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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #007

Astana, Kazakhstan 

There are few things that make me angry (besides oh-so-many-things capitalism). One of them is the decision to rename May 1st in Kazakhstan. International Workers’ Day is already completely disregarded in “official life” in the US, which made me cringe every year. But Kazakhstan, why? In 1995, while the country’s economy was still shrinking and after a much-criticized Constitutional reform, the president decided to rename and repurpose May 1st as the Day of Unity of Kazakhstan’s Peoples. While the effort can be noble, displaying, celebrating and promoting respect for Kazakhstan’s multinational state, ANY OTHER DAY could have been chosen for that. So boo for that.

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My first two weeks in Astana were extremely hectic. The spiral of meetings, which I feared could have been slow at the beginning, precipitated fast. Plus, I had the chance to go to several conferences touching upon various aspects of my dissertation and others that were outside of my remit, but still useful to develop contacts.

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An example of useless vs useful business cards collected.

There have been already 3 winters and 3 springs so far in Astana. We’ve been way below zero and peeked above 20C just to check out how fast people get rid of their heavy coats. That meant that I was constantly with a cold. Which was definitely not helped by beverages such as the psychedelic lemonade pictured below. Hopefully now, in May!!!!, we can get past this freezing winter.

Taking Kazakh classes has been productive so far. I now understand the structure of the language far better. Now it’s time to expand the vocabulary! Half of the taxi drivers, however, are generally mute (it’s very typical to have silent interactions here). While I’ve already had 3 women driving me in a taxi, something I think I had experienced only twice before in Kazakhstan. Given the amount of rides I have to take to get anywhere, especially in Astana, that’s a fraction of 1%. One ride was particularly fun: mom driving and son behind playing with his tablet, correcting his mom’s Russian and admitting in cute English that he should play less and study more to improve his English.

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A felt spread at the Eurasian National University.


Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #006

Astana, Kazakhstan

Felicità. That’s what the 60-something-year-old taxi driver was singing the other night. After a few productive weeks in Almaty, with some excellent interviews, moody weather, nomadic housing solutions, and long night walks, I flew into Astana. I also got a cold, which I fought with some paracetamol, bought at the staggering price of 35 tenge (per 10 tablets box), that’s slightly more that $0.01 and slightly less than €0.01 per tablet. Sugar would probably be more expensive.

In Astana, I thought my first week would be slower than this, but I guess it’s good to have a quick start. So, as always, I won’t have time to enjoy the view (!) and will continue living a super-busy life. If you’re around in the capital city, please make my life busier and let’s have a coffee/tea.

I’ve already participated in one conference and will attend another one next week (evidence, with out-of-control beard attached, below).

Since my latest blog post, while in Almaty, I went to theater again, because Artishock is just amazing. I’ve also managed to do some cooking (after living for over a month in a tiny flat without a kitchen!). Had gallons of green tea. Ate increasingly often Bozbash (lamb leg in a chickpea and potato soup) at Khachapuri Khinkalevich, a small Georgian place on Kabanbai Batyr/Zenkova, which also produces its own bread (lepyoshka). And picked Manpar soup instead of Lagman a few time at the Uyghur restaurant 12 muqam, on Zheltoskan/Zhambyl. And plov, tons of it, especially when made by my exceptional Uzbek friend. And baursak, bags of them, especially when bought still warm from the store (yes, people, you still haven’t prepared home-made baursak for me). And bliny! “the thinner the better”.

I’m planning my summer/fall. There will be travels, even more than now, so I have to improve my packing skills and become even more essential.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #005

Almaty, Kazakhstan

It’s Nauryz! (however you spell it)

Spring is here. I’m starting to run into friends around Almaty (feeling increasingly ‘local’), despite the large masses that have crowded the streets in the past few days.

Incredibly, people have been available for PhD interviews. One of them ended with a home-cooked Nauryz dinner, with the best manty I’ve ever tasted and my first try of a Gubadiya (a Tatar pie ). Stop me when I tell you too many times how nice people are here.

Also, finally went up to the top of Hotel Kazakhstan. The best toilet view in town.

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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #004

Aktau, Kazakhstan

Below, a short collection including research, travels, feminism, a dream and Sacco & Vanzetti.

Set up a few interviews and did some research on newspapers from the 1990s. I also took a small intellectual roundabout that could become a paper in the near future and make an exciting part of my PhD. More on that later.

