Photo of Professor John Heathershaw

Professor John Heathershaw

PhD, London School of Economics



01392 724185

Amory A229

My research addresses conflict, security and development in authoritarian political environments, especially in post-Soviet Central Asia.  Increasingly my work has led me to expand geographically to the international aspects of Central Asia's 'domestic' politics, to trans-regional comparisons across Eurasia and with sub-Saharan Africa, and more broadly to connect the regions of global East and West, South and North.

I convene the Exeter Central Asian Studies (ExCAS) research network and have directed its Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) project since 2015. My most-recent research project (2019-2021) considers the global dimensions of money laundering and 'reputation laundering' by elites elites from authoritarian political environments, enabled by international professionals. 

I was elected to the board of directors of the Central Eurasian Studies Society for the period 2011-2014, serving as chair of its book prize committee in 2012-14 and its Taskforce on Risk and Safety in Fieldwork, 2015-16.  For 2017-2019, I served as Vice-President of the European Society for Central Asian Studies and chair of the committee for its biennial conference at the University of Exeter in June 2019. 

Links to pre- and post-print versions of my other publications can be found on my Academia.Edu homepage

Office: Amory Building, Room 229

Research group links

Research interests

I study the international politics of conflict, security and development with a special focus on post-Soviet Central Asia.  Although my PhD is in IR I consider myself an inter-disciplinary scholar; I regularly work with scholars of Anthropology, Geography, History and Religion.  

My research begins with the proposition that the distinctiveness of Central Asia’s international relations comes neither from its ostensibly distant location nor its purported backwardness, but from its modern political history.   In particular, the region has been distinguished by the fact that the former Soviet republics became independent later than most postcolonies, in an era of globalization with increasingly intrusive and normatively-driven international intervention and lax regulation of international finance.  The research demonstrates that, though the post-Soviet Central Asian states have experienced remarkably little political violence and mass political upheaval, they have also failed to meet external demands for liberal reform.  Western actors have been more influential in facilitating the emergence and consolidation of authoritarian kleptocracies than they have in holding these kleptocracts to account for their theft and repression.

My research addresses incidences of armed conflict and more commonplace strategies of security as they take place in authoritarian political environments.  Around this guiding theme there are several sub-topics of my work.  My doctoral work on peacebuilding was published as Post-Conflict Tajikistan in 2009 and this has been furthered in several co-authored papers on authoritarain conflict management emerging from my recent ESRC project.  Related to this, I have long researched state strength in supposedly weak states and recently published a  volume, Paradox of Power, co-edited with Ed Schatz and published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2017.  

Much of my work extends beyond the national scale to the transnational.  For several years I have conducted research on offshore finance and conflict much of which is published in Dictators Without Borders, a monograph co-authored with Alex Cooley and published by Yale University Press in 2017.  I have become increasingly interested in extra-territorial politics and diaspora communities, with the Central Asian Political Exiles Project and database, launch at the Houses of Parliament in 2016.  This work is continued in the Anti-Corruption Evidence project funded by DfID on money laudnering and 'reputation laundering' and whether beneficial ownership checks can reduce these phenomena. 

I also work on religion and conflict, including studies of post-Soviet Muslim radicalization in a much-cited Chatham House paper and British Council project with David Montgomery in 2014-15 and several follow-up short articles on the weaknesses and unintednded consequences of counter-radiclization work.  I have various other tangential interests such as the ethics of fieldwork in difficult political environments, conspiracy theories as political discourse, practices of non-violent resistance, theories of Christian peacemaking, the historical and theological contexts of post-Christendom, and the nature of militarism in British society, particularly in the south-west of England. In recent years, I have begun to undertake more research on modern Anabaptist political thinking and practices and have a contract to write a book which explores this tradition's relevance to the modern predicament of international security.  I am currently working on a book entitled 'Security After Christendom'.  

Access to the texts of my publications in each of these areas can be found here.

Research supervision

I supervise postgraduate research on all aspects of the the politics of armed conflict and related areas of international politial economy, peace and conflict studies, security studies and state formation. I am particularly interested in supervising research on the politics and international relations of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics.

I have supervised more than 10 PhD students to completion and examined over 20 students at Exeter and elsewhere including LSE, SOAS, KCL, UCL, St Andrews, Manchester, Ottawa and Humboldt.  Please look at the list of my current and previous students to get some idea of the range of research I have supoervised.  

