Category Archives: Tajikistan

Take a look at these links

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Surely it’s not that bad?

A long overdue update of my Links page is now available. Tucked away on the blog, the idea behind this page is to share reliable, interesting and/or fun websites that focus on Central Asia or higher education (but not both – I’m the only person doing that).

I also have a few links to other websites and blogs that I like and that you may enjoy too. My top new finds are Sapiens, a fabulous Anthropology blog that is totally accessible for non-Anthropologists, and Afternoon Map – those of you that have ever seen me teach or give a presentation will know quite how partial I am to a good map. If it’s historical, even better!

The list isn’t long so do take a moment to have a look. If you have suggestions for other websites and blogs (English and Russian language), please use the Comments feature to let me know.

Who else out there is blogging on Central Asia right now? There must be some great stuff I’m missing.

A mountain to climb? Educating leaders for Central Asia

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Big, beautiful cats in the big, beautiful mountains of Central Asia. Image (c) National Geographic

At the start of this year, I shared a great article on the nascent University of Central Asia from Devex and Michael Igoe. If you enjoyed that, you’ll be pleased to hear that the article in fact came in three parts.

In part two, A classroom for the mountains, Igoe discusses the intensity and rigour with which the undergraduate curriculum has been developed, the difficulty of recruiting suitably qualified staff to come and work in rural mountainous Kyrgyzstan on the site of the first campus and the fundamental importance of that mountain location to the Aga Khan’s vision for the university.

Part three, The future leaders of Central Asia, focuses on the university’s hopes for its future graduates, including a nice feature with an undergraduate from Khorog, Tajikistan, who matter of factly comments on the hostility her family has faced from the government for expressing political view. The piece also emphasizes the way the university is gearing its programmes towards the needs (current and prospective) of the regional economy.

Something that struck me in all three articles was the absence of discussion of the political environment in which the university operates. This may be a reflection of the pragmatic mission of the Aga Khan and his network of charities that aim to work with local communities from the inside, rather than tie short-term funding to political or economic conditions. This is a laudable aim, although for the University of Central Asia, it seems as if the encouragement for students to be change-makers beyond the economic arena will be implicit at best.

In a setting like Kyrgyzstan where the government is more open, this strategy may be effective. It may be possible for students to envisage and even implement alternative ways of seeing and experiencing their home and other contexts. Yet for the Tajikistan context, the government maintains close control over the political establishment, making it hard (it not impossible) for alternative voices to be heard, let alone permitted in government.

The Tajik campus of the University of Central Asia is opening in Khorog, a town in the south-east of the country that the government has for a number of reasons found harder (though not impossible) to control. People from Khorog and the surrounding region of Badakhshan are spiritual followers of the Aga Khan and since he first visited the country in 1995, they have keenly followed his command to focus on education, particularly in English language and information technology. School leavers from Badakhshan are thus likely to be in a position to make extremely competitive applications to the university, increasing local leadership capacity in a part of the country that has on occasion been restive.

I think this raises important questions about just how holistically – ‘leadership’ is taught – and interpreted – at the University of Central Asia.

If you want to get ahead, wear a dress

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Lots and lots of Tajik national dresses. (Don’t worry, a cat appears in this post too)

The month of March brings with it the official start of spring, the vernal equinox (this year on 20 March), and in Tajikistan – as with other Central Asian countries – the celebration of Navruz / No’rooz, or New Light/Day. There are multiple spelling variations of what has been classified as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO.

In recent years, celebrations of Navruz in Tajikistan have taken on a distinctly nationalist character as the government seeks to appropriate it as something that embodies the modern Tajik state, shifting the festivity away from its ancient pan-Eurasian and Iranian roots.

Like the other post-Soviet states, Tajikistan has been frantically building an identity for itself as an independent state over the last quarter of a century. This has been done within a framework that is more globalized, placing unprecedented pressures on the formerly Soviet countries in ways never experienced by other ‘new’ countries of the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries. Yet unlike some of the post-Soviet states, Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbours experienced independent statehood (with their current geographic boundaries) for the first time in the 1990s, making the nation-building imperative even more urgent.

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The men are having a pretty good time too

Thus the celebration of Navruz in today’s Tajikistan becomes something more than an expression of joy at the end of winter and coming of a new harvest season. It separates Tajikistan from its past, when Navruz was banned in Soviet times.