Flew to Aktau to see the place again, before moving there next summer for a few weeks, reconnect with some of my contacts and visit the annual Adai festival in Otpantau. Saw oilmen, aksakals, camels, sheep heads, horses, and pipelines, in no particular order.

Personal notes:

Woke up early to a dream/nightmare: Mom and daughter were in a park that resembled Panfilov Park. The mom asked the daughter if she was tired and wanted to go home. The little one, who might have been six or so, said yes, pointing to her doll: “Her head hurts. I think because her husband beats her or something.” Woke up very upset that I could dream something so realistic… and in Russian. The scene was the typical moment in which a kid is tired but doesn’t want to admit it and finds an external excuse to go home. But the girl’s choice was chilling. I guess after two days of Femagora, a gender equality-focused event in Almaty organized around March 8, and going to theater to see Artishock’s crude and honest #прямопотолеби, this is what my memory wanted to keep its focus on: the long road to equality, to solidarity, and to happiness.


Now, what comes to mind (and brings the routine tears to my eyes) is Nicola Sacco’s final letter to his son, before being executed together with Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1920s witch-hunty USA. The Italian anarchist wrote to his child not to be selfish, to share his joys with the deprived, for they are his true friends. In a movie from 1971, the adaptation of the letter contains a sentence that is not in the original, “ricordati, figlio mio, la felicità dei giochi, non tenerla tutta per te” – which roughly translates into “remember, my son, the feeling of happiness that you have when you play; don’t keep it to yourself” – which is both about being unselfish and appreciating the culture of sharing with the have-nots and, crucially at least for my memory of today, the feeling of happiness connected to playing games as kids, which was clearly lost in the girl from my dream. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but this was not like every other dream that I infallibly forget.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #003

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Doing tons of readings and reconnecting with friends. Also trying to get in touch with people to interview for the fieldwork, but many seem quite busy. I might schedule a second trip to Almaty or prolong this one by a week or so.

Side notes: we’ve had all seasons in one week here. It snowed, it rained, it was hot (around 16C) and it was cloudy and windy.

Last night, I saw two men in military gear playing virtual roulette in a pedestrian underpass.

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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #002

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Getting settled in, finally. Got an office in KIMEP. Also tried to go to the National Library to access some old newspapers, but it apparently was “санитарный день”. Their day off is Monday, but I guess a pre-Nauruz cleanup is warranted (?).

More readings done in between chores, but tomorrow it’s time to set up some meetings.

Also, while walking back home tonight someone opened the window of a car and shouted: “HELLOOOOOO!!” to me. Yes, to me. I turned around and I was alone. I’m pretty sure I don’t know them. A few meters down the road, I saw a guy wearing a sweater that said: “UPSDAB EAMILY CLOTHING” which sums the whole thing up.

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again, technically not “assistant professor”.

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #001

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Back to KIMEP today. Did all the necessary things to register, although I still need to finish up a few things before I can have access to my office. In the meantime, I’ll use the national library for some newspaper browsing sessions.

It was quiet at uni, because it’s reading week and most students and faculty are off. It was a beautiful sunny day, so I used it to walk around a bit and see some new features of the city (Panfilova is pedestrian-only now!!! and yes, they renamed Furmanova…).

In the evening, I went to the premiere of Don Quixote, in a surrealist version proposed by the talented theater group “Art & Shock” (ARTиШОК). Two take-home lessons: I need to improve my Russian and I still like theater (I hadn’t been in a long time).


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Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #000

Almaty, Kazakhstan

A lengthy period of PhD fieldwork in Kazakhstan just started for me. I plan to keep a very short diary of my activities in the country.

To make it easier to follow on Twitter and elsewhere, I’ll use the hashtag #дәптер – notebook in Kazakh – so that I can also use it as motivation to learn some more Kazakh.

My first day just ended. Met some friends, ate lagman, settled into my tiny flat.

Currently fighting jet-lag, so if I you see me using a pen to operate a calculator when it’s turned off surrounded by tenge coins, €50 notes and random graphs as in the picture below, you’ll know why.

TAPpeti volanti e manganelli


Nonostante il blog sia inattivo, mi preme scrivere un attimo di TAP, soprattutto dopo l’indegno articolo de Linkiesta: Tragicomico Sud: la protesta insensata contro il gasdotto in Puglia.

Potrei-ma-non-voglio sottolineare che Francesco Cancellato, autore del pezzo e direttore de Linkiesta, sia quanto di più distante ci sia rispetto a chi in Puglia, sulle sponde dell’Adriatico e alla foce del gasdotto ci vive. Lombardo che scrive che una protesta in Puglia è da “tragicomico sud”, autore di pezzi che ammiccano all’Azerbaigian (anche se solo tangenzialmente) e “vidimatore” di altri pezzi che ammiccano all’Azerbaigian.

