Corruption corrupted in Kazakhstan

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Cash for university and school places? This cat’s ready to pay.

Kazakh civil servant Almat Yermagambetov wins this week’s prize for bare faced deception.

Yermagambetov handed over to the police a woman who falsely claimed she could obtain admission at Nazarbayev University and a place at a top school in return for a large amount of cash – $20,000 US to be exact. This sounds great for moves towards transparency in a country that despite significant reform still struggles to eliminate corruption.

The plot thickens, though, not when you learn that the accused flatly denies any allegation of wrong doing – but when you find out that the person who paid out the not-to-be-sniffed-at sum of $20,000 to buy admission places for his children is Yermagambetov himself. Yes, the very same civil servant who brought the corruption to light. And, yes, as the 100+ comments on the original article also note, the very same civil servant who does not appear to be facing any charges for his own highly corrupt behaviour.

You couldn’t make it up.

Thanks to news portal Nur.kz for the story – https://www.nur.kz/1319394-chinovnik-otdal-moshennice-20-tys-dlya-zach.html [ru]

I’d close some universities if I could – Kazakh Ambassador to Canada

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Panellists at the “Kazakhstan After 25 Years” roundtable at University of Toronto, November 2016

The number of higher education institutions in Kazakhstan – a country with a population of 17 million – rocketed up from 55 in 1991 to a peak of 182 just a decade later. Many of these were very small institutes, privately run and focussed on teaching. A number of these naturally fell away in the subsequent years, but there were still a whopping 126 higher education institutions in operation in 2015 – one for every 135,000 people! Since 2012, the government has been taking measures to optimize both the quantity and quality of higher education [ru] in Kazakhstan as I showed in a blog post from 2013, The state of higher education in Kazakhstan:

EurasiaNet.org: Kazakhstan has almost 150 higher education institutions for a population of about 17 million… How is Kazakhstan trying to change this perception that there are too many degrees being awarded, but not the labor market to support the thousands of yearly graduates?

Dr. Mukash Burkitbayev, Vice Rector of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University [my emphasis]: You’re right, there are so many universities for a [population] of 15 million. It is too much. Our minister of education understands this situation and now they are making a special policy. They make more requirements for the universities for the scientific material base, for quality of the staff. If the universities do not meet with such requirements such kind of a university will be closed or it will [be joined with another]. This is the main activity of ministry of education. And life demonstrates it, which university should be top; which university should be closed…

The quality of higher education remains a hot topic in Kazakhstan, so it was little wonder that the Kazakh Ambassador to Canada, Konstantin Zhigalov, expressed his views on this issue at a public roundtable on Kazakhstan’s achievements, missed opportunities, and future prospects over the last 25 years hosted at the University of Toronto this month.

Higher education has been a priority of the Kazakh state since becoming independent in 1991. A flagship programme, the Bolashak Scholarships [ru], have sent 12,000 Kazakhs to study abroad since its inception in 1993. The word Bolashak means Future in English – an apt reminder of the power of education to drive a country forward. As the situation within Kazakhstan has stabilized and with the emergence of a distinct middle class, another flagship programme, Nazarbayev University, is on the rise. Both initiatives are designed to nurture the academic elite and offer generous financial support to the brightest students to pursue cost-free higher education in a top quality setting.

These two grand projects seem to get much of the (still sadly limited) international attention paid to Kazakhstan’s higher education system, which drove me to ask the Ambassador about the challenges for the rest of the system. What are the opportunities for the majority of students who won’t get a Bolashak scholarship or entry to Nazarbayev University?

And that’s where Ambassador Zhigalov talked about the importance of raising quality across the board. This means continuing to close down institutions that are not meeting the government’s requirements and creating mergers between institutions. Beyond this, measures are being taken to reform the system in line with international norms such as the Bologna Process, engender competition through developing a national rankings system, endeavouring to place two universities amongst the world’s best, enhancing accreditation systems, and continuing the drive towards “modernization” which has been a watch word in national strategies for many years.