It is a ‘safe’ quasi-religious celebration that does not give too much credence to the official religion of Islam, a source of great stress to the leadership of Tajikistan (where even wearing a beard can get a man into trouble). It is the government’s idea of a good social policy, as it can offer public holidays and festivities around the country.

This year the government is taking Navruz to new highs. In a recent letter to all educational establishments in the country, the Ministry of Education and Science has decided that all teachers and students should wear national dress during March [ru] in honour of Navruz. Why, you might ask? Here’s the answer news agency Asia-Plus gives:

 

В распоряжении отмечается, что данная рекомендация сделана в целях пропаганды и возрождения лучших традиций предков таджикского народа и достойной встречи Навруза.

This recommendation is being made to promote and revive the best traditions of the ancestors of the Tajik people and in honour of the great holiday Navruz.

[Source: Asia-Plus; my translation]

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Told you there was a cat. A well dressed one too, even if it doesn’t have a dress

According to information agency Avesta, this ruling only applies to female students [ru]. Once again, it seems to be the women who get the dress code at university. Apparently, some educational institutions might take this ruling even further. A senior (male) leader at northern Khujand State University said that female students and staff might continue to wear national dress through to the end of the academic year, not just for March. (Or perhaps Khujand State is on a mission to prove it can exceed government targets in Stakhanov-esque fashion.)

This isn’t quite the laughing matter that it appears. As Asia-Plus points out, the cost of a dress made of the ‘national’ material of atlas can be around US$30, or around a third of a monthly salary. A government official in the capital city has already had to issue a clarification to its statement noting that kindergarten/nursery children are not subject to the dress code rule after parents reported rumours that their little ones would also need to be suitably kitted out during March.

You’ll doubtless be relieved to know that the Ministry of Education’s Press Secretary has confirmed that no one in schools or universities will be forced to wear national dress during March [ru]. They are also allowed to wear a ‘pretty dress’ instead…

Let me remind you of the last time the government decided that women should dress differently at university, when it was fairly easy to prove that no, wearing high heels did not in fact make you a better learner. Wearing national dress during March may look great for your school photo, but does it make you more patriotic? Work harder? Think more? I think you know where I’m going with this.

They cared for cattle more than kids -Tajik President recasts the Soviet era

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Whilst popular opinion across the former Soviet Union generally remembers the Soviet period with more than a hint of the rose-tinted glasses – see this summary of an EBRD survey in 2016 or this Sputnik News story on my blog from August 2016 – one man is seemingly on a mission to upend these conceptions. And he’s someone that people have to listen to – because it’s no less than the President (and Leader of the Nation) of Tajikistan himself.

In his annual address to Parliament at the end of 2016, President Emomali Rahmon apparently delivered a blistering attack on reports from the Soviet period, denouncing their claims that education in the country was operating to a high standard as “lies”.

In an article on the address [ru], reliable local news agency Asia Plus reports that the President told the audience that the Soviet authorities were more concerned with increasing livestock and collective farm numbers than with building schools or hospitals. This from a man who worked on a collective farm for around 20 years from the mid-1970s before entering politics and thus knows his cattle.

Meanwhile, Rahmon’s government has built or reconstructed over 2,500 schools over the last 25 years. In 2016 alone, a total of 540m Somoni (US$64.5m) was spent on building/reconstructing 201 schools and providing new school places for 39,000 students. Furthermore, whereas in 1991 there were 13 higher education institutions with 70,000 students, there are now 39 institutions educating 170,000 students. [Put aside, for now, your questions about relative vs absolute growth (the Tajik population has grown continually from 2m in 1960 to 5m in 1991 to over 8m today) and quantity vs quality.]

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Soviet poster from the 1950s (source) comparing education in the USSR favourably to education in the USA. Top caption (with cheerful girl) reads: “In the USSR, school building in urban and rural areas increased by around 70% between 1951-55 compared to the previous Five Year Plan period.” Compare this to the glum American boy facing a closed school at the bottom, where the caption says “The US allocates 1% of its budget to education compared to 74% to military spending. There are more than 10 million illiterate people in the USA and around a third of children do not go to school.” Propaganda at its finest. And obviously there are no connections between the choice of this poster and the issue at hand in this post.

