this road.
Behzod: All right. There's this guy, his name is Sergei Guriev he's kind of famous here. In the recent interview he said that Uzbekistan may reach a level of GDP of Kazakhstan like next 30 years, which I think is really bullish about Uzbekistan. Or what do you think?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No, I think so. I think there's huge capabilities here.
Behzod: In about 30 years we can be like Kazakhstan?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. Even sooner.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah. I think even sooner. I think there's real potential here.
Behzod: What is there in your opinion that isn't like a more signature reform that Mirziyoyev accomplished?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: The openness.
Behzod: In trade or?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: In trade, in foreign movement and open, I just mean openness in general. It was a fairly easy reform to do. Right. Allowing people from neighboring countries to visit here. I think this has really helped the image of the country. Allowing outsiders to come here, making it so easy for people to access.
Behzod: What about like freedom of speech and stuff?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: I mean, I'm grateful to him. Like personally that I can…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And this is what I mean, like openness. Like to me, I think that we think about the reforms in the wrong way. I think when policy makers and experts think about reforms, we think about what the state should do and look about the government's doing this and the government's doing that and this is policy is good, this policy is bad. I think of it very differently. And of the things that really frames my thinking is understanding the difference between a negative right and a positive right.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: A positive, right is what we think governments should do for us. So the government should provide us healthcare. This is Soviet, right? Lots of positive rights. The government's going to give you stuff.
Behzod: Education, housing.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: You have a right to something from the state.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think it's much more powerful to think about negative rights. To think about what the state should not do to you.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So I know this is like really American and I hate like doing that like America, this but American, the bill of rights in the United States is enumerated negative rights. What the state shouldn't do. It protects you from the State. So the state shall not interfere in your right to freedom of association. The state shall not interrupt your right to property. The state shall not do this. It says what the state should not do.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Too often we think about what the state should do. This was a problem with Afghanistan. The state should do everything. It'll make everyone better off. Not thinking about like the complete weakness of the government apparatus.
Behzod: Or like capabilities.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Capabilities. And it overloaded it. It caused such corruption.
Behzod: Uzbekistan still has a lot of that too.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So what I think is so important here is the state can create space for people. And that's where I see the greatest success here is the openness in society, in culture, in expression, in creative expression, in the ability of people to talk about issues on social media without fear of censorship, without fear that someone's going to come to their house and do something bad.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think many of us outsiders are actually more afraid to speak than people on the inside. And I think we don't realize how quickly this is changing. But it's that freedom to express yourself. I'm not even going to think about the government reforms. It's the state rolling back what it's doing. And this is a very different way to think about reforms.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Here's a new policy, here's a new decree. And I think sometimes that if I'd ask the government to do something differently. It's like the president made a speech a couple of days ago about the importance of freedom of speech and he says, "We're going to have a new media law." But the new media law is going to be about what the state can do to support the media. You don't need a media law. Don't. No media law. And actually this would be the best media law is no media law. Right? But it's a very different way of doing things.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: When I talked to officials here, yeah. I really believe that many of them believe that this is the way that it should be done because this is the way it has been done. And to say, well everyone shares the same goals, right? A free media. How do you go about doing it? Well, there's many different ways we could go about doing it, but the government still continues to use some of its old tools. And changing those tools is a very, very hard, even if the objectives have changed.
Behzod: If you have a hammer, like a lot of the things look like a nail. I have a personal story about this, what you're saying, which I never kind of reflected in the way you did. I think once I was invited to the, basically the government to talk about promotion of entrepreneurship. And they're like, "So we're getting this new decree that will give people seed money to start businesses." And my main argument, not me only like there were some bankers in the room that were all raising the question saying like, "We don't need government to redistribute money to people for the entrepreneurial pursuits because that's not a constraint that they're facing."
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No.
Behzod: At the end there was this kind of heated debate and some government employees said, "So what we should do now?" And I said, "Not doing would help more. Like not doing anything." He had this very interesting, he said, "If we just sit down and like put our heads on two hands
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Tie our hands, yeah.
