A rare story from Turkmenistan [ru] popped up in my inbox recently. Authored by the Russian language website turkmenistan.ru, it describes how a group of university leaders from the country recently visited Romania to discuss expanding their institutional partnerships.
The short article lists a number of agreements being signed between universities in the two countries. From the Turkmen side, the institutions included in these memoranda are the Turkmenistan State Medical University, the Turkmen State Institute of Economics and Management, the Turkmen Agricultural University and the Turkmen State Institute of Architecture and Construction.
The signing of bilateral partnerships between universities in different countries is commonplace in global higher education, so the fact of the agreements isn’t in itself noteworthy.
However, with so little coverage available about higher education in Turkmenistan to those outside the country (and possibly also to those inside the country), this short story nevertheless offers insights into two areas of interest for Central Asia/higher education followers:
- International cooperation – Turkmenistan has chosen to remain notoriously isolated since obtaining independence, although its extensive oil and gas reserves attract significant activity by international firms. Despite occasional incursions onto the global stage, such as hosting the 2017 Asian Games at terrific expense, for the most part, Turkmenistan chooses to organize its own affairs. Higher education largely continues to follow the model inherited from the Soviet period, although efforts are underway to ‘globalize’ some universities in the country*. It is in this light that we should view the recent overseas trip made by a handful of university leaders: a small but perceptible shift towards allowing outside influences into the domestic higher education system. This framing then opens up other questions around what is motivating this growth in international cooperation, and what the intended purposes of institutional agreements are (the article does not give details on the agreements that were signed last month).
- Choice of partner – it’s impossible to draw conclusions from the limited information in the article, but I would speculate that the choice to partner with universities in Romania was deliberate. Romania and Turkmenistan share aspects of the socialist/communist higher education legacy but unlike Turkmenistan, Romania is a member of the European Union and has sought to rapidly internationalize higher education since joining the EU in 2007 (for more, download this free book on higher education reforms in Romania). For Turkmenistan’s universities, this offers not only a mutually understandable starting point, but a foothold into the European higher education area. There are a range of EU projects connecting Turkmenistan to Europe, and education is one of the EU’s priority areas. So it makes sense to seek out a ‘friendly’ partner who might also help Turkmenistan as and when it makes deeper incursions into the European higher education space.
*If you cannot access this article but would like to read it, please contact me. Where possible, I link to open access materials.
New publication: Review of ’25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity’
I have a new book review out.
Sometimes, a book comes along just at the right time. The recent publication of 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and Continuity was that book in 2018 for me.
The book is the main end product of an exhaustive and huge-scale project led by the Higher School of Economics in Russia over the course of several years, and as I say in my review, the book is truly an impressive achievement.
Each of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union gets a chapter dedicated to developments in higher education since 1991. Alongside these empirical chapters, there are two conceptual chapters laying out the overall framework of the book and setting the post-1991 shifts into the historical context of the Soviet Union. This was indeed a formative period for higher education, even in the republics that had much older histories of higher education and a number of pre-existing universities.
Of course it’s a tough ask to summarize the main points of a >400 page book in 1,500 words but my review is an attempt to do just that. I’m pleased to say that the publisher has made a number of copies of the review available free of charge; to download my review, click here.
And then, I hope, the review will whet your appetite to delve into the whole book, which can be downloaded totally free from the publisher’s website (or bought in hard copy for 30 Euros).
If you should find yourself in Pittsburgh, PA, today – October 27, 2018 – please join us at the Central Eurasian Studies Society’s 2018 Annual Conference for our roundable on Global Bolognaization: Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area.
Followers of my blog may remember the call for proposals that co-convenor Aliya Akatayeva and I put out at the end of last year when we first started planning the roundtable. We had an excellent response and our original line-up of panellists included colleagues from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (and me!) all ready to share experiences and analyses of the impact of the European Union inspired Bologna Process reforms on higher education in Central Asia.