 

 

 

Although the official version of the President’s speech [ru] makes no reference to cattle or explicitly to the Soviet period (perhaps the oral speech was somewhat different from the written address to enliven it?), there is a definite sense that the past is being rewritten in the President’s image. The written version of the speech is littered with statistics that aim to quantify the regime’s achievements. This, arguably, is a common tool employed by political and other leaders and thus unsurprising to see such rhetoric in use in Tajikistan too. Little wonder that the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics” has gained such purchase over the years. Or to give it its new American name, “alternative facts“.

Lest we digress on to the uses and abuses of statistics and comparison, I will end by drawing your attention to one quote from the written version of the speech (not mentioned in the Asia Plus article). Although it is not connected to education, I think it speaks volumes about the rewriting of Tajikistan’s recent history. If you’re unsure or unconvinced, read this article which emphasizes the multi-faceted and national drivers of the civil war after you read the quote.

В начале 90-х годов прошлого века Таджикистан под воздействием вмешательства некоторых зарубежных стран, осуществляемого под лозунгом демократизации общества, столкнулся с острыми внутренними конфликтами, этот процесс довёл нас до навязанной гражданской войны и братоубийственной трагедии.

[In the early 1990s, Tajikistan experienced an acute internal conflict under the influence of intervention by some foreign countries with their banner of societal democratization. This process brought us to an imposed civil war and fratricidal tragedy.]

 

Education for the local, as well as the national and global

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Grumpy cat is full of hope for 2017

Starting off the new year with a hopeful story – and I will do what I can to make this year one where hope is rekindled – comes news from the University of Central Asia‘s (UCA) brand new campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. Regular readers will know I’ve been following this project for 15 years now, since working for the Aga Khan Humanities Project in Tajikistan. I’ve written about UCA before on the blog: have a look at the archives here.

The article from Michael Igoe on Devex, which is reproduced below, is a very interesting read. It’s one of the few pieces about UCA I’ve read that gets beyond the university’s own marketing and publicity. It also sheds light on the impact of the university on the local environment and its local communities, something that is so important to the Aga Khan in his vision for development. Whilst Igoe has focussed on the “world-class in the mountains” angle – in itself a fascinating story – I would love to hear more about the local level as UCA develops. This covers themes as diverse as the professional training that will be directly relevant to the university (such as in construction and catering), the financial impact any university brings to its local town, to the less tangible impact a university has on the people who live locally. Igoe cites several local residents who seem to feel disconnected from the university whilst at the same time affected by its very presence, a curious phenomenon.

With the opening of the second of three campuses due in September this year, the questions of the local – not just the global or the national – will only become more important for UCA.

Article (c) Michael Igoe, https://www.devex.com/news/a-world-class-university-town-89014

A world-class university town

By Michael Igoe @AlterIgoe
04 January 2017


Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, the location of a branch of the Aga Khan Development Network’s University of Central Asia. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a three-part Devex series that examines the Aga Khan’s plan to create a new model for higher education in Central Asia, where the opportunity to achieve academic excellence is usually found somewhere else.

The road to Naryn, a sleepy outpost 100 miles from the Chinese border at Torugart pass, winds southeast from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s leafy, cosmopolitan capital, over mountain passes and through eroding canyons.

This is one vein of the fabled Silk Road, the ancient trade network that stretched from China to the Mediterranean Sea. Today cargo trucks traverse the route. Arriving fully weighted from China’s western provinces to stock Kyrgyzstan’s crowded markets, most of them return empty, belching black exhaust along the way.

Two men on horses guide a flock of fat-tailed sheep into oncoming traffic. The cars brake and the sheep envelop them, then part like a dusty sea of wool. The road turns with the Karakudzhur River, and then carves through a tight sandstone gorge as it levels out for the approach to Naryn, through an open plain of villages, still quietly reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago.

But on the outskirts of town, on a barren plot of land at the river’s edge, backdropped by imposing cliffs that glow red in the late or early light, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV is building a university.

Naryn is now the site of an audacious experiment, a daring bet placed by a billionaire philanthropist, one of global development’s most distinctive thinkers, and the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims who regard him as a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad.

