Inter-regional soft power: Kazakhstan and Tajikistan meet again

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First, greetings from Canada and a note on the silence on the blog for the past few weeks. After a whirlwind summer taking in three continents and cramming in temporary farewells to family and friends, I have now moved to Toronto, Canada and have started my PhD in Higher Education and Comparative, International & Development Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. Those of you who have seen where I’ve worked before at universities in London and Oxford will be unsurprised to find me in yet another brutalist 1960s building!

The good news is that what happens inside OISE more than makes up for yet another dose of concrete and odd internal building layouts. After the first week of classes (PhD students in North America take taught courses for at least a year before moving on to start writing their theses), my brain is buzzing from the ideas I’m learning and the people I’m meeting. I have been keen to beef up my knowledge of educational theories and undertake methodological training and this is just the place for it. Many of the writers and thinkers we are examining are in my vocabulary already, but many aren’t, and I look forward immensely to making new connections and using this time to frame my research topic more explicitly.

So that’s where I’m at right now: not just a new direction in terms of making a full shift towards academic research, but a new country too. A lot to take in, but a great challenge to take on.

My blog post today concerns inter-regional relations, specifically, the relationship between Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan, was recently in Tajikistan on a state visit, presenting an opportunity for the two countries to develop projects and areas for cooperation. In their current identities as independent post-Soviet nations, the two countries first signed an agreement creating relations between them in 1993 [ru]. This sets out the basic principles of a neighbourly relationship, promising for example not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs and to develop economic cooperation.

In 2000, the countries signed an agreement specifically on educational cooperation [ru]. This includes undertakings to:

  • share information, for example on educational structures and reform
  • agree quotas for student and academic exchanges
  • create institutional partnerships

In their meetings this month, the two presidents – both of whom have been in power long enough to remember having signed the original 1990 agreement – updated the agreement on education as well as another memorandum concerning youth, sport and tourism. Nazarbayev invited Tajik youth to study in Kazakhstan, noting the opportunities at his eponymous Astana-based university. He also pointed out that there are a number of Tajiks studying at military institutions in Kazakhstan. [Source: Khovar.tj – ru].

What to make of these overtures by the Kazakh president? In his speech he also remarked that Kazakhs have been living in Tajikistan and Tajiks in Kazakhstan for centuries, and that it is important that they are able to live well and to remember their culture and language. Because of this, it remains important to develop relations between the two countries. Perhaps it the rather odd wording of the statement, but it is hard to see on the surface whether there is a deeper message that has been left unsaid. There has been no major conflict between the two countries – unlike between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over water/electricity and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over borders in the Ferghana valley – but might it be possible that there is an air of irritation from the Kazakh side in taking on the lion’s share of what was intended to be an equal partnership?

The agreement on education suggests that educational exchange should be equal i.e. with similar numbers of students and teachers traversing both directions, but the reality is that the flow is almost completely one-sided towards Kazakhstan. Educational reform in Tajikistan has been slow and driven more by international organisations than by state capacity; as such, it could be argued that there is more information to share from the Kazakh side.

Does Nazarbayev genuinely want Tajik students studying at the university he intends to be world class, and therefore is this speech a skilful deployment of the soft diplomacy that Kazakhstan’s neighbour China has become so good at in recent years?

Discussions over cooperation in education make up just one part of the two countries’ diplomatic and neighbourly relations, but could just be offering us a glimpse into a more inequitable relationship than was intended in the heady days of the first memorandum in the 1990s.

Postscript added 18 September: I have just read this report on Kazakhstan’s foreign policy [en], published on the website World Bulletin. This is useful for adding context to the points I have made above, although I have some reservations as there is no author or source either on the website or document. I suspect it is a government produced document.

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