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Chasing conspiracy in Central Asia & the Caucasus

May 5, 2017


Scott Radnitz

Conspiracy theories often arise in the context of elections. Seen here: posters for an upcoming parliamentary election in Georgia. Photo credit: Scott Radnitz

Who shot down the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine in March 2014? Pro-Russian separatists, as appears most likely, or the Ukrainian government, mistakenly thinking Vladimir Putin was on board? How to account for the rise of the so-called Islamic State—did it form on its own from the Iraqi insurgency or did the CIA create it to destabilize the Middle East? Are opposition protests in Georgia based on genuine disaffection for the government, or are they paid for and organized by Russia?

These are the questions Scott Radnitz, Chair & Director of the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies and Associate Professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, asks us to consider.

Radnitz, who is currently writing a book on conspiracy theories in Russia and the former Soviet Union, gives us below a first-person account of his experience and discoveries researching conspiracy theories in places like Georgia and Kazakhstan, where he visited most recently in Sept. 2016, thanks to a University of Washington Royalty Research Fund Grant.

“I have always loved conspiracy theories. My interest was piqued when I was in Central Asia as a doctoral student, and taxi drivers would casually tell me that Gorbachev was a CIA agent. After all, how else can you explain his role in dismantling the Soviet Union? It turns out this was one of many common conspiratorial tropes floating around the region, which is notorious for suspicion and paranoia in politics.

Scott Radnitz conspiracy research in 2016 in Georgia and Kazakhstan

Prof. Scott Radnitz conducts conspiracy theory research in September 2016 in Georgia and Kazakhstan.

Lest we be tempted to feel smug, Americans are also highly susceptible to conspiracy theories. In fact, a glance at the global press reveals just how universal conspiracy theories are. There are reasons why this is the case. In a world where some people have much more power than others, one can never be certain that the powerful are not secretly plotting to benefit themselves at the expense of the weak. Much of what happens does not have a simple explanation, yet there is psychological comfort in the belief that you have the answers.

The project I’m working on seeks to uncover how the political environment where people are socialized affects their propensity to endorse conspiratorial explanations for events. The former Soviet Union is an ideal laboratory for this study, not only because of the prevalence of conspiracy theories and adherents, but also because it allows for comparisons across different countries in the region. I spent over two years in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as a graduate student—my book Weapons of the Wealthy came out of that fieldwork—and since then I have also done research in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

My experience spending time in small countries on the “periphery” of the Russian/Soviet geopolitical space has given me a different perspective on the region than I could have gained spending time in, say, Moscow. People are cognizant of the imbalance of power at multiple levels—between themselves and their government, their country and Russia, and so on—and try to rationalize with their weak position in various ways.

The research I’m doing now delves into this topic through several parallel channels. For the past year, I’ve been compiling a database of conspiracy theories in the region going back to 1995. (More precisely, I hired two Russian-speaking students to scan newspaper articles and collect the ones they find.)

In September 2016, thanks to a University of Washington Royalty Research Fund grant, I went to Georgia and Kazakhstan to conduct focus groups and design a mass survey about conspiracy theories. These two countries embody important differences that may influence the type of conspiracy beliefs that take hold. Both are plagued by corruption, intrigue, and lack of transparency in politics—the types of things that make people distrustful of power. But Kazakhstan is an authoritarian regime, while Georgia is a (weak) democracy. Their geopolitical positions also differ. Kazakhstan is generally pro-Russian, while Georgia has been at odds with Russia for most of the independence period.

I’ll see whether these factors affect how people make sense of the world, and particularly whether they infer a malevolent hand behind hypothetical scenarios and global events. This “institutional” approach, looking at the influence of political context, differs from the more typical psychological approach to conspiracy theories.

My Jackson School colleagues have been supportive of this project, partly because everyone has encountered conspiracy theories in the parts of the world where they spend the most time. And everyone has their own theory about them.

The Jackson School is devoted to engaging the public on current topics of global concern. Conspiracy theories—and sometimes actual conspiracies—have made news recently in Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Hungary, and Serbia, among others, making this a timely and important topic. In light of some major global trends—disillusionment with established authority figures, challenges to the post-Cold War international order, economic stagnation, the rise of social media—there is good reason to believe conspiracy theories will become even more important in global politics in the coming years.

Is the truth really out there? Probably not. But the process of getting there has been eye-opening.”

In August 2016, The Washington Post published his article “Why Trump May Be a ‘Siberian’ Candidate” which looks at conspiracies theories in the November 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Scott Radnitz is the author of “Weapons of the Wealthy: Predatory Regimes and Elite-Led Protests in Central Asia” (Cornell University Press; 2010), and is a member of the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security (PONARS) in Eurasia and a participant in the Bridging the Gap Project.