Anche io sono fisicamente distante dalla Puglia e dal movimento contro il gasdotto, ma a differenza del Cancellato, qualcosina di energia e di politica internazionale ho studiato.

Qui mi limito ad elencare una lista dei problemi che ho trovato nell’articolo e un’altra lista di problemi proprio del gasdotto.

La Grammatica

Parliamone, di un corridoio lungo 878 chilometri, di cui 550 in Grecia, 215 in Albania, 105 sotto il mare Adriatico e 8 – sottolineiamolo, servirà: otto – in Italia, dalla spiaggia di San Foca sino al confine del comune di Melendugno, in Salento, dove si connetterà con la rete dei gasdotti italiani, che già oggi, con i suoi 13mila chilometri di lunghezza lineare – sottolineiamo pure questo: tredicimila.

Not a sentence. Non ha la caratteristica di una frase, direbbero i miei amici anglofoni (e i miei insegnanti di italiano).

Miracoli dei congressi di partito, oggi pare aver cambiato idea.

Idem come sopra.

Parliamo pure dei 3 milioni di euro che pioveranno nelle casse del comune di Melendugno durante tutti gli anni dei lavori, che si protrarranno per qualche anno.

Qui non è chiaro se i contributi arriveranno ogni anno o se i 3 milioni siano complessivi.

Oltre la grammatica: la supponenza

Per smettere di fare dell’Italia […] la barzelletta d’Europa. E del Mezzogiorno, la tragedia d’Italia.

La maggior parte delle opere incompiute sono (state) finanziate da fondi statali, cioè qualcuno ci mangia. Una sostanziale parte sono anche fondi europei non/mal spesi che sono ritornati a Bruxelles. TAP con questo non c’entra nulla. Se chi protesta viene ascoltato, l’opera si farà e verrà portata a termine.

Nota a margine: oggi il Mezzogiorno è la tragedia d’Italia, ma non mi pare che i giornali italiani abbiano parlato di quei fannulloni mangiapaneatradimento del nordovest quando si protestava la TAV. L’insulto gratuito al Mezzogiorno è forse l’aspetto che più di tutti de-legittima l’articolo di Cancellato.


Qualcuno ha già scritto che non si tratta di NIMBY, non è campanilismo di quarta serie, ma attenzione per l’ambiente. Molti pugliesi vogliono che TAP si faccia, solo non dentro una riserva naturale. Altri pugliesi non la vogliono per ragioni di NIMBY, altri per motivi politici, ma perché buttare tutto in un calderone “tragicomico”?

Il contributo di TAP al fabbisogno italiano/europeo

L’Italia consuma tra 65 e 75 miliardi di metri cubi di gas all’anno. Il 90% di questi è importato dall’estero. Il 51% del gas importato viene dalla Russia attraverso gasdotti di epoca sovietica che attraversano (e riforniscono) mezza Europa. L’Europa consumava oltre 500 miliardi di metri cubi di gas all’anno fino al 2013, adesso si attesta a circa 470 miliardi. Di questi l’Europa importa circa il 70%. La Russia, che non ha mai tagliato i rifornimenti (se non all’Ucraina) continua a esportare gas come sempre e si prepara a dover pagare anche qualche penale per aver imposto un prezzo troppo caro un lustro fa. Circa il 40% dei volumi di gas importati in Europa arrivano dalla Russia.

TAP, sponsorizzato in lungo e in largo quale risposta alla dipendenza dalla Russia, porterà sulle spiagge pugliesi ben 10 miliardi di metri cubi di gas. Il 2.5% del consumo annuale europeo. Trattasi di niente. Se fossimo dalla parte dell’ambiente, chiederemmo alla Russia o all’Algeria o alla Norvegia di fornire ulteriori 10 miliardi di metri cubi senza costruire altre infrastrutture. O meglio, se veramente fossimo dalla parte dell’ambiente, troveremmo il modo di consumare il 2.5% in meno di energia.

E poi, Cancellà, risparmiaci i dati sui gasdotti che non subiscono incidenti al di sopra di un certo millimetraggio. Vai a vedere i danni ambientali che incidenti (che ovviamente sballano le statistiche) che coinvolgono il gas naturale hanno causato in tutti gli angoli del pianeta.