The Aga Khan — who, as founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, has built a global development empire that employs 80,000 people in more than 30 countries — has poured more than $100 million into this sleepy, mountain town over the last 16 years. He plans to spend even more.

His vision is of a world-class university on the banks of the Naryn River, with state of the art facilities, and a curriculum designed to equip young leaders from mountain communities with the knowledge and skills to bring about an economic renaissance for the region. This is one of three campuses that will together comprise the University of Central Asia, a secular, nonprofit university jointly chartered by the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and the Aga Khan.

At Naryn the crisp yellow and red buildings of the campus rise improbably from manicured lawns bisected by neatly plotted walkways, while gangs of stray dogs roam the scrubby paths just outside the campus perimeter. It has wood-paneled dormitories, geothermal heating, laboratories, laptops for every student, and a “sports bubble” encased in white fabric to seal its indoor facilities against Kyrgyzstan’s harsh winter.

Naryn, like many of Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet-style settlements, is an unremarkable town dropped in a dramatic location. Set along the clear, blue Naryn River, crumbling apartment buildings and rusted storefronts cling like an afterthought to the walls of two parallel mountain ridges that cradle the country’s ninth-largest city — home to only 40,000 people — in a narrow valley. Despite sharing a border with the world’s second-largest economy, this is one of the poorest regions in the country, mostly dependent on animal herding, for wool and meat.

A car waits for sheep to pass on the road from Bishkek to Naryn. Michael Igoe/Devex

But UCA graduates emerging from Naryn and the other campuses, the Aga Khan hopes, will be the future leaders of Central Asia — a vaguely delineated region where civic-minded leadership has been in short supply in the 25 years since the Soviet Union dissolved into a jigsaw puzzle of independent republics. The three countries partnering with the Aga Khan Development Network to launch this joint university have teetered between democracy and despotism. Tajikistan fell from Soviet rule into a full-fledged civil war. Kyrgyzstan has seen ethnic violence and revolution. Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has occupied that post since 1990.

The Aga Khan’s vision seems to defy logic. How will a world class university survive in a place few have ever heard of and fewer still would ever think to visit? Why build it here, in a remote mountain town? In a region with so many needs, why not focus on something simpler, such as basic health care or primary education?

“When I have talked about this project with people in all parts of the world over these past 16 years, many of them have been a little bit surprised,” said the Aga Khan, now 79 years old, at the Naryn campus inauguration ceremony in October. While he spoke, some members of UCA’s inaugural undergraduate class wept with joy and reverence.

Building institutions

For 12 years, not much happened at the construction site, while Naryn’s residents — and UCA’s own staff — wondered if the project would ever break ground. More than a decade after the three presidents and the Aga Khan signed UCA’s charter, there was still no university to point to.

Different people offer different explanations for the long wait. Some say the Aga Khan expected to find co-financing for the project — from the three partner countries or a multilateral development bank. Others suggest he didn’t have the right team in place yet to execute his vision.

Everyone points to the massive investment AKDN has made in Naryn to better prepare the town to benefit from the construction of a world class university at its doorstep.

“The impact of what we do can not only be global and regional — it can be local as well,” the Aga Khan said at the Naryn campus inauguration ceremony in October. “By working with the leadership of the [state], we hope, for example, that Naryn will become a dynamic university town, enhancing the quality of life for all its citizens.”

The Aga Khan Development Network espouses an approach it calls “multi-input area development.” It means that multiple parts of the 10 agency network converge on a region with mutually supportive initiatives. The picture that emerges in a place such as Naryn, where AKDN has a big presence, is of a development organization that has become a deeply integrated — seemingly permanent — part of the town.

In Naryn, AKDN has built a local diagnostic center that could eventually become a hospital. The same day the Aga Khan inaugurated the UCA Naryn campus, he joined local government leaders in opening a new wifi-enabled “smart park,” complete with exercise equipment, inlaid stone walkways and playgrounds.

But UCA’s School of Professional and Continuing Education, a sharp, red building smack in the center of town, stands out.

For six of the 12 years that UCA’s construction site stayed quiet, UCA’s professional branch in town was busy providing continuing education courses to local people who, if they have the skills and business acumen, stand to benefit from having a world class educational institution on their doorstep.

