Interview with Elena Shadrina, visiting scholar at CERI

Wind power generator

Elena Shadrina, a full professor at Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies (Tokyo) is a visiting scholar at the CERI in 2024. She answers our questions about her academic backround, research interest and current projects, and her current stay at CERI Sciences Po. Read our interview below.

You have joined CERI as part of the Visiting Faculty initiative. Can you briefly present your academic path and your project for this stay?

I did my PhD under the scholarship of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. My PhD thesis dealt with the impact of energy cooperation on Northeast Asian regionalism. For my postdoc, I was accepted by the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies in Oslo under the Norwegian government’s YGGDRASIL programme. I worked on Russia’s foreign energy policy focusing on three dimensions—European, Central Eurasian, and Northeast Asian. Upon my return to Tokyo, I worked as an associate professor at Meiji University Graduate School of Governance Studies from 2011 to 2017. I was engaged in a programme for government officials from emerging economies coming to Japan to be trained as Master’s students in Public Administration. Most of my supervised students were from Central Asian countries. During that time, I had my first work-related trips to Central Asian countries, became fascinated with their people and cultures, and developed an interest in studying the region. Since 2017, I have been at Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies (Tokyo), first as an associate professor and since 2022 as a full professor. I am lecturing on Sustainable Development and Comparative Economic Systems. Area-wise, I focus on Eurasian economies for both my teaching and research.
Since September 2023, I have been on my sabbatical leave at CERI. I applied for Sciences Po as a host institution not only because it is known worldwide as one of the most prestigious institutions with solid research records, but also because Waseda and Sciences Po are partner universities. The project I am currently working on focuses on energy transition in Central Asia, but I also study these countries’ decarbonisation strategies and climate policies, as this allows a more comprehensive understanding of the theme at hand. I follow an interdisciplinary approach trying to unravel the so-called double paradox that I formulated in a paper published in 2022. To put it briefly, one part of the paradox is that the Central Asian countries have very modest deployment of ample renewable energy resources, such as solar and wind. Another part of the paradox is that among the Central Asian countries, it is those rich in hydrocarbon energy (oil and natural gas) that are more active in renewable energy development. To explain this paradox, I study the five Central Asian countries’ energy transition paths comparatively.

Current research

As a scholar of energy and sustainable development, you examine the political economy of energy transitions, with a special focus on Central Asian economies. In particular, you highlight the challenges and characteristics of state-dominated economies' energy systems. Could you tell us more about this?

My interest in renewable energy started around 2019. I was engaged in a project being undertaken by the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) exploring the development of renewable energy in Central Asian countries. Back then, the renewable energy agenda had just been adopted in Kazakhstan, the largest Central Asian economy. Other nations in the region (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) had expressed some aspirations for renewable energy development but appeared less concrete in policy making and less decisive in policy implementation. Since then, the Central Asian countries have made remarkable progress, with Kazakhstan still leading and Uzbekistan increasingly catching up on renewable energy deployment.
I explore the theme of energy transition in Central Asia from the angle of political economy. Why do I follow such an approach? Central Asian economies differ greatly by the size of their GDP, and by their economic structure, population, and level of prosperity, among other things. However, their political systems share similar characteristics, namely a substantial role of the state in their economies. In energy transition (which means the adoption of renewable energy), too, the state plays a crucial role.
Overall, the strong state is a historical tradition in the region. The post-Soviet transformation did not bring about a full-fledged market economy. The Central Asian political regimes are often characterised as authoritarian. Concerned to secure its survival in these contexts, the state has taken on an extensive social contract, including (among other things) the provision of heavily subsidised energy. In the energy sector, in particular, the state relies on state-owned companies.
The hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan accumulated energy export revenues that enhanced these countries’ financial well-being, making possible the implementation of large-scale national projects. Less fortunate in this sense, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have long believed that their immense hydropower potential will guarantee them abundant electricity supply and even lavish revenues from electrical power exports. However, these calculations have become increasingly unrealistic due to mounting concerns over water scarcity in the region amidst accelerating climate change and growing problems in the national energy systems (such as physical obsoleteness due to years of underinvestment in maintenance and construction of new facilities). All Central Asian economies are experiencing the growing pressure of increasing energy demand due to high population growth. Additionally, the adoption of carbon taxes in the course of global decarbonisation puts carbon-intensive Central Asian economies in a very precarious position. Thus, regardless of their energy profile (hydrocarbon-rich or hydropower-rich), all Central Asian countries need to think about how to incorporate renewable energy into their energy systems. Yet, regardless of the level of economic development (which varies greatly across the region), all Central Asian economies need investment and most critically technology. Therefore, international cooperation becomes an indispensable element of the energy transition in the region. I addressed this perspective in my most recent work dealing with the EU’s and Japan’s strategies for energy transition enhancement in Central Asian countries.
My other recent publications on the topic include “Cooperation in Renewable Energy” (chapter in Central Asia in a Multipolar World, Springer), “A Double Paradox of Plenty: Renewable Energy Deployment in Central Asia” (Eurasian Geography and Economics), and “Non-Hydropower Renewable Energy in Central Asia: Assessment of Deployment Status and Analysis of Underlying Factors” (Energies).