Behzod: "Tied our hands. Who will help them?" He said. I said, if you tie your hands, it's the best help you can do.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Exactly.
Behzod: For them to convey this message was really hard. One of the persons I interviewed for a vice minister of finance [inaudible 00:53:00] the video is going to be up very soon. We were talking about economic development again, debating it on video. And he said like, "What should we do?" He asked me like on the spot. I said, "I don't know what should we do, but I know a lot of things that we should not do." He says, "Everybody knows what should not do. Doing is harder." But I think we as a society, we don't appreciate the way that not doing sometimes helps so much more than doing. And how do you think we should convey this idea?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: It's hard, right? Because the president says we're going to grow this, here's our targets, here's our goals. Well, maybe for things in the private sector, just understand that it's not your goal. And it's hard.
Behzod: How do you convey that though?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Well, it's hard, right? And this is the biggest change to me, isn't a change in policy, isn't a technical solution. It's when you're so used, I mean people lived in fear of not meeting a cotton quota, right? So like you have to achieve this, the government needs to provide this. And when you're telling people that the best thing you can do, like you will actually stimulate the economy more by not getting involved in these things.
Behzod: Yeah, I agree.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: It's hard.
Behzod: You have to tie the hands.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: But it's also changing the incentives of officials. What are the KPIs, right? How are officials, how is their performance measured? So I teach public management. There's no public management school. I mean, there's one public administration university under the president.
Behzod: I worked there, by the way.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Okay. There's not enough public management governance education here. Which is unfortunate. I think it's a real area of opportunity to help people understand like the goals and targets that they set can be set in a very different way.
Behzod: But these are the difference between seen and unseen. So let me see. Let's say you are a governor of some province or some hot like Hakim of some district, like whatever you are, you are leader, let's say. Then you have a superior that will come and visit your [inaudible 00:55:09] to see how you doing. And then we'll try to measure how you been working by looking at what you did. And when they come, you usually go around and show them like a new shop, a new factory or something or a new hospital or school or something.
Behzod: So when you have some public funds and there is no say a Congress that will distribute the money and you are basically the sole decision maker in that situation, you'd be very much interested in investing money in things that can be tangible. You can see and feel them. But you will be very disincentivized to put money in things that cannot be seen.
Behzod: For example, let's say a hospital needs a roof repair, which when it's repaired, nobody's going to say, "Hey, look at their new." Or like infrastructure. Like we need to build electricity grids, right? If you build them or if you repair them or whatever and spend a lot of money, nobody's going to see them. Or like you changed the water a lot of things are unseen.
Behzod: So if you are Hakim and if you're a rational Hakim you would want to go and invest in things that you can show easily. Put a pictures on social media, whatever and saying like, "Hey I'm Hakim and look what I did." [ In that situation you would want to invest in things like this. And I think there was the problem like should we like put our hands together, kind of...
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Tie your hands.
Behzod: ... tie our hands question is that they want to do stuff to be seen that they are doing something. And not doing appears to them as being lazy and incompetent and all those things. How do we get out of this equilibrium?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Two ways. One…
Behzod: Do do you agree with this?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I agree with you. So in management we call that measuring outputs versus measuring outcomes. All right.
Behzod: Outcomes and outputs.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I was actually working in the US government when I worked for USAID all of a sudden in the 90s, there was this massive bureaucratic reform program that we had called reinventing government. To make government more customer oriented. And this was Al Gore actually, it was his child. And it was to bring private sector practices into the public sector. And so all of a sudden we are not supposed to, how do we measure our effectiveness as a government official? So I'm working for USAID in Uzbekistan and normally I would measure it by like the number of women who attended a training, the number of bridges that were built.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. The more effective, that's the output.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: What did we do? Built this, this grant. Right? And then we said, "No, that's not what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to measure outcomes." So do public opinion polls to understand the number of the population that's educated on women's issues, right? Or that does something based on something we think our program would provide. Currently here, the government doesn't measure outcomes, it measures outputs. [crosstalk 00:58:14] Remember, gosh, it was like the 90s under the previous government, they built all of these colleges.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Everywhere.