At our roundtable today, we will be taking three directions of travel to reflect the research and experiences of the three panellists who will be present:
Professor Gulnara Mendikulova, a distinguished scholar of Kazakh and world history, will set the general scene for the roundtable, considering questions such as: what is the history of the Bologna Process across Central Asia? What were the drivers for Kazakhstan to adopt the Bologna Process? What have been the challenges and opportunities presented by the reforms?
Aliya Akatayeva, Head of the Social Studies Department at Satbayev University (Kazakhstan), will focus on the knotty issue of academic freedom. Whilst academic freedom – including autonomy for universities – is a core value of the European Union higher education ‘package’, there are a number of tensions and challenges in embedding this broad principle in Kazakhstan. As one of the universities in the country that has been given some degree of autonomy under a 2017 law, she will offer a case study of the journey of Satbayev University towards academic freedom.
I will discuss Tajikistan, not (yet) a signatory to the Bologna Process but aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Kazakhstan and become one. By highlighting findings from in-depth interviews in two cities in the country, I will draw out the experiences of some of the faculty members who are on the front line in living with the new higher education reforms. Whilst many are positive about the potential of related changes to the curriculum on the quality of the learning experience, others expressed resistance and resentment towards a series of changes they felt they were not consulted on or given time to adapt to.
We’d love to see you at the roundtable – 11am today in Posvar 4217!
Not much is written about higher education in Turkmenistan. Its education system, like much else in the country, is generally closed off to the outside world. The only news that tends to get out is when some high cost project is launched (see e.g. British tabloid The Express on the opening of a new airport in the capital Ashgabat or the Majlis podcast on the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games).
Sadly, the rare story that has surfaced from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service about higher education in Turkmenistan is not a positive one. There’s no new glitzy university building or major scholarship programme in the works. On the contrary, the story tells of how many Turkmen students pursuing studies abroad are being cut off from finances in their home banks and the negative consequences this is having not only on their studies but their physical and mental health.
This seems to me to epitomize the clash between contemporary globalization and the persistence (persisting importance) of nation states. So, for example, the international finance system is unable to control the machinations of national banks employing global services (in this case, VISA cards). And whilst students have many more opportunities to study outside their home country than in the past, they are still curtailed by the legislative framework of the host countries (in this case, the rules of their host universities about debts and the visa regime that doesn’t allow them to work).
I’ve reposted the story below, which is (c) RFE/RL’s Turkmen service and available on their website at https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-debit-cards-financial-cutoff-students-hunger-eviction/29252238.html.
Hunger And Eviction: Money Woes Send Turkmen Students Abroad Scrambling
A Russian ATM machine’s repeated rejection of his efforts to withdraw cash from his Turkmen bank led one student to cut up his bank card and try to cook it for a meal.
Video of the culinary first (he did add salt) that was sent to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service was a humorous attempt to express the utter frustration felt by many of the thousands of Turkmen students studying around the world who are unable to get money from their bank accounts back home.
But the problem is no laughing matter. It’s left many students unable to pay rent or tuition, and some of those who spoke to RFE/RL this month said they were often even going hungry because they had no money.
“In December I was still pretty well fed, but then the [bank] cards stopped working and, as a result, I’ve lost 15 kilograms,” said Merdan, a Turkmen studying in Ukraine who asked that we not publish his surname.
“Very often we do not have money — I have to borrow from friends and acquaintances,” he added. “We all understand each other’s situations. Sometimes I ask for a slice of bread — but they also need to eat. And besides, a hungry person will not be satisfied with a couple of slices of bread.”
WATCH: Student ‘Cooks’ His Bank Card (in Turkmen, no subtitles)
Turkmen debit-cardholders living abroad were previously limited to taking out the equivalent of $15 per day, but that amount became insignificant once virtually any attempt to extract money — whether at ATMs in Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia, among others — ended in failure.
“When I went abroad, I could not use my bank card, even though I had about 4,000 manats in my account,” said a student named Gulrukh, citing the equivalent of around $1,143 at the official exchange rate. “When I went to Vnesheconombank, they told me that my card was blocked.”
Many students in a number of countries told RFE/RL that occasionally their card would inexplicably work and they could retrieve $15 but those were unreliable exceptions.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has received dozens of messages and phone calls each day in recent months from Turkmen abroad complaining about the debit-card problem.