La politica internazionale del gasdotto inutile

Il Dipartimento di Stato americano e Bruxelles hanno spinto così tanto per il famigerato Southern Gas Corridor come risposta all’egemonia energetica Russa che si sono trovati con nulla in mano. Il maestoso progetto Nabucco si è trasformato in TANAP (16 miliardi di metri cubi dall’Azerbaigian alla Turchia) + TAP (10 miliardi di metri cubi dalla Turchia all’Italia attraverso la Grecia e l’Albania). Dalle enormi ambizioni alla striminzita realtà.


Per usare un titolo che quelli in giacca e cravatta responsabili di quest’inutile infrastruttura capiranno: “Ghiaccio su pene

Ma perché si spinge così tanto? Perché conviene. TAP è un consorzio di compagnie registrato a Baar, in Svizzera, dove molte entità offshore fanno il bello e il cattivo tempo senza pubblicamente dichiarare i loro bilanci. Oltre a BP, l’altro principale shareholder è SOCAR, la compagnia di bandiera azera. E c’è pure Snam, quindi ci sono interessi italiani con i quali Cancellato avrebbe dovuto fare i conti: non è “solo un investimento straniero che stiamo rifiutando”.

Ma stiamo in Azerbaigian, lungamente criticato per l’oppressione delle libertà e dei diritti umani, dove giornalisti e attivisti vengono arrestati ogni giorno, letteralmente. Ma vabbè anche Putin è cattivo e quindi non importa la qualità del regime per scegliere i fornitori di gas. Dalla chimica alla metafora, il gas puzza ancora meno del denaro.

I problemi sono di trasparenza: l’Azerbaigian è stato di recente espulso dall’EITI, un’iniziativa transnazionale per assicurare che certi standard amministrativi, ambientali e finanziari siano rispettati dalle compagnie che si occupano dell’estrazione e della vendita di materiali del sottosuolo, tra cui ovviamente il gas. Secondo l’EITI, l’Azerbaigian non rispettava gli standard. La Banca Europea per la Ricostruzione e lo Sviluppo l’anno scorso aveva lanciato un monito: se l’Azerbaigian non migliora gli standard di trasparenza, il prestito promesso per TANAP+TAP potrebbe saltare.

I manganelli

Dopo aver visto la polizia entrare con forza in una biblioteca universitaria a Bologna e dare mazzate qua e là pensavo di aver visto abbastanza per quest’anno. E invece no. Il Comitato NO TAP ha protestato a San Foca nel sito dove TAP sta conducendo i lavori preliminari di scavo e di espianto di ulivi ed è stato caricato più volte, nonostante la protesta fosse incredibilmente pacifica. Un pacifismo quasi esagerato, visto che c’erano ulivi su camion che venivano portati via come automobili su un carroattrezzi.

Ebbene, chi sta difendendo cosa? La polizia (e il governo che ce l’ha mandata) in tenuta anti-sommossa non difende il territorio, ma una compagnia di dubbia trasparenza che vuole costruire un gasdotto di dubbia importanza nel bel mezzo di una riserva naturale.

Chi, a distanza, difende il “progresso” senza capire le ramificazioni politiche, sociali e ambientali è “tragicomico”. Oppure, ma non vorrei essere maligno, è a libro paga di un dittatore.

Back to school


Edinburgh, UK

After three years of incredible personal, professional, and business growth, I take my leave from The Conway Bulletin to undertake a doctoral degree at the University of Glasgow.

When I started at the Bulletin as a Kazakhstan correspondent, the newspaper had only 3 pages. Back then, everyone was excited about the start of the Kashagan offshore oilfield, which would have soon disappointed hopefuls when its pipes broke. Interestingly, Kashagan just re-started a few days ago. But now the Bulletin counts hundreds of subscribers, not just dozens, runs 12 pages packed with news every week and has a fully-working archive with over 7,000 news items from the past six years.

Now, after writing well over 2,500 news stories and around 200 news wires, covering  elections around Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and doing an immense amount of daily research, it’s time for me to move on to my next challenge, back into academia.

At Glasgow, I’ll fold back into my research of Kazakhstan’s energy sector, with a particular eye this time to its social impact. This means that I will travel more to Central Asia, attend more academic conferences, and write more for a diverse range of outlets.

For a brief period, I will continue to work part-time at the Bulletin, hoping that my replacement can be found soon. And I will stay on in Edinburgh until there’s a good reason to move.

After almost two years, the blog is back. Or is it?