Behzod: In the middle of the field.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Beautiful places and to me this illustrated the incredible capacity of this government, right? The capacity of the state to execute. Which is not…
Murtazashvili:... trivial. Right? But that they were measuring that as the outcome. It was just an output.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: The outcome of education…
Behzod: It was empty by the way.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: They were empty. Middle of nowhere. They've gotten rid of many of them, I think.
Behzod: Can I express, this is a good point, I think. So when you are a governor, right? So you build this, let's say your superior comes in and you're like, "Hey look, there's a six story building." And the guy that says like, "Good job, you build like a nice [inaudible 00:59:01]." And he goes away. But if you go to a village, like we have a country house right in one place and somebody was talking to us, he said, "My kids are really struggling about their school."
Behzod: And I said like, "Why?" He said, "Because they build a new Lyceum that was so far, there's no public transport that goes there. We don't have a car. And basically they're not going to school anymore because we go there once a month just to check in and we're not going because it's so far in salt, it's very uncomfortable to attend."
Behzod: And so the attendance was probably going down because of those projects, but then if they would repair the existing school, it would be hard to show it off. And so I think the incentives that were so perverse and are now still that to show something tangible, like six story building from scratch.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: In economics we call this the principal agent problem. Normally when we think of public officials, the principal, there's the principal and then there's the agents, right? And here there's a problem because the government officials are accountable to the Hakims are accountable to the center, not to the people.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So how do you change this? The reason I think democracy is important really is because it reveals preferences, right?
Behzod: I think it matches preference.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Matches preferences, it allows, so rather using…
Behzod: Incentive compatibility.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Rather than saying we measure the effectiveness of the Hakim by the number of schools you measures effectiveness by people's satisfaction with his work.
Behzod: The best show is the election.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. The elections shows whether this is good working or not. I think of it as a public policy issue. Right? Rather than a freedom issue. It's an effectiveness issue. It allows governments to be more effective. If the government doesn't want to fully democratize or it doesn't feel like it can, I mean the president's spoken about having Hakims be elected.
Behzod: Yeah, I'm not sure it will get implemented.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. But he said this himself. This is really important. The government's done these virtual receptions.
Behzod: I mean, I spoke a lot about it. One of the push backs I get which I don't necessarily agree was that, "All right if we let Hakims to be elected, the incentives that they have right now is probably not compatible with population." They agree with us too. They think there's this, the word populism and this makes it has a little bit of…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: A different meaning.
Behzod: … different meaning than journalists. They think that the new generation of Hakims will be populists who would come with a very extreme views of anything to get elected. So like they will say, "I'm going to do this and or that." Or something bad happens. And also that the fact that there is no accountability to superiors and the accountability will be only to people. There will be no accountability, they fear. And since the democratic machine or your own people only vote every four years or something, the fact that they kind of screw up in the middle, you can't really fire them because they will [inaudible 01:02:09]. What would your take be on that? How would you sell me the democracy?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So it's not democracy. It's just about the effectiveness of... It's this, the government has raised expectations of citizens. So the government's fearful that there's going to be extremism. Like I don't mean like religious and the views, right? But what do we know? What does like institutional design theory tells us, is that there is a median voter. Right? And so parties will converge towards the center.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So of course, yes there may be some crazy people. And in fact, what we've seen in the past year is actually the emergence of these voices in political parties. There's been some very controversial people saying very controversial things about...
Behzod: Which I'm glad that they are saying this.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. Women should stay home. Right. This [inaudible 01:03:04], right? He said like, "Oh yeah, these women should stay home."
Behzod: I wrote about. I said like a lot of people share his view.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Of course.
Behzod: You have to like, yeah.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes. So what, do you keep it hidden? And then allow it people to debate it rather than saying this isn't a view we want. Like let's talk. Right?