These are challenging targets, but the consistent efforts towards achieving these reforms are clear and commendable. Whether or not you agree with the direction of travel, it is hard to disagree that the higher education system in Kazakhstan is on the journey of its life.

 

Academic diplomacy aims to bolster Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations

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Grumpy Cat has mastered the art of diplomacy

Rifts between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are well documented, particularly in the border areas around the Ferghana Valley. The two most recent disputes that reached the international press came in March 2016 and August 2016. The geographical complexity of this area of Central Asia is visible in the second map below, which places the Ferghana Valley at the heart of these three countries. Here you can begin to see some of the intersections – including nine exclaves, little pockets of land belonging to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan that sit like little islands within another of the three states.

It is rare for politicians in the region to extend overtures aimed at appeasing these tensions. Somehow each spate of conflicts is overcome, but it leaves behind distrust and uncertainty. Yet in a break to what you could call a “new tradition” of non-diplomacy, it has been heartening to see Uzbekistan ostensibly opening up to Tajikistan in recent weeks since the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. A relaxation of visa arrangements and better inter-country travel opportunities have been mooted, both of which would represent a significant (and positive) shift in the countries’ relations.

Nonetheless, relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan appear to remain fraught, particularly when it comes to matters pertaining to the Ferghana Valley area. If leaders cannot use politics to overcome these disputes, it seems there might be an opening for other state actors such as universities to make important moves towards engendering better neighbourly relations between the two countries. Academic diplomacy, as this is known, can create a safer space for governments to find ways to work together through what has been called “international meetings of minds“.

This week in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, a delegation from Uzbekistan was welcomed in an initiative led by Osh State University [ru]. This was a return visit after a Kyrgyz delegation went to the Andijan region of Uzbekistan at the start of October, culminating in the signing of a memorandum of cooperation.

The Uzbek delegation, which included Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Adham Ikramov, met with Osh SU students, visited the university’s medical faculty and enjoyed cultural events. Speaking at the university, Ikramov noted that good relations between the two countries should inform the long-term development of their mutual cooperation. In particular, Ikramov noted that Uzbek universities could learn from the way Osh SU has been developing e-learning. Accompanying the Deputy Prime Minister, Rector of (Uzbek) Andijan State University Akram Yuldashev expressed his hopes that the visit would reinforce relations between the countries and bring young people together. This might lead to future cooperation, such as holding conferences or undertaking joint publicity activities.

The clear success of these two visits, at least on paper, gives hope that the strategy of “international meetings of the minds” could prove to be an effective way to start to rebuild trust and common bonds between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

 

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Map of the Ferghana Valley (c) http://www.exploretheworldmaps.com/fergana.html. Created by Eric Olason

 

 

Five years of blogging on Central Asia

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The cat meme, a recent addition to the blog. May not add any intellectual value but does grab attention.

It’s been five years since I started this blog and I wanted to mark the moment with a post reflecting on a half decade of sharing news and views on education, society and politics in Central Asia.

In those five years I’ve published nearly 200 stories and attracted over 700 regular followers – thank you all. And thanks also to those who pick up what I’m sharing through Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. This year alone, the blog has had nearly 3,000 visitors so far.

My posts have also been picked up by other media, with several news agencies (Huffington Post, El Pais Spain, Yahoo Canada) following up on a story on high heels for higher learning in Tajikistan (see also here and here) and the blog was recognized earlier this year by The Guardian in the UK as a top social media account for academics (I am very proud of this accolade so forgive me if I may have mentioned this before!!).

Through the blog I’ve got to know other Central Asia watchers and it’s led to some exciting conversations and collaborations. I hope this will continue in the future and always welcome comments that contribute to enhancing debate and discussion about this understudied part of the world.

