Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer

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This week, four stories that at first glance appear quite different…

Kyrgyzstan photo (c) Telegraph

The UK’s Telegraph has featured a number of articles on Central Asia recently, and  the report I’d like to bring to your attention now is about the opening of a new British Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. This is, as the newspaper notes, ‘despite budget cutbacks’. Why now, you might ask, especially as Britain’s had embassies in the other Central Asian nations for longer – even in Tajikistan since 2003. The UK’s Foreign Office claims that this is for ‘strategic’ reasons, principally the fact that it hosts a US airbase (though new President Atambayev says he might close that down, which would appease Russia) but also because of the countries it borders.

China is also very interested in its borderlands, as this article from China Daily about Kazakhstan demonstrates.

Loading up the bus from China to Kazakhstan, (c) China Daily

Despite the long queues and visa troubles, it’s essentially an upbeat story about the importance of Chinese goods to the Kazakh market.  It’s fascinating to see the way China is positioned as the ‘elder brother’ in the relationship, and Kazakhstan as the poorer younger sibling – especially when the relative wealth of Kazakhstan is set against other Central Asian nations.

Eurasia.net also ran a story recently about the importance of a neighbouring country for economic benefit. However, this was the reverse of the bullish Chinese view, as in this case it’s all about how the Russian economy is propping up Tajikistan, which is now officially (according to the World Bank) the most remittance-dependent country in the world. As we saw during the recent diplomatic incident between Russia and Tajikistan, many Russians are starting to get fed up of this.

Finally, a story from Reuters about the role of nostalgia for the Soviet Union in keeping the Commonwealth of Independent States together. It brings together some of the content of the others stories I’ve mentioned and features some interesting Central Asian case studies.

So why bring these four seemingly disparate articles together? For me, there is a connection and it’s in the title of the post, which is a quote from Sun-tzu, the Chinese general and military strategist from the 5th century BCE.  All of these articles show that even in a world of borders, visas and nationalism, no country can exist without political, cultural and economic relationships with other nations. Or to paraphrase 16th century English poet John Donne, “no country is an island entire of itself; every country is a piece of the continent…”

The end of the affair… for now

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Well, it took two weeks but the Russian and Estonian pilots have today been released from jail after their sentences were reduced to 2,5 years, of which they’ve served six months and the remaining two years were pardoned.

Are you surprised?

No, I thought not. Me neither.

So how will both sides recover from what has been an almighty diplomatic disaster?

It’s important to note that this is far less important an issue for Russia than it is for Tajikistan. So for Russia, the follow up action is to drop its sanctions-based threats. There have been two of these: firstly, that fruit and vegetables from Tajikistan would be banned on health grounds. (My journalist friend Dima makes some very perceptive comments on the wider issue of food sanctions at the end of a previous post.) Secondly, the Russian health ministry can stop its scaremongering about the risk that Tajik migrants in Russia are carrying HIV or other viruses, this of course being a perfect excuse to send them home.

It will take more effort on the part of the Tajik government as it will have to attempt to regain some trust and goodwill from Russia. The government may not want to, but it will want to have the million-odd Tajik migrant workers sent back unemployed from Russia even less. Further, the Tajik government is still angling after Russian support for the construction of the Rogun dam and for a range of other projects.

Thus the economic imperative will win out and in a few months’ time we’ll be back to where we were before, a post-imperial dependency that shows no signs of becoming a more equal partnership.

In the meantime, I hope that the impact of this flare-up does not make life bad for the individuals that high level politicking seem to ignore, such as all the Tajiks in Russia who are trying to do their jobs and make some money to help their families at home. My thoughts right now are for the safety and well-being of these people. Let the governments fend for themselves.



Straws on a camel’s back

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The “aeroplane affair” between Russia and Tajikistan, as I suspected, shows no sign of landing (excuse the pun) anytime soon. Konstantin Parshin has – again – written an excellent article summarising what’s happened over the last few days, so if you’re not following this story elsewhere (and even if you are), do read what he has to say. He’s based in Tajikistan and clearly has his ear to the ground.

Whilst my previous post about this incident took a somewhat sardonic look at the latest episode of post-Soviet squabbling, I have since been reflecting much more seriously about the repercussions this event could have for the political scene in Tajikistan.