Behzod: I think bad use will be under the light.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: If you say like bad things, people will realize very soon that is a bad idea.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And you're accountable. So the people here, so governors trust it's people, right?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And it's a hard process. It's not that like the government fear, it's a leap of faith, but it is deeply ingrained into this old system, which result of the Soviet legacy. Is that a government official, this is what I see in Afghanistan as well. It's like how many schools you build. This is how you, rather than what the quality of the education. And how do you measure the quality of the education by parent’s satisfaction. Are parents happy? If parents had more input into the design of schools and you see the government learning these lessons too.
Behzod: Huh? Let me ask you a question about authoritarianism that is cultural. So let me frame it a little bit different. So among educated elites in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, there is some kind of authoritarian tendencies that I feel that I cannot really express and I want your opinion on that. Like recently our friend Nikita [inaudible 01:04:28] said that, he wrote this series of articles about pharmacies that were selling bad stuff basically.
Behzod: And he was very vocal, very passionate about getting them accountable for whatever. And recently he wrote in his Telegram channel that one of the pharmacies that we was trying to push was closed by a thing called Maski Shou. In Uzbekistan it's like a special ops of the minister of interior, like people wearing like masks and guns. They closed that shop down.
Behzod: And so just to contextualize it a little bit, this Maski Shou that used to close down legitimate businesses before like before [inaudible 01:05:08]. It was like the police used a lot for petty things like closing the restaurant and so on so forth. And he was pretty happy about it. Well when I read it I was a little bit disappointed because when I thought is that, Oh without a court order or something the power was executed there. I don't think there will be at any court decision on that.
Behzod: So basically now again the executive branch is making a decision in that situation it might be very noble. So the pharmacy is acting badly. Maybe I'm not, I'm not disagreeing with it. But like in a normal country even by laws in Uzbekistan, how this process should be played out is that probably the prosecutor's office has to open the case then probably Nikita Makarenko will be a witness and the judge will say, "All right, you are fined the pharmacy or something or like you revoking your license/." But not like close down because you acted badly.
Behzod: So there is no court here again. So what I'm think is, so this is like first case. I'm not saying Nikita [inaudible 01:06:11] is the only guy who does that. And he isn't the craziest guy in terms of that. And so then I'll tell you another example, but general what I think is that among even educated elites and so somebody who are very progressive in Uzbekistan, they have this tendency that they're the good guys and then there's the bad guys.
Behzod: And if they had a power over the bad guys, the problems will be solved. So like if I were a king, I would close all these bad pharmacies. Or like if I were King, I would like prosecute all those Hakims who are corrupt. There's something that people think about, not trusting institutions. Even the very progressive ones, they think that if we let the institutional thing continue, then the outcomes will not be reached. Like, how would you think about this?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: You're telling your story about Uzbekistan and I'm thinking about my country, the United States. And I think about many of my friends who absolutely hate Trump. Absolutely hate, and you know what? They would probably say the same thing.
Behzod: I agree.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Right? Okay. So I don't think this [crosstalk 01:07:18] I don't think this is authoritarianism. I don't believe in cultural explanations at all.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Where this tendency comes from, I think it's a human tendency, right? I want to act, let me do the judge. I mean, everybody wants to be King. Right? And even in the US people say like, "If I could do it myself. I would." And there's a tendency to think that people who are different from you and have different ideas don't know.
Behzod: Yes, don't know better.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Don't know better. And you know better and you should be allowed to make decisions. And the reason like democracy is important, not from a normative human rights perspective, but from sort of a policy effective view is because it brings people towards the middle. It allows this counterbalance of ideas, right. Because everybody on both sides believes that they're right. Right? And then it allows you to protect everyone's rights because yeah, you live in Tashkent, you're a progressive, you've got all these great ideas. You think other people are stupid.
Behzod: Yes. There's this tendency that other people are stupid.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: That's a global phenomenon.