Prospective PhD students shoudl contact me in advance of application to see whether I am an appropriate supervsior and to gain advice on constructing the proposal.

Exeter undergraduate and taught postgraduate students who would like me to supervise their dissertation may come and see me in office hours prior to submitting their research idea and request for supervision.  

Research students

Current students:

Oliver Hayakawa, "Trading Under Occupation: A Study of Palestinian ‘Globalisation From Below’ "

Janyl Moldalieva,"Towards an Understanding of Good Resource Governance: Transparency and Accountability in the Mining and Energy Sectors of the Kyrgyz Republic" (as external supervsior to UNU-MERIT)

Ahmet Furkan Ozyakar, "Status-seeking Cultural Diplomacy: Iran's Image Building andNational Branding in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan" 


Past students:

Leen Al-Habash, "Nonviolent activism amid political violence: the case of Syria"

Saipira Furtstenburg, "Applying the global governance agenda in post-Soivet states: the case of EITI in Kazkahstan and Kyrgyzstan", 2013-2017 (as external supervisor to the University of Bremen)

Ben Boulton, 2011-2016, 'Reconciling Irreconcilables? The British Government's Comprehensive Approach to Post-Conflict Peacebuilding'

Edward Lemon, 2012-2016, "Governing Islam and Security in Tajikistan and Beyond" (ESRC studentship)

Asel Doolotkeldieva, 2010-2016, "Social mobilisations, politics and society in contemporary Kyrgyzstan" (University of Central Asia Faculty Development Programme)

Lucy Morgan Edwards, 2012-2015, "Western Support to Warlords in Afghanistan from 2001 - 2014 and its Effect on Political Legitimacy"

Zulfiya Bakhtibekova, 2010-2014, "Early girls' marriage in Tajikistan: causes and continuity" (as second supervisor, University of Central Asia Faculty Development Programme)

Khalil Osman, 2010-2013, "The Hissing Sectarian Snake: Sectarianism and the Making of State and Nation in Modern Iraq"

Zamira Dildorbekova, 2009-2014, "The dynamics of Islam and modernity in Tajikistan: contemporary Ismaili discourse" (University of Central Asia Faculty Development Programme)

Kemel Toktomushev, 2011-2014. "Regime Security and Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Policy" (University of Central Asia Faculty Development Programme)

Catherine Owen, 2010-2014, "'Obshchestvennyi Kontrol'' [Public Scrutiny] from Discourse to Action in Contemporary Russia: The Emergence of Authoritarian Neoliberal Governance" (Exeter studentship)

Owen Thomas, 2010-2013, "The Iraq Inquiries: Publicity, Secrecy and Liberal Security" (ESRC studentship)

Timor Sharan, 2009-2013, "The Network Politics of International Statebuilding: Intervention and Statehood in Post-2001 Afghanistan" (ESRC studentship)

Ozker Kocadal, 2008-2012, “Peacemaking for power-sharing: the role of kin-states”

Other information

I had lead and assisted in the development of several programmes at Exeter including the degree programmes BA Politics, Philosophy and Economics, BSc Politics and International Relations, and MA Conflict, Security and Development.  I also arranged Exeter's partnership with the University of Central Asia to support PhD studies on the region.

External impact and engagement

I seek to reach as wide an audience as possible with my research and actively engage in international conversations about policy and practice.  I try to convey complex ideas in an accessible and concise manner, both to the public and policy-makers.  I have written short commentaries, op-eds and blogposts for Open Democracy, the FT, the BBC, The Conversation and Ekklesia among others.  I have co-authored policy papers for Chatham House, the Open Society Foundation and several other civil society organizations.  