Think about the following sentences as a chain of events, each magnifying the impact of the one before it. The first few hundred migrants have now been sent home from Russia and there are threats that more will follow. I hear reports from Moscow-based Tajiks that they are too afraid to leave their apartments due to anti-immigrant/nationalistic feeling amongst Russians. If this continues for a while, then they will probably lose their jobs for not turning up. If they lose their jobs, they lose their source of income. They may get sent home by the Russian government in any case. So the income from migrant workers’ wages that the Tajik economy is so dependent on starts to drop. Large numbers of mainly young men, mainly from rural areas, may come back to Tajikistan, and there certainly aren’t jobs for them to go to: that’s why they left in the first place. Then consider the altered social circumstances that these men will find when they return to their villages and see how the women/old men/children have been adapting without them.

All this leaves you with a a shrinking economy and more significantly, potentially a large group of unemployed young people  with not much in the world going well for them.

And it’s not just this situation which could have longer lasting impact, as stories are circulating about a host of other issues that are making people in Tajikistan angry and frustrated:

  • an incident on the north-west border with Uzbekistan, where shots were fired over an alleged illegal border crossing with a possible fatality on the Uzbek side
  • allegations that a pensioner in the south of Tajikistan slapped the President in anger at the government initiative asking Tajiks to buy shares in the Rogun dam project when many people don’t even earn enough through salary or pension to provide basic food and shelter for themselves and their families
  • ongoing frustrations in the Gorno Badakhshan Semi-Autonomous Region in the east of the country towards the national government, where the appetite for full independence appears to be on the rise again

Now set these events and feelings against what’s happening in two other Central Asian states. Whilst the recent presidential election in Kyrgyzstan wasn’t perfect, it was at least peaceful and led to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe saying they feel “cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy in Kyrgyzstan”. And in Kazakhstan, the President – not known for his overtly democratic tendencies – has today called a snap election for January 2012 in order to try and increase the number of parties in parliament (currently just one party is represented).

And then finally consider the impact that a lot of very angry and frustrated people in other parts of the world have had over the last year, notably North Africa. No one is yet talking about whether there will be a “Libya effect” in Tajikistan, but with increasing internet literacy and access, it can be expected that many Tajiks – particularly those in urban areas – may be very knowledgeable about the events of the Arab Spring.

Add all of these parts together and you see that there are already many straws loaded on the camel’s back. The question is, just how many more straws can it take before the load will become too heavy?

Russian pilots and Tajik workers, or How to lose friends and alienate people

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For the last few weeks, I haven’t had any interesting stories to report under my favourite ‘bureaucratic madness’ category. Central Asia seems to have been a pretty sensible place of late.

However, I’m pleased to report that the Tajik government is back on form with a new episode of red tape craziness. As I’ve suggested in the title, this episode could be subtitled “How to lose friends and alienate people”, paraphrasing a hugely popular book called “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie, first published back in 1936.

Back in March 2011, two ethnic Russian pilots (by nationality, one is Russian and the other Estonian, although no news stories seem to know or care what the Estonian government thinks) were arrested for supposedly crossing the Tajik border illegally and smuggling aircraft parts into Tajikistan, and possibly on some other charges too. A few days ago, a Tajik court jailed them for 8 1/2 years.

Both pilots, whose day job is to fly humanitarian missions to Afghanistan, claim that they had been given verbal permission to make an emergency landing as their fuel supplies were running short. Under international norms, this request should be granted.

Moscow’s reaction has been quick and uncompromising, as reported for example by Russia Today in its story “Moscow outrage at Tajik sentence for Russian pilots“.  In essence: release the pilots or else we will throw out several hundred Tajik migrant workers.

Around a million Tajiks – mostly men – work in Russia and the remittances they send back home basically ensure that the cogs maintaining the country’s economy don’t totally grind to a halt. So the Russian government knows exactly how to hit Tajikistan where it hurts the most.

A Russian woman holds a poster aimed at Tajiks. It says “If you don’t want to be friends, then we won’t let you pump money out of Russia.” Awww, how sweet…
Image (c)  Novaya Gazeta 

An indication that this story is not yet over comes from an article on Pravda.ru published just a few hours before I started this blog post. “Tajikistan has promised to solve the problem of the Russian pilot” (in Russian) claims that the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has personally undertaken to sort this issue out. Tellingly, a quote from a high-ranking Tajik diplomat notes the importance of observing “союзнические отношения” (hard to translate, but akin to union-like relations, “union” here as in Soviet Union not trade union) with Russia.