Behzod: But what am thinking is like, because we have a such a thin elite in terms of being progressive and unfortunately, even though it's like, I'll give you a better example.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah. Mahallas. Like this is some backwards thing. They don't really know what they're doing. This is…
Behzod: I have a very good example. There was a famous, I'm not sure famous, some bloggers, they were talking about renovations in Uzbekistan. Hakim [inaudible 01:08:58] was basically taken down the garage that people would park the car. So they were demolishing this car parks of people that belongs to people. And one blogger goes up online and says those are ugly. And I agree that they should take it down. And again, there's no, like this is somebody's property. The government is taking away illegally.
Behzod: And I may agree with you that they are ugly, I may with you that cars are bad. I agree. I'm very progressive. I also hate cars probably or whatever. But I don't believe, do I agree that the pharmacy case and then demolishing garages are the same idea, is that, do I believe that selling drugs without prescription is bad? I do. Do I think that this pharmacy is abusing power or whatever? I do. Do I think they should be taken to court of justice? I do. Do I think some something has to be done there? I do. But I don't believe that doing good using bad means will justify the end.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Because it justifies anybody else. So we have a term for this and social sciences. Procedural justice. In fact, I did some research on this in China with a group of scholars.
Behzod: This procedural justice also like HR and management literature. When you are like hiring and firing and so on.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Right. So the most power the state has to gain, and this would be my advice to the government isn't just by showing outputs. It's by showing that you treat people fairly. Right? And this is to me, like if you talk about what's happened in the past few months here with the issue. And the President talked about this, right? It's a violation of people's rights and that they're not.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I have a paper that's coming out with a group of scholars in China and we're working on this issue of [inaudible 01:10:45] in China. It's a huge issue there, right? Huge country. The government's tried to urbanize. And what we found in China is that people are much more satisfied with the process, not by the compensation doesn't explain it. It's how they're treated. When they have procedural justice, when they feel like the government has treated them fairly, they're much more likely to be satisfied with the outcome than compensation alone.
Behzod: Oh, okay. I didn't know that.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I've talked a lot about this research here because I'd like to replicate this here to understand the process because it's how you're treated by the state, not just the compensation level that matters. And this has a huge effect on people's confidence in the state, that confidence in reforms. So people may see schools being built, people may see some nice outcome, but if they don't feel like they're being treated fairly along the way, it's going to confuse people's expectations.
Behzod: I see.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: It creates a real danger.
Behzod: Yeah. What I was trying to like frame, I guess maybe against the wrong word, but like why do you think that, you see like everybody agrees [inaudible 01:12:02] are good. But then so a lot of progressive think that [inaudible 01:12:06] are not important when it comes to the ugly garage that you have in your…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: This is true. I mean, look, we had the same debates in the US.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yeah, maybe in like urban planning, right? I mean people say like, "Oh, these buildings are so ugly." I mean, we had the same conversations about things. So they need to be taken down because they're not in code. But they're not in condominium associations. You have to have your house a certain way, get rid of it if it's ugly. I think everybody believes it, but they operate under the, this constraint that like, we know that we can't just do this. There's this expectation that the rule of law exists and that people are going to push back. That you have to go by procedures.
Behzod: Huh. I want to connect this discussion to other discussion that is very common in Uzbekistan. It's about government owned corporations or state owned corporations. A lot of people think that we have a bad airline or bad railways or bad whatever. And this is like common knowledge. Like I don't think anybody would think that Uzbekistan Airlines is doing good.
Behzod: And they say it's bad because it's managed bad. So if I was the CEO, I would make meals tasty or airport should... And in a lot of conversations it feels like they think that is a management problem. They think SOE is bad. It's a management problem. They think that our ministers are approving on whatever management problem. But they don't think it's like a system…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Systemic problem.
Behzod: ... problem. Let, only if they were there, if they were the decision maker, those problems. How do we?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Information problem, right?
Behzod: It is an information problem. When you think like we as a society can again get over, like what, I guess it's a rant right now is that, the progresses here in Uzbekistan, I don't find them very compelling is because that, I mean, the things they criticize, I agree, but the way they think that they should be solved is again, another way of authoritarian power.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: To be honest, this is the same problem we have in the US. The Progressive's think that they can solve every problem and they know better and people can't make choices and they're too stupid to know better. And those two people in rural, wherever they're dumb and they need the enlightened state to come and save them.