My plan in the coming months is to introduce pages into the blog that enable you to quickly find stories covering particular topics. This might be by country or possibly by issue. This will take some time as I’ll have to categorise each post (lesson learned: use categories, not just tags, from the outset!) but I hope it will make the blog easier to navigate. For now, the search function is well worth a try as it picks up keywords not just in the title of stories but in the text as well.

I’d also be keen to feature more guest posts by other writers, so if you share an interest in the kinds of stories I write about, please get in touch. I can offer some editorial assistance if English isn’t your first language, or with translation from Russian.

My aims when I started the blog in September 2011 were to write about the “development of the post-Soviet space, particularly in Central Asia”, “post stories and comments on the things that get me most excited/worked up” and do research on Central Asia to “get more people around the world thinking about it.” Five years on and I think that’s a fair reflection of what I’ve reported on and written about – and it also reflects what I plan to continue doing into the future.

Thanks again for following/reading, and please continue to share the journey with me.

Emma

Paid to protest: More on student protests in Tajikistan

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Grumpy cat may or may not also pay people to protest. Unconfirmed rumours of levity yet to be quashed.

In my most recent post, Protests? What protests?, I discussed recent protests both against and in favour of the government in Tajikistan. Following up on this, I want to share an excellent and highly informative article from Russian-language site Fergana News, which Open Democracy has reproduced with permission and translated into English.

The article, provocatively called Tajikistan’s imitation civil society in English and Не народ, а массовка. Как провластные движения в Таджикистане имитируют гражданскую активность in Russsian gives a great deal more detail about the pro-government “civil society” youth movements that it appears are being mobilized with increasing regularity.

The type of protests we commonly hear about in the news are from groups of people who have come together to demonstrate against a particular issue or idea. This generally happens of their own free will. Indeed, just today, there is news that a series of protests in Poland – another former socialist state – against a proposed change in the law on abortion have been so effective that the government has been forced to think again. So from the point of view of more open political regimes, it might even seem laughable that the Tajik government pays people to go out and “protest” in its favour.

But this is no laughing matter, as the article points out:

It’s dangerous not to be part of the crowd if they want you in it, to go against it. And the student “volunteers”, who never protest if they have no electricity in their flats for days on end, muddy water with bits of sand in it flowing from their taps and their parents and brothers slaving away for years as migrant workers in Russia know this.

…опасно не влиться в эту толпу, если тебя хотят в ней видеть, пойти против нее. И это понимают студенты-«добровольцы», никогда не протестующие, если в их домах сутками нет электричества, из кранов течет мутная с песком вода, а родители и братья годами горбатятся в трудовой миграции в России.

Despite my ongoing attempts to lighten some of what I report on with frivolous cat memes, there is a very serious undercurrent to these “protest” movements in Tajikistan, raising a number of major questions: How does this affect the generation of young people growing up in the country who have never known another leader (sorry, Leader of the Nation and Founder of Peace)? What does it tell us about the prospects for plurality in Tajikistan? There are many other issues that remain both unasked and unanswered.

Protests? What protests? The continuing lack of plurality in Tajikistan

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“Spray bottle” could be a metaphor

News has emerged of a number of connected protests in / relating to Tajikistan. However, if at first glance this appears to be a tiny step towards practicing the freedoms (of speech, to gather in public etc) nominally guaranteed to citizens under Tajik law, don’t get your hopes up.

Leading the story on 23 September, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty made its views clear through the quote marks employed in its headline: “‘Volunteers’ burned a portrait of Muhiddin Kabiri” [ru]. For context: Muhiddin Kabiri is the leader of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), once the only opposition party (and the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia) and now the subject of multiple extremely worrying attempts to suppress its members. The IRPT is not by any means a fundamentalist Islamic party, Kabiri is now in exile, but his family members back in Tajikistan have not been left unaffected by the authorities.