This point suggests to me that the Tajik government has realised that “messing with Russia usually backfires”. This quote comes from a great article called “Dushanbe’s plane caper not flying with the Kremlin” by Konstantin Parshin for Eurasia.net, where the site’s usual dry humour comes out best with stories like this.

On a more serious note, Novaya Gazeta’s “We are all Tajiks now” (in Russian) reflects more broadly on the situation, examining it through a political/racial perspective. It’s a genuinely interesting article, though the comments at the end are disappointing.

So what have we learned from this episode, which is still rumbling on?

Well, the Soviet Union might be 20 years dead, but Russia still holds significant influence over (some of) its former Union-cousins, particularly those that are poor and not rich in natural resources.

Tajikistan has made some tentative move towards partnerships with other powers – in particular China, Iran, and the USA – but the “special relationship” with Russia still seems to hold sway. I suspect that whilst 1/7 of the population resides in Russia, the Motherland will continue to remain Tajikistan’s most strategic partner, although it’s certainly not an equal partnership.

And finally, someone really should translate “How to win friends and influence people” into Tajik…

Why study abroad?

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I’ve just had a conference paper proposal accepted and so have been thinking in some detail about study abroad, the subject of my paper. The conference is called ‘Micro-level analysis of well-being in Central Asia’ and will be held at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin next May.

My paper will be looking at the impact of studying abroad on the well-being of Tajik nationals. ‘Well-being’ can be defined both as an ambition to make one’s life better, as well as the steps a person takes to help them achieve their ambition.

My interest in study abroad tendencies has two roots:

  1. In particular, from observing study abroad motivations and trends, as well as the impact studying abroad has on colleagues and friends from Central Asia;
  2. More generally, from working with international students at universities in London and Oxford.

So when I found out about the conference it seemed like a great opportunity to explore study abroad in more detail. I will shortly start doing interviews to examine the lifecycle of the educational experience:

  • Motivations for study abroad
  • Prior to departure, perceptions of the impact of study abroad on well-being
  • Experiences gained whilst studying abroad (e.g. process of studying, living in and adapting to a new country)
  • Post-study abroad decisions: do students return to Tajikistan? Why/why not? What qualities/experience/skills/values do they take from their experience of studying abroad and how does this impact on and change their level of well-being?
  • The impact and perceptions of the educational experience of individuals for their families and communities

If you are from Tajikistan and you are studying abroad now, or have studied abroad, and would like to be interviewed for this study, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave me a comment here, or contact me via Facebook or LinkedIn.

I’ll be posting occasional updates on my study as it progresses. If you’d like to discuss any aspect of it in more detail, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 1

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This is the first part of what I plan to be a monthly update on developments in higher education in Central Asia.

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, there is very little research into higher education in Central Asia, and what exists is often commissioned by external donors such as international organisations. These reports can be very helpful but because they have been written to meet the donors’ needs, they tend to be subjective.

So to kick off the first part of this series, November’s country of the month is… Tajikistan.

By way of background, here is a very brief introduction that I wrote recently as part of a contextual report on higher education in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:

Tajikistan is the least developed of the three countries and around 2/3 of the population live in poverty. There are serious challenges to reducing poverty and stimulating sustainable economic growth, from the reliance on income from migrant workers abroad to extremely low investor confidence (Asian Development Bank, 2011). The country’s own Ministry of Education is keenly aware of the effects this has on education policy and development, and currently focuses its efforts on improving basic education. In its 2006-2015 Education Plan, the Ministry identifies three major issues hindering the management and planning of education at all levels: the absence of a rational and streamlined process of decision making; low capacity in the area of policy development and system management; and the lack of a system to assess learning results and the effectiveness of educational establishments.

Adapted from Sabzalieva, 2011

Tajik students, (c) Avesta.tj
Tajik students, (c) Avesta.tj

Focussing in on higher education, state policy highlights natural sciences, engineering and technology as priority subject areas for development, and the Law on Higher and Postgraduate Education points to the need for state support in training specialists in fundamental and applied research.