Behzod: From East coast or West Coast [crosstalk 01:14:26].
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes, from East Coast and fly over country. Gosh, what idiots. Right? And the poor people, I mean, this is not new. What I'm just saying is this is not unique. The difference is that we have in the US and we have places where these ideas can be openly contested and debated. And that's why they never win unilateral. But of course they think this.
Behzod: So I shouldn't be quite, too concerned about it?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No. I think what you should be frustrated about is that if what you describe isn't just what people think, it's not people think they're better. Everybody thinks they're better. That's a normal thing. But what are the checks on people thinking they're better? The case with the pharmacy, what we should be upset is with the procedures and the procedures weren't….
Behzod: We should be furious about it.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: People should be furious about that. But people aren't.
Behzod: People are happy. They're like, "Oh good, good job, Nikita. Now the pharmacy is closing."
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Are the procedures available? The other reason why this is difficult here is too often governments in the past use these procedures to punish people.
Behzod: I agree.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Arbitrarily. And sometimes the procedures were used to get fire code violation, we're going to shut you down. Right? It was arbitrary use of procedures.
Behzod: Yes, I agree.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And so the procedures were used but only against some people.
Behzod: Correct. Absolutely agree with you.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So the procedures are important. The procedures need to be simplified. There's need to be greater like citizen input into what the procedure should be. Procedures here are incredibly complicated. That's why oftentimes why people go around them.
Behzod: Okay. And then there was like a lot of people like Singapore in Uzbekistan. They don't really understand what's about. Like they think it's like there is a way of enlightening authoritarianism that you can solve the problem.
Behzod: And they think that the fact that Singapore was a very like poor fishermen as, that became skyscrapers of whatever, there was some sort of a government overreach. They're trying to think that Singapore also went through the sway and they're like, "No we are like Singapore. We'll bring down this garage, makes these cities and everybody will be happy about it." I'm like, no. The procedures are important. And they think that…
Behzod: Yeah. A lot of times people think that the ends…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Justify the means.
Behzod: ... justify the means that they're doing. And I think it's really unfair. So let's talk about America and Uzbekistan. Let's forget Uzbekistan in general. What do you think that you want the Uzbek officials to understand about America that don't understand right now? I'm talking about officials, not people generally. I don't think like Uzbek bureaucracy or foreign relations.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: You know, what's really interesting to me is in the conversations that I've had with many government officials here, I think this change in administration, especially like the tumultuous years of Trump have taught people, government officials here a lot about how the US bureaucracy works.
Behzod: They didn't know, right?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No, I think they thought the president says so it happens. And now they see like discord within the government and they're also sort of like, America was always sort of reliable in certain things. And then there's uncertainty about American strategy and whether America is going to be a reliable ally in the future and whether they can count on America. And I think they're now seeing how like elections matter for policy in ways that they didn't before.
Behzod: So my question is a more practical. Sometimes I think a lot of Uzbek officials think in American politics works just like our politics.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No.
Behzod: When they are making relationship about America, they always think about having good relationship with American officials. And they don't invest much in good relations with the American people. Or like then there are very few like Uzbek think tanks in DC or there's very few like lobbying from the journalists or from Thomas Friedman's of the world. But some governments in the world like middle Eastern governments and so on. They invest quite a bit on changing attitudes of Americans…
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Kazakhstan does.
Behzod: Kazakhstan, yeah. Azerbaijan for example, I think. They understand the US politics very well because they know that to influence policy, to push the envelope, they need support of some, of course [inaudible 01:18:54] that's all I'm trying to say. And I think Uzbekistan was kind of lagging behind. They were like very proactive with a state department workers or military or whatever. But they were pretty reluctant to give a speech in the university, like it's unheard of. I never heard like it was like president or minister of foreign affairs coming to some university and like giving a speech. It was like unheard of. And then still [crosstalk 01:19:15].