While a young man selling onions and sheepskins by the side of Naryn’s market road described his impressions of the University of Central Asia — he thinks it will be a “big, great university,” but that it remains out of reach for many of Naryn’s own students — an older man named Baryktabas approached and greeted him.

He pointed to a stately but shabby Soviet building nearby where, in retirement, he directs a youth center. Baryktabas opened the doors to this building revealing a hidden concert hall, secreted away from a lost era of Soviet youth culture, filled with rows of musty, wooden seats, a full drum set on the concert stage and, improbably, a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar leaning against the bass drum.

“I’m not a musician,” he said, after delivering a spirited drum solo to the cavernous, empty hall.

Baryktabas is skeptical the University of Central Asia will deliver on the promise it has made to the small cohort of striving undergraduates who now matriculate there. “What are they going to become?” he asked. “President of the United States?”

But, despite his pessimism, Baryktabas is himself a product of the University of Central Asia system — and part of the much broader effort the Aga Khan has launched in Naryn to turn this struggling, secondary city into a international research and teaching hub.

The local labor challenge

The Aga Khan Foundation’s long-term view

Devex spoke with Michael Kocher, general manager of the Aga Khan Foundation, about the challenges of balancing a long-term approach with the urgency of working in a geopolitical hot spot.

Some 90,000 students have passed through UCA’s School of Professional and Continuing Education, which has learning centers in each of the three UCA countries. While the impact of UCA’s flagship undergraduate program will take years to gauge, the supporting educational and economic infrastructure the Aga Khan agencies are constructing is, in many ways, the bigger story — particularly for people in Naryn.

Baryktabas graduated from a certificate program. Then he received a business loan at 9 percent interest — nearly 20 points lower than the going rate thanks to UCA’s partnership with the Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank — and additional coaching from SPCE’s business instructors.

“I got a good education there,” he said.

SPCE’s program has helped launch 27 startup businesses, from building contractors to children’s clothing producers, in Naryn, said Nurbek Nisharapov, head of SPCE’s Naryn campus. Before students — who range from 14 to 70 years old — can gain their certificate, they have to present a 35-page business plan.

The continuing education school has also helped fill a local labor gap that risked barring many of Naryn’s residents from winning construction jobs at the university project site. Graduates from SPCE’s technical and vocational education program founded a small construction enterprise that has contracted with UCA on the main campus project.

Each of the three university campuses brings it own unique challenge to the construction management table. In Tekeli, Kazakhstan the soil conditions are bad. Khorog, Tajikistan a bone-rattling 12-hour drive over rugged, mountain roads from the capital Dushanbe presents “horrendous” logistical problems, as one UCA staff member put it.

In Naryn, the biggest challenge is finding skilled local labor. Skilled workers go to Bishkek where construction projects dominate the skyline, leaving few people in town with the experience to deliver contracts at the quality UCA is demanding — or to benefit from the opportunity that UCA’s construction represents.

But even as AKDN’s other projects in Naryn gained steam, people still doubted that the big idea — the world class university they’d heard about for over a decade — would really come to fruition.

Designed on a fault line

When Grant Robertson joined the University of Central Asia in April 2012 as director of construction and facilities, he encountered a project that had lost focus.

The original plan was to build all three university campuses in parallel at full capacity — a 330,000 square meter project that would also have entailed getting all of the academics on line at the same time too.

“Mind-blowing,” Robertson said.

The university’s celebrated Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki — with a long list of conceptual buildings in Europe, the U.S. and Japan to his name — and AKDN’s leadership were at an impasse over what to do now that it had come to light the Naryn campus was designed on top of a seismic fault line.

The first phase of the University of Central Asia’s Naryn campus. Michael Igoe/Devex

“UCA blamed the architect, the architect blamed UCA, and it just sort of ground to a halt,” said Robertson, seated at a conference table in UCA’s Bishkek office, with aerial plans for each of the three university campuses taped to the wall behind him.

“There was no clear direction on what campus was going to go first, what the size of that campus would be, if there was phasing and what that phasing would look like — and what the pot of money that was available would be.”

“I came in at a time when it needed to move,” Robertson said.

First the team had to redraw a master plan that both the Aga Khan and Isozaki, the architect, had lent their seals of approval to, since the fault line issue made the original plan unworkable. Isozaki argued they shouldn’t build on the site at all, Robertson said.

