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?

15 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.


    Adele Del Sordi said:
    November 15, 2017 at 05:11

    Dear Emma and colleagues,

    I am happy that this topic gets attention and to find others interested in it on this amazing blog. Thank you, Emma! Coming to studying abroad and democratic attitudes: my own research on Bolashak alumni actually confirms that the dynamics of change in attitudes are complex and not linear or univocal (coherently with Blum´s findings). I actually found that the government is actually able to use the program to engage students abroad and returnees in supporting the regime, mostly through feelings of gratitude for the opportunity received, patriotic pride for a state capable of such efforts, as well as with a form of rhetorical co-optation. I would be happy to discuss more with you, and will make sure to let you know as soon as my article (due soon on Globalizations) is out.

    Best wishes,



      Emma Sabzalieva responded:
      November 15, 2017 at 08:52

      Dear Adele,
      Thanks for your comment on my blog and welcome! I agree that any situation involving humans is likely to be complex! I think it’s quite plausible, for example, for someone on the one hand to feel morally obliged to the Kazakh state for the funding and support yet on the other hand drawn by other reasons to consider staying outside of Kazakhstan. I would love to read your article and share it with my blog readers too – I look forward to learning more, and please continue the conversation here and on Twitter @emmasabzalieva.


        molapse said:
        November 15, 2017 at 11:21

        Hi Emma, regarding the ‘other reasons’ you cited:
        I think one area of research worthy of exploration is the experience of these alumni in the workplace. Among my friends and interviewees a major gripe I *constantly* heard was not political – most are apolitical, the regime either liked or tolerated – but that the ‘mentalitet’ of the older generation doesn’t allow them to succeed at work. Blum briefly touches on this in his book, but I think it’s a great prism to examine this clash of generations and ideas in a smaller context.

        Does anyone know of research on ‘mentalitet’ in a present day context?


        Emma Sabzalieva responded:
        November 15, 2017 at 13:16

        Great question – would love to know if anyone is doing research on generational fractures, or generally on generation gaps. If not, maybe we should! My thesis will touch on this implicitly as my main data source is interviews with experienced faculty members working in Central Asian universities. They are not old necessarily, but have lived through both the Soviet and post-Soviet higher education systems, and it was fascinating to compare and contrast their opinions of the two different higher ed systems.


        molapse said:
        November 16, 2017 at 11:32

        The research topic of KZ’s generation gap would be an interesting blend between education (changes in pedagogy), sociology (post-soviet society as a whole) and anthropology (individual experience/clashes and mentalitet). Politics can be included as well, but that gap in expectations may exert itself more in a post-NAN country.


      molapse said:
      November 15, 2017 at 11:15

      HI Adele, good to hear that others are interested in the same topic! I look forward to reading your article. One theory I had is that this government ‘self-defense’ actually began before students went on Bolashak – the preference for choosing ethnic Kazakhs (through an arbitrary and difficult Kazakh exam) and older students (undergrad ended in 2012 with the creation of NU, IIRC) who may be seen as more likely to buy into the system. There are other ‘soft authoritarian’ (Ed Schatz) measures that they use later which seem to be similar to what you are describing – tying students into the regime’s master narrative, etc.

      My fieldwork was done in 2010/12 so I’m curious to see what you’ve found among the alumni community – both formal and informal networks. I’m out of academia so I have to live through the work of others continuing on the same topic 🙂

      For anyone interested: a summary of my past work/writing on Bolashak is here [] and a review/response to Blum’s excellent book is here [].


        Adele Del Sordi said:
        November 15, 2017 at 15:04

        This is such a great discussion! Molapse, thanks for the materials, I will happily have a look. So, as per alumni in the workplace: I asked questions about that too (as the workplace seemed to be relevant for introducing change. Indeed it seems to be an issue of adjusting to the mentalitet of the staroi zakalki. I have another paper with a PhD student in Kazakhstan, where we look at the comparative advantages of Bolashak alumni in the workplace and whether the narrative that returnees are picky (the Bolashak syndrome) has any substance (Emma, maybe you saw the presentation by my co-author? It was at ESCAS/CESS last June). Molapse, I am so sorry I did not find your study before! Indeed (I am a political scientist) I place my research within the authoritarianism literature and make use of the soft authoritarianism framework. And I agree that age is important: as I consider Bolashak as a multidimensional tool, addressing issues of economic development as well, I consider the change in age as due both to structural reasons (the opening of Nazarbayev university and the need to recover that investment) and to the management’s unwillingness to “lose these kids” (as a manager told me). As per the Kazakh exam, many of my interviewees were from the years right after the expansion of the program, and in that period the Kazakh exam was a little more than a formality (I had several non Kazakh interviewees). Of course the factor might have a significant weight in other phases. For another short contribution on Bolashak as a tool of extraterritorial authoritarian rule, please have a look here (I can provide a copy if you don’t have access):


        Emma Sabzalieva responded:
        November 16, 2017 at 09:14

        Adele – thank you so much for these fascinating comments. It’s wonderful to see this discussion going on and I will try to summarize both your and James’ (“Molapse”) main points into a new post so they get greater visibility. I am interested to see whether we can bring in others who are investigating Bolashak, as it’s of interest not just to other academic researchers but to other governments too. I know this because I did a consultancy for a European national government last year on setting up a scholarship scheme and they specifically asked me to include Bolashak in my report.


        molapse said:
        November 16, 2017 at 11:19

        Adele, I’d love to hear more about that paper you co-presented on Bolashak alumni and work. If I ever did more ethnographic research on this topic I think that would be the route I would chose. I’ll send you an email so you have my contact info.
        Emma, I know Bolashak is a model for other countries and I think it deserves its positive reputation. Have you found that it rates well compared to other gov’t scholarship in terms of impact/ROI/perception? I know Brazil, for example, had an ambitious plan to implement a similar program. And yes, let’s try to pull others in to this topic!


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