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So I invite the president to come to speak to my university. Foreign minister, please come. We'd love to have you in Pittsburgh. Please come and visit us.
Behzod: I think this is what pushing the envelope. Do you think that would do a lot?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: I think it would do a lot. Obviously, and I think like I see the Uzbek ambassador in Washington is extremely active actually doing this kind of thing. And he's actually visited my university.
Behzod: Oh, yeah. He's visited the Pittsburgh city council and stuff like that.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes, he visited the city council. Unfortunately, he visited when the students weren't there. But I just saw on his Twitter yesterday, he was visiting students at American university answering questions.
Behzod: That's great.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Yes.
Behzod: That's like a new way?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Doing this. And he's very active with members of Congress and engaging them. So I mean I see his activeness and I'm not sure if that's policy or him. But I think more people have to be doing that kind of work in meeting with people and engaging people. But it also means I have to open themselves to answering questions. Because nobody's gonna want to just listen to someone, give a speech and clap, they want to hear like what he has to say and be able to press him on difficult questions. And it'd be so great to see. Because the president here is so popular and people just adore him. And I think he's obviously very bright. It'd be so great to hear him answer questions.
Behzod: So what do you think that the US government people knew about Uzbekistan? You wish they knew?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: That this country is extremely capable. I think…
Behzod: They underrate it?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: They underrate it.
Behzod: I agree.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Completely underrate this place. I have many disagreements with my friends who are academics, right? They'll say Uzbekistan is a very weak state. It's a predatory.
Behzod: Somebody says weak state?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Oh yeah.
Behzod: This is really surprising.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Oh yeah.
Behzod: If anything it's too strong.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Right. But you could say it's strong in the wrong way.
Behzod: Oh, yeah.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So it's got a strong coercive capacity and people tend to think that because for so long, externally people focus on the police and the human rights and torture and those kinds of issues. And they saw the country almost uni dimensionally through that lens.
Behzod: Oh okay. So it kind of makes very perverse picture?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: So yes, the state's strong in the state's using its force to get people to pick cotton and do this kinds of things. Right? And that makes the state look actually weak. That's a weak state.
Behzod: I understand why you said weak.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: This is usually how people, it's just relying on force alone is not considered a strong state. And I think that people on the outside don't see this capacity and they don't see the state as a source of, that the state actually has a lot of legitimacy with the people because it's provided things for them.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: And I also people have misconceptions about the region. I think this is where like more PR would be very effective because it's right on the border with Afghanistan. And then it's also on the border with Kazakhstan, it's still Americans think Kazakhstan is a land of Borat. Right? So it's like stuck between Borat and Afghanistan.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Somebody asked me this recently, like what is American's perception of Uzbekistan? I said, quite frankly, they don't have one. And when they do it would be something between Borat and Afghanistan.
Behzod: So in this show, like I tried to ask short questions and it's like at the end of the show. Short answers like yes or short... Kabuli Pilaf or Uzbek Pilaf?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Samarkandi
Behzod: Okay. I wanted to ask you what your, okay. Bamiyan Lake or Charvak Lake?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Charvak.
Behzod: Douglas North or Elizabeth Ostrom?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Oh, Ostrom.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Oh, yes.
Behzod: Okay. Sachs or Acemoglu?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Acemoglu.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Come on.
Behzod: RCTs or anthropological research?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Anthropological research.
Behzod: Is Registan overrated?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: No.
Behzod: Okay. What is the most underrated place in Uzbekistan?
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Denau.
Behzod: Wow. Thank you. Thanks for your time and I really enjoyed our conversation.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Thank you.
Behzod: I really appreciate your inputs and I think it will be interesting.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Fantastic questions. Thank you.
Behzod: Today our guest was Jennifer Murtazashvili. We've talked extensively about everything and I think you'll enjoy our conversation. Thank you, professor Murtazashvili.
Jennifer Murtazashvili: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It was great questions and I'm looking forward to continuing our conversation.