“We don’t have another site. We need to build on this site,” Robertson said. He scheduled a three-day trip to negotiate with the Japanese architects in Japan. Within three hours, they came to a new agreement with a new plan.

Instead of building three campuses in parallel, Robertson was tasked with delivering the first phase of one campus in Naryn, a 15,000-square-meter compound that would grow over time. But he still had to figure out what a workable project management approach would look like in rural Kyrgyzstan, under the looming threat of an extreme winter, for a project that demanded uncompromising quality.

50 projects in 1

Usually, when an organization wants to do a complex construction project, they hire a general contractor to manage it. But the model can have drawbacks. A general contractor typically won’t begin any part of the project until the entire design has been finalized and approved. For every service they commission or material they procure the contractor adds some profit margin onto the cost they charge their client.

In places such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — with recent histories of political violence and reputations for graft and corruption — an international general contractor is going to include a risk premium. And since Central Asia has no general contracting firms capable of executing a project this big, an international firm from Turkey or Russia or elsewhere would have to come in — and usually they will import most of their own labor.

But under the Aga Khan’s direction, UCA’s mission was not just to build a campus on the outskirts of a struggling town. It was to contribute to Naryn’s economic development — not an international contracting firm’s portfolio and profit margin.

For Robertson, it was clear the standard model would not achieve the Aga Khan’s goals. Instead, UCA adopted a “multipackage construction management” approach. They split the project into 50 different “work packages” and managed each as an individually contracted project — oftentimes with local contractors. One third of the project’s overall value has gone to Kyrgyzstani contractors, Robertson said.

“It is a risky thing. Theoretically speaking, you are taking the entire risk. But practically speaking you are taking the entire risk in any case, because if the general contractor walks away the risk falls on you,” said Rahim Somani, UCA’s chief financial officer.

The multipackage approach also gave UCA the flexibility to move parts of the construction at different speeds, since they didn’t have to deliver a fully approved project design to a general contractor before any work could get started. They could construct one work package, like the foundation, while still designing another, like the roof. Robertson estimates it saved 18 months.

UCA’s multipackage strategy has since earned an important vote of confidence. In Khorog, where Robertson is now implementing the same procurement model, the U.S. government’s Overseas Private Investment Corp. committed $30 million in financing to the construction of UCA’s Tajikistan campus. For an experimental university startup initiative with a nontypical procurement model, that validation is an important thing to have.

The Khorog campus is scheduled to open in the fall of 2017.

Town and gown

At the moment, the undergraduate campus in Naryn still feels a world away from Naryn’s modest cultural offerings. The town’s residents are universally curious about UCA, but their knowledge of what it looks like and what’s happening there is still imbued with a hint of mystery and awe. A shopkeeper named Elmira said she heard the campus was “like a five-star hotel,” with televisions in the classrooms. She’s never been inside.

A woman selling clothes at Naryn’s market. The region is one of the poorest in Kyrgyzstan. Michael Igoe/Devex

It’s hard to predict whether the town and the university will grow together.

Sitting on a stone bench outside UCA’s dormitory building, Robin Higgins, the university counselor, and Jonathan Chang, a student life adviser, are talking about what they do on their rare days off. Chang gets one free weekend every month. He spent his last weekend in Bishkek — a relative metropolis, with coffee that’s brewed from beans, not powder, and multiplex movie theaters.

But it’s tempting to imagine a version of Naryn with the trappings of a college town.

“I actually think that some entrepreneur should put a good coffee shop just off the campus here,” says Higgins, pointing across the street, where a cluster of concrete buildings cling to the hills. “Just a place to go that’s kind of different.”

You can almost see how it would happen. A student at the professional school in town puts together a 35-page business plan for her certificate program and gets a soft loan from the bank. A cafe springs up. Students and teachers shuttle back and forth for a coffee or an off-campus meeting.

But, for the moment, a lone cow grazes at the side of the road as a battered minivan rattles past the sign marking UCA’s entrance. Its passengers glance at the carefully laid paths and the mountains reflecting off of clean glass windows. Then the sight disappears from view as they continue West, tracing the river.

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About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider’s perspective.

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 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