Does study abroad lead to democracy in former Soviet countries?

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The cat meme is back… You’ve got to admit this is a good one…

These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.

Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).


Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.

So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.

As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.

More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:


Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.

Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.

Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:


Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.

Chankseliani has suggested in an article in this week’s Times Higher Education that the experience of studying abroad in democratic societies may act as an “apprenticeship in democracy”.

Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.

This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.

However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.

The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?

Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.

Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.

Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.

Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.

What do you think?

Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?

Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?

4 thoughts on “Does study abroad lead to democracy in former Soviet countries?

    James said:
    September 29, 2017 at 14:40

    Cool to see others taking an interest in this topic! I would recommend caution against the ‘transition-itis’ that plagued a lot of research in the past. We shouldn’t assume a democratic trajectory is normal or even that many western ideas can’t be made to fit into an autocratic system as technocratic expertise.

    On another note have you read Doug Blum’s book on Kazakhtani’s who’ve studied abroad? A bottom-up approach to this issue which I wish I’d written!


      Emma Sabzalieva responded:
      September 29, 2017 at 15:31

      Hi James,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t think that Chankseliani falls into the transitology trap at all and she is careful to posit her work through ideas about “democratic development”. I very deliberately used a reductive title for the blog in order to draw readers in! It looks like it worked as a strategy!

      I’ve seen drafts of Doug Blum’s book and I’m glad you noted it here. You did a very nice review of it on your blog – could you share a link to it?


    Begench said:
    October 2, 2017 at 09:32

    These are very interesting facts and figures, Emma. Thanks for sharing. Some additional factors could be taken into account:
    1) A sort of linguistic path-dependence – considering that Russian is still widely spoken and that there is a limited number of English [and other EU languages]-speaking school graduates in countries that score low in terms of % of EU-bound mobility, it is not surprising to see many school graduates applying to universities in Russia and probably Belarus. Another linguistic factor has to do with Turkey: for Central Asian/Caucasian countries which belong to Turkic group of languages, the number of their school graduates enrolled in Turkish universities is quite high. Of foreign students enrolled in Turkish universities, highest of percentages came from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan (which together with Syria made top three). [more here:
    2) Administration of the admissions process might be a little easier in the Russian universities compared to the universities in the EU countries. Most European universities require different test results, and tests are not frequently arranged in certain Central Asian countries.
    3) Financing and logistics of getting there should not be excluded as well – tuition fees plus living expenses are important factors for parents when determining where their children will study. Plus, logistical issues (getting visas, transportation costs, etc.) contribute to decision-making too. With Russia having visa-free regimes with most CIS countries, it appears to be a very rational choice [in terms of logistics] to pursue a higher education. While students from the three Baltic states (themselves being the EU-member states) have the option of traveling freely to other countries in the EU, school graduates from Central Asia might often face challenges in obtaining visas.

    I thought those issues deserved attention too. Cheers, Begench


      Emma Sabzalieva responded:
      October 3, 2017 at 23:50

      Hi Begench,
      Those are some great comments and very pertinent to the issues at hand. I think the idea of “linguistic path dependence” is really compelling. These are the kind of issues that are hard to see when you base a study purely on quantitative data, but would absolutely help explain some of the trends shown in the graphs.


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