My colleagues and I have organised several seminars with Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia Programme to present and discuss our research.  We have also been invited to present this work at policy fora in the US, Europe, Russia and China. I have worked as a consultant to the UK government, the US and German governments' development agencies, and several large international NGOs.  My advice is sometimes sought and provided informally and free-of-charge to human rights defenders at work in Central Asia. I also provide pro bono expert witness tesimony in asylum cases in the UK and overseas.  I have twice officially observed elections in Central Asia with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and have led or participated in evaluations of multi-million dollar aid programmes.  I have spoken many times at Parliament and in Whitehall, having briefed almost all the past and present UK ambassadors to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

My impact and engagement work has been particularly focused on explaining how and why international intervention in authoritarian political contexts provides resources, directly and indxirectly, for the suppression of democratic opposition and the consolidation of authoritarian rule.  I publicise findings from my research on how Western financial service providers, lawyers and other intermediaries also aid this consolidation of power in facilitating money laundering, lobbying and reputation management by the elites of post-Soviet kleptocracies. Many of these services are illegal or 'grey' and hidden from public view but they are both vital to the holding of power in Central Asia and serve as routine activities for Western companies which provide financial and other services to the post-Soviet world.  In recent years, with heightened international concern about radicalization, including in Central Asia, my public engagement work has sought to correct some of the myths about this apparent threat; it seeks to change the conversation to a broader one about how we identify the actual causes of terrorism and assess the consequences of counter-radiclization work.

Much of this public engagement work is highlighted on the website of the Exeter Central Asian Studies (ExCAS) research network which I founded in 2010 and have convened ever since.  In 2016, ExCAS launched the Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) project which charts the transnational repression, from threats to family members at home to assassination while overseas, faced by former regime members, opposition part leaders, religious figures and even human rights activists as they have been forced to seek refuge overseas.

I have also done signifiant media work for the BBC, Radio Free Europe and a huge variety of traditional and new media.

Please contact me by email, phone or through the Exeter press office if you would like me to write for your publication or provide comment for an article or programme.

A list of some of my most recent events and articles is below:

Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia, book launches at Chatham House, National Endowment for Democracy and the European Endowment for Democracy, April-May 2017

"How can we explain radicalisation among Central Asia’s migrants?", Open Democracy, May 2017

No shelter: the harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union,Houses of Parliament, Westminster, 22 November 2016 a Foreign Policy Centre event

"For Karimov, the personal was always political",, September 2016

"How big a threat is Islamic State in Central Asia?", The Conversation, April 2016

"US looks away as tyranny steals a march in Central Asia",, September 2015



I was born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, in 1976 and raised in Retford, just across the border in Nottinghamshire. I was educated at what Tony Blair would later call a 'bog standard' comprehensive school.  Although the school was subsequently assessed as failing and closed down by the authorities, I enjoyed most of my years there and became fascinated by history and politics at a time when the region was suffering from unemployment and social disolocation following the miners strike and subsequent pit closures of the 1980s and 1990s.  After graduating with my first degree in 1997, I followed the logic of decades of UK government policy and contributed to the 'brain drain' of the north by migrating to southern England.  I subsequently became an immigrant to The Gambia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the United States - often benefitting from generous hospitality from the citizens of those countries.  I returned to the UK in 2007 and have been increasingly concerned by the debasement of national discourse, the decline of British internationalism, the diminshiment of public services at home, and the continued failure of successive Westminster governments to re-articulate the purpose of politics: sustaining and expanding the common good. 

In the late-1990s and early-2000s, I worked in the policy-making and practice of development, security and post-conflict interventions. After being as a volunteer on a UNHCR programme in West Africa, and a researcher at a conflict prevention NGO in London, I became a research analyst at the UK’s Ministry of Defence. I have also held research and consultancy positions at the Department for International Development and with various non-governmental organisations in Central Asia and offer advice to members of parliament, senior diplomats and government officials working on the region. From 2001-2005, I spent a total of three years living and working in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and have returned for extended visits on many occasions since that time.

I completed my PhD at the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2007. I have degrees from Aberystwyth and Hull, and have previously held teaching and research posts at the LSE, the American University in Central Asia, and King’s College, London. Before coming to Exeter I was a Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies of the University of Notre Dame. I have also studied Theology and Religious Studies at Notre Dame, London School of Theology, and Bristol Baptist College, and Central Asian languages in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

As a practising Christian, I am involved with and support a number of faith-based peace movements and development organisations; I am committed to understanding and taking part in the world from a theistic perspective which is specficially centred on the person of Jesus Christ.  I have written and spoken on the role of religion in public life and have taken part in inter-faith dialogues between various Muslim and Christian traditions in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

I am married with two children and live in the city of Exeter.  

I now split my football loyalties between Nottingham Forest and Exeter City.  I like to swim off the cost of the south-west of England and cycle and hike through the hills, valleys and moors of Devon.  

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