What are your current research projects and objectives?

As I said, I have started looking at the ways and means Japan and the EU are employing in their energy transition diplomacy in general and when tuned specifically for the Central Asian region. Each side—Japan and the EU—has a peculiar energy transition diplomacy. Yet, the logic of friend-shoring thinking drives the EU closer to Japan for securing energy transition resources (such as critical raw materials) and enhancing newer technological competencies (such as hydrogen), thus creating ground for joint effort in third countries, such as Central Asian nations.

What is your methodological approach to comparative policy analysis?

I would characterise my approach as embedded in political economy. Yet, I am relying on a range of conceptual frameworks, such as resource curse, rentier state, lock-in, and environmental state, to name but a few. I work with international and national statistics on relevant aspects. Also, I examine programmatic documents and regulatory accounts of energy, climate, and decarbonisation policies to critically analyse changes over time and differences across countries. In this exercise, I operationalise such elements as idea, value, norm, actor, instrument, and institution.

Wind Power generator

Research insights

What is the current situation of the energy transition in Central Asian countries?

The most successful country in terms of renewable energy deployment, Kazakhstan, still has only about 5% of its electricity consumption generated by renewable sources (such as solar and wind). The closest by this metric is Uzbekistan, which embarked on a renewable energy agenda in parallel with various reforms following the transfer of political power in 2016. Very richly endowed with natural gas, Turkmenistan has only recently started the pursuit of renewable energy. These three economies enjoy somewhat greater economic sovereignty, if I can put it that way. In contrast, less developed Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are less attractive to foreign investors and more heavily rely on assistance extended by international organisations and donors of official development assistance. Additionally, in Kyrgyzstan, for example, the owner of the gas pipeline network is a non-national state-owned company, Gazprom, which creates a certain conflict of interest when it comes to the transition from conventional to renewable energy sources. In a nutshell, I argue that nations with greater economic, financial, and geopolitical independence have greater room for developing renewables.

What are the different models for energy transition in the region?

I would say that the principal difference originates in the extent of independence. The stronger the national state is, the more proactive is its stance on renewable energy. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, for example, it is not only the scarcity of national financial resources (which nations like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan generate through hydrocarbon exports) but also the lack of independence in implementing the reforms. This, I think, requires further clarification. We have already established that the state is the main actor in all Central Asian economies. However, in Kyrgyzstan, there is an arm of a foreign state. We speak here of a Russian state-owned gas company called Gazprom which owns the natural gas pipeline system in Kyrgyzstan. It is not difficult to imagine that Gazprom will lobby against the full-fledged energy market and a massive roll-out of renewables, because these would jeopardise its position in the country. So, it is not only the role of the state but also the extent of its sovereignty that matters.

How does the “paradox of plenty” manifest in the region?

Well, I employed that metaphor in my paper several years ago implying that one part of the paradox is that despite having plentiful renewable energy resources, the Central Asian countries are not deploying them swiftly and widely enough. Another element of the paradox is the fact that hydrocarbon-rich nations are more proactive on renewable energy. This observation led me to deepen the analysis of the sources of power of the state and its motivation when initiating the energy transition. I am employing the metaphor of state-owned decarbonisation.

How have international partners influenced investment and policy decisions in the region’s energy sector?

The World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the EU, and some member states (Germany and France, in particular) have been active in the region. At the outset of the post-Soviet transformation, they primarily provided policy advice and technical expertise, and extended a raft of aid programmes. Now, the bilateral and multilateral frameworks embrace a great diversity of themes, such as decarbonisation, energy transition, intraregional connectivity, and intraregional cooperation, to name but a few. European companies are now involved not only in the hydrocarbon sector but also (and increasingly) in renewables.

Your stay at CERI

How do you intend to use your stay at CERI Sciences Po to advance your research?

My stay at Sciences Po has been very enriching. I have attended an array of quality academic events and had a rare chance to discover newer research agendas and reflect on novel approaches. I have certainly benefited from opportunities for academic networking. I had five speaking engagements in the last three months, so I am keeping myself rather busy.

Are you involved in any collective projects?

At the moment, I am not a part of any research project at Sciences Po, but I would definitely like to get involved. I have another year of sabbatical leave and plan to explore closely the opportunities for collaboration.

What are your plans for future research in this area? Any upcoming projects or initiatives you are particularly excited about?

I have quite a voluminous draft that I plan to reorganise, rewrite, and hopefully turn into a book. This will certainly take some time, but this is what I would like to do in my second year of sabbatical. Speaking of a topic, it will be what I have spoken about here with nuances and newer trends incorporated.

What advice would you give to students or early-career researchers interested in your field?

Speaking about your projects and discussing your ideas with others is the best way to organise your thoughts and improve your work! So, never hesitate to give a talk on your research even if it is in a very early stage.

Interview by Josefina Gubbins

Photo 1: Power generator in Yamaguchi,  Japan, Photo by traction, for Shutterstock
Photo 2: Fuel Tanker in Kazakhstan, Photo by Lucky Photographer for Shutterstock

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