The ‘volunteers’ in question are students at the National University of Tajikistan and the Medical University of Tajikistan, both based in the capital city Dushanbe. This followed a 300-strong protest at Dushanbe’s Pedagogical Institute which claimed that the IRPT could bring Tajikistan back to war, as well as smaller groups of young activists who protested at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Dushanbe offices. One of the university protest organisers, Asliddin Khusvaktov, claims that hundreds of students took part, which were in response to another set of protests also relating to Tajikistan. Asia-Plus reports the same story [en] with slightly different numbers.

So now let’s move to Poland, the stage for the protests our students have taken issue with. Capital Warsaw is hosting the OSCE annual human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.  A handful of people – presumably Tajik nationals – disrupted sessions on 19 September with silent protests, wearing T-shirts showing the faces of opposition figures (politicians and lawyers) who who have been arrested by the state.

Apparently this has led to repercussions for the families of those protestors [en], in a depressingly familiar cycle from the Tajik state. You choose to protest? We choose to pressure you: either you directly, or your family members, or similar.

The student groups who led the protests in Dushanbe are mainly part of an organisation called “Avant Garde” [ru], set up by the government in 2015 to to prevent the spread of extremist ideas amongst young people. This is how Tajikistan does youth policy.

You can only wonder how long the government can maintain this level of oppression in a world where internet access is increasing (and those who are caught behind frequent government bans on websites are able to find alternative ways to access sites that are targeted such as Facebook and YouTube) and where it is easier than ever – albeit with some cash and resources – to travel out of the country. And yet there are no immediate signs that change is on the horizon, protests or no protests.

Faculty blamed for poor standards at Kulob State University, Tajikistan

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An unusually critical article was published recently in Asia-Plus – one of Tajikistan’s last remaining bastions of press freedoms – observing a worrying drop in educational standards at Kulob State University [ru], nominally one of the best in the country.

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A totally irrelevant (irreverent, some might say…) image about knowledge and cats.

Two main causes are identified: the fact that many of the better qualified faculty have left the university (20 instructors last year alone), and the fact that those who remain are not sufficiently qualified to be able to do their job properly.

Even the university rector acknowledges that the brain drain has had a negative impact on quality at the university. As the top posts in Tajik universities are appointed by the national government, it is rare for senior leaders to speak to the press – and rarer still for them to acknowledge that the Leader of the Nation (as President Emomali Rahmon is now known, following a referendum earlier this year) may not have all the answers. Kulob is not far from Danghara, the President’s hometown, and this southern region of Tajikistan has benefited greatly from capital and other investment in recent years. Kulob State University opened its doors to a new “modern and luxurious building” on its campus [en] just a year ago.

Yet shiny new buildings do not educate students: lecturers do. The Asia Plus article is scathing about the lack of qualifications of many of the remaining instructors. Journalist Hamidi Imoniddin draws on the university’s own data showing that nearly 40 lecturers were unable to submit properly written job documents – many of whom are the university’s own graduates. Because of the lack of properly qualified instructors, the university is resorting to newer researchers who do not meet the qualification requirements (generally a PhD) and do not have much by way of work experience. Even after offering a salary raise last year, university staff in Kulob are underpaid and this is certainly contributing to the outflow of more suitable candidates for faculty leadership roles.

All of this suggests an alarming downward spiral, where students can’t get a decent higher education because the staff don’t have the skills, experience or resources (textbooks and the like) to support them, and the staff who could be inspiring the next generation are leaving the town or even their profession in the hope of a better future.

As one of the comments on the article points out, this isn’t just a problem being faced by Kulob State University. There are nearly 40 universities in Tajikistan and the challenges fleshed out in Imoniddin’s article are common the most of them. System-wide reform of the higher education system would be the main step towards making positive change, but this needs to be accompanied by a reaffirmation of the value that higher education can bring for individuals and the population as a whole for any reforms to be truly successful.

A new phase for Central Asian higher education begins

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After many years in the pipeline (just do a quick search on my blog if you want to check the archives!), the University of Central Asia (UCA) has today welcomed its very first undergraduate students. True, they are a select few: just 71 students selected from the three UCA countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s also true that just one of the three envisaged campuses is up and running… but nonetheless, this is quite some achievement. Creating any new organisation is a challenge, but UCA has deliberately added to the complexity by working over three countries and physically building campuses in somewhat remote mountainous areas of those countries.