One of the best reports I’ve read about in this area was from the Ministry of Education itself. Co-written in 2005 with the Tajik branch of the Open Society Institute and the Education Reform Support Unit “Pulse”, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly open look at the state of Tajikistan and the challenges of its now post-Soviet higher education system. You can find an English version on the UK International Unit’s website, and although it notes that it is a draft, I’ve not found a more final version.

The report lists no less than twelve groups of problems facing the country’s need to train professionals (see pp8-9 for a summary), This is a sobering register, starting with the challenges of dealing with ‘severely decreased’ state funding – an issue facing quite a few countries these days, the UK included – down to the twelfth point, corruption in the system.

In fact, the Tajik National Anti-Corruption Agency suggested in 2010 that the Education Ministry is the most corrupt government body of all. That’s quite an achievement in a country where corruption has permeated all levels of society and daily life.

Low levels of state funding that are diminishing further mean that most of the innovations in the higher education system are stimulated in some way or another through third parties. These third parties tend to be international organisations with a remit covering education, and the stimulation is usually financial. I have seen two recent examples of this.

Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, Dushanbe
Russian-Tajik Slavonic University, rated the best university in Tajikistan

Firstly, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently announced a new teaching course on Human Development. UNDP will provide support for the introduction of the course in the Civil Servants Training Institute and five of the country’s top universities. The objective of the course is a worthy one: to work out ways to utilise the fact that ‘the real wealth of the nation is the people’. These are also smart words, particularly for a country without the same level of financial wealth from natural resources that can fund higher education developments in places like Russia and Kazakhstan.

UNDP has also made a good move by identifying that universities are the right place to generate better understanding of human potential. But whilst this all sounds good in theory, it will be interesting to see what graduates of the course are actually able to achieve: how much will they become equipped to change the realities of life in Tajikistan, rather than just understand them better?

Moving on to the second example, the Tajik news website Avesta has reported on a World Bank  and Russian government initiative to introduce a unified university entrance exam in eight countries, including Tajikistan.

The programme is underlined by principles of fair access, transparency and objectiveness across a new national assessment system. It is intended that this move will help influence the modernisation of the school curriculum and increase the quality of education in the country.

Again, this is another very worthy development that is similar to programmes in other post-Soviet countries such as Kyrgyzstan (which has gone even further and submitted itself for assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development-run Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], demonstrating a commitment by the government to assessing educational levels and development at international standards).

I look forward to hearing more about how this programme turns out in Tajikistan. But, if a unified entrance exam is introduced, will it able to overcome the enormous problem of cash-for-entry into Tajik universities? My view is that unless this reform is coupled with improved conditions for academic staff at universities (mainly through better wages that actually reflect their qualifications and importance to society), a new entrance exam will simply be seen as one more trip to the cash machine.

In early December I’ll publish the second part of this series, which will be looking at Kyrgyzstan.

A meeting with Hillary Clinton

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Clinton in Dushanbe
Hillary Clinton at the town hall meeting in Dushanbe

When I entered the Social Hall at the Ismaili Centre Dushanbe [the location for Clinton’s talk], it was full. There was no place to sit, even though I thought that I came early. There were school pupils, students, media, representatives from different NGOs and others.

We waited for about an hour and finally she came and everyone clapped. She said she was very glad to be here and have an opportunity to talk to young people.

She also said that she was surprised to see men and women gathering together – perhaps she thought that it would be like Afghanistan as she had visited it a few days before.

After she spoke for a while, she then asked us to ask questions. Mostly the questions were about the future collaboration of US and Tajikistan, about studies and work in US, even about the Roghun hydropower station. Someone asked whether, as she would be visiting Uzbekistan, she could discuss energy issues with the Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan has been trying to block the construction of Roghun as it would reduce the amount of energy Tajikistan needs to buy from Uzbekistan. Clinton answered that she wasn’t in a position to discuss it with President Karimov, suggesting that it was the responsibility of the main funders of the project.

There were other questions about religion and about women’s role in society and politics. She supports women always to be involved in government, in politics, and she thinks that women should always be given a chance too. She gave some examples of women who are prime ministers in different countries, mostly in Muslim societies.

In general, it was very interesting and yet curious to see Hillary Clinton.

You can find more information about Clinton’s visit here.

By Ramila Mukairshoeva

Ramila is Resource Centre Manager for the University of Central Asia-Aga Khan Humanities Project, and is based in Tajikistan. She was recently awarded a US government scholarship and will be heading to Indiana University Bloomington in 2012.