The university also grapples with other challenges such as dealing with endemic corruption in the region, raising awareness of and interest in an American style English-language education, proving that a good higher education can be obtained at home as well as abroad and more. Some of these issues are not specific to UCA but are issues all institutions in the region must deal with. Having worked for UCA (in a different guise) nearly 15 years ago when it was in the early stages of development, I sense that some of the great creativity and genuine innovation in earlier versions of the undergraduate curriculum have been lost or overtaken by other ideas and needs. Time will tell how the UCA offering is received and whether the concept will catch on.

For today, though, I would simply like to pass my congratulations to everyone involved in the grand UCA project, and to wish the students, staff and faculty all the very best of luck. An exciting adventure awaits!

The Economist on the University of Central Asia 

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Highly regarded British politics and economics magazine The Economist is a reliable source of news and tongue-in-cheek humorous bylines about what’s happening in the world. I was delighted to see a short article on the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan in this week’s edition, complete with silly/witty byline “Aga saga”. This refers to the Aga Khan, the much revered living spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shia Muslims who can be found dotted around the world and make up almost all of the population of Badakhshan in south-east Tajikistan. It is also a play on words of a particular type of British light fiction written about domestic trials and tribulations –  Aga being the type of oven traditionally found in certain middle/upper class houses. 

The article itself is on the University of Central Asia and is regrettably brief. But at least it is being written about, and in a well read and respected publication. I hope The Economist’s interest is piqued so they will follow up on the university, which in just a few weeks is to open its doors to its first cohort of undergraduate students, well over a decade after it was formally launched. 

Read the story at:

http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21705372-poorest-bit-former-soviet-union-they-look-leader-yore-hopeful-aga-saga

The ironic fate of Soviet nostalgia

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Poster for the Soviet classic, “The irony of fate”, where the big joke is that all cities share the same street names

If you’re feeling nostalgic for the Soviet Union, for the days of free education, jobs for life, and street names that were the same in every city, then it seems you’re not alone.

Sputnik News today reports the results of a poll of over 12,000 people across 11 countries of the former Soviet Union who were asked whether life was better in the USSR than after it collapsed in 1991. On average, over 50% of those aged 35-64 agree that life was better before. This compares to an average of just under 30% of those aged 18-24 who felt the same – though how they might know this without having been born during the Soviet Union escapes me.

The breakdown of the results by country is interesting, particularly looking at unlikely outliers Uzbekistan and Moldova. In Uzbekistan, apparently almost no one misses the good old days, in stark contrast to its extremely economically successful neighbour Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan purports to have similar levels of nostalgia as Kazakhstan, despite enjoying a reputation as “Central Asia’s most stable state”. I’m not saying that political and economic success/stability as an independent country necessarily affects results, but I do feel surprised by the lukewarm response from older Tajiks based on my own extensive research and contacts in the country.

Comments on the Sputnik News website express a similar range of confusion and scepticism. Indeed, Sputnik News – a Russian government spin-off – is regularly accused of spouting Russian-friendly propaganda. Certainly, the way the statement is worded is highly subjective: why not flip the question and ask whether life is better now than it was during the Soviet Union? And why are the voices of those who weren’t even born when the Soviet Union collapsed given equal weight to those who lived a good part of their life with a different passport – and where are the over 65s?

Revitalizing the idea that times were better in the old days is not new – just look at the ongoing “ostalgie” stories about East Germany. If you have the time to explore this further, I strongly recommend Alexei Yurchak’s absolutely beautifully named 2005 book, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. It focusses on the 1960s-1980s, the many paradoxes of Soviet life and telling the story of the last Soviet generation – the very same people who now seem to be so nostalgic…

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(c) Sputnik News, August 17 2016