No Official Announcements
The cards, issued by various state-owned Turkmen banks, are most often embossed with the VISA logo, the complainants said, but others that have failed are MasterCard.
VISA told RFE/RL in a March statement that it had not cut off any services to owners of its cards in Turkmenistan.
“In the Republic of Turkmenistan, VISA continues to process and provide services to all partner banks as usual, we have not suspended the provision of services to banks in Turkmenistan and are working closely with banks with partners, trade and service companies and other market participants to ensure the stable operation of the payment system as a whole,” Galym Tabyldiev, VISA’s general manager for Central Asia, wrote.
VISA said anyone experiencing difficulty using the cards should “contact the issuing bank.”
Banks in Turkmenistan have made no official announcements on the reason for the failure of the debit cards to work reliably, although some bank representatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that VISA cards used abroad were being “completely suspended.” The officials — from Bank Senagat and the Vnesheconombank — added that they did not know how long any purported suspension might last.
The dire situation has forced some parents with children studying abroad to rely on MoneyGram and Western Union to wire money to their loved ones.
But such transfers from Turkmenistan were limited to $300 and unusual conditions were placed on senders that included visiting certain central-bank offices to get a “service coupon.”
The migration to money-wiring services led to chaotic scenes at some of the few MoneyGram and Western Union outlets in Turkmenistan, with crushes as lines sometimes ballooned into the hundreds, as in the Lebap region in February.
It’s not clear why the banks might be blocking such withdrawal requests from abroad.
Some analysts speculate that it might be connected to the gap between the official exchange rate (3.5 manats to the dollar) and the black-market rate (22 manats to the dollar). They say paying out money at the official rate could expose banks to significant losses.
Others point to Turkmenistan’s dire economic situation, which has caused shortages of many staple and consumer goods, including bread and sugar.
Those woes appear to extend to the government’s coffers as well, as the state has reportedly fallen behind on some workers’ salaries and pensions.
There have also been government efforts to encourage the return of Turkmen migrant workers and students abroad by pressuring parents and other relatives. In such circumstances, cutting access to money for Turkmen abroad could make the decision to return home much easier.
Regardless of the reason for the cash cutoffs, they continue to cause big problems for Turkmen abroad.
“I would like to make a big request of officials in Turkmenistan,” wrote one student to RFE/RL. “Unlock our cards. We are in a foreign country, we do not have our own housing, we live in a hostel, we cannot even pay for it. We soon will be evicted. We cannot leave for Turkmenistan because we will not be released if we do not pay debts for the hostel.”
Expulsions, Manual Labor
There have already been cases of Turkmen students being expelled from their university over unpaid tuition.
“We paid for our studies on February 20 by transferring money from banks in Turkmenistan, but the Turkmen banks have not yet transferred money to the university account in Belarus, and the university demanded that the money be transferred by April 1,” one university student told RFE/RL in April.
He claimed that 42 students from Turkmenistan who had similar problems with their home banks had already been expelled for nonpayment of their tuition.
Other students have taken to doing manual labor to pay the bills, potentially risking legal problems.
An RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent in Russia’s Astrakhan region reportedon May 15 that hundreds of Turkmen students were working on farms in their spare time harvesting fruits and vegetables.
He reported that some were working eight hours a day for 600 rubles (about $10) planting crops on the weekends.
“Students are forced to agree [to the low wage] because they have no choice,” he said.
The activity is technically illegal because in Russia workers need to have a work permit, which costs 3,200 rubles per month (about $50), and most students do not have one.
“Because of the crisis in Turkmenistan, we are trying not to disturb our parents and relatives, we try to take care of ourselves somehow, pay at least part of our expenses,” said one student in Astrakhan. “We do not know when the situation in [Turkmenistan] will stabilize, because we still cannot withdraw money from our VISA cards because of the blockage.”
He added: “Many of us are in despair.”
And the debit-card problem has hit more than just Turkmen students.
A Turkmen official who requested anonymity told RFE/RL that, while part of a high-level government delegation in Europe earlier this year for a meeting with a prominent international organization, he was unable to withdraw the money he needed from an ATM machine to pay his hotel bill.
Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service
Call for papers – “Global Bolognaization”: Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
Are you a Central Asia based academic or practitioner with direct experience of the Bologna Process/European Higher Education Area? If so, we want to hear from you!
I am co-Chair of a proposal for a roundtable at the European Consortium of Political Researchers (ECPR) General Conference, which will be held in August 2018 in Hamburg, Germany.
The roundtable is called:
Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
The call for papers is below and attached: CfP Global Bolognaization – ECPR 2018_forcirculation. Please share widely with your networks.
Paper proposals are due by January 10, 2018.
Call for proposals
Within the ECPR Section Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, we invite proposals for a roundtable on:
Central Asian Encounters with the European Higher Education Area
The Bologna Process has now spread far beyond the borders of the European Union, a process we call Global Bolognaization. This makes it critical to understand how European higher education ideas and reforms are being transferred to other settings and what impact this is having in these expanded spaces.
This roundtable focuses on the ways in which the Bologna Process is impacting the region of Central Asia and its constituent countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All five states have been engaging with the Bologna Process for some time: Kazakhstan has been a full member of the the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) since 2010; European-inspired reforms in the other Central Asian states are either ongoing or currently in the process of being implemented. Yet Central Asia is currently on the periphery of the EHEA, not just geographically but in terms of academic/practitioner research.
As such, the purpose of this roundtable is to bring the Central Asian experience of Global Bolognaization to the fore. As far as possible, presentations at this roundtable will be by academics and practitioners with first-hand experience of the EHEA as it is being encountered in Central Asia. We welcome research based case studies of how the Bologna Process has impacted individual or groups of higher education institutions, faculty members, students, and the public; comparative studies between and beyond institutions and/or Central Asian states; and reflective studies on the prospects of the Bologna Process in Central Asia.
All proposals for this roundtable must have an analytical component, even if they are empirical studies. Where appropriate, participants should draw on a theoretical or conceptual framework that is a suitable match for the Special Interest Group’s theme of the Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation.
We will select up to five papers for inclusion in this roundtable.
At the conference, each presenter will give a brief presentation (5-7 minutes) and must submit a short paper before the conference (2,000-3,000 words, in English). After the presentations, there will be a moderated discussion between the presenters and the audience lasting around one hour.
The roundtable will be conducted in English.
How to apply
Title of your paper:
Abstract (300-500 words):
Keywords (3-8) indicating the subject, theme and scope of the paper:
Presenter’s email address:
If you have a co-author(s), please also include their name(s), email address(es) and institution(s).
Late or incomplete applications will not be accepted.
Dr Aliya Akatayeva, Head, Social Studies Department, Satbayev Research University, Kazakhstan; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Section abstract for the Special Interest Group Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation
Knowledge policies are at the forefront of contemporary global politics and are seen as the foundation on which societies coalesce and economies thrive. This Section builds on the previous six Sections on the Europe of Knowledge and invites contributions to consider the various dimensions of knowledge policy development.
Specifically, we are interested in theoretical, empirical, and comparative contributions that investigate the role of politics and policy in the global, multi-level, multi-issue, and multi-actor governance of knowledge. By role, we refer to effects that ideas, actors (both individual and organisational), policy instruments/mixes, and institutions have had on the governance of knowledge, and vice-versa. We focus on roles to enable a multidisciplinary discussion on whether these factors share defining characteristics across different knowledge policy domains (i.e. research, higher education, and innovation), and between distinct governance levels and geographical regions.
This Section continues to welcome scholars, globally, from all theoretical and methodological approaches to critically discuss the reconfiguration of knowledge systems around the world.
It was perhaps only a matter of time before the rapid internationalization* of higher education in Central Asia made its ways outside the region’s borders, moving away from the current focus on internationalization within the region.
There are examples of internationalization reaching Central Asia littered all over the place. Here are just a few to illustrate the multitudinous growth: the first US branch campus to set up in Uzbekistan, the recently founded English-medium instruction International University of Humanities and Development in Turkmenistan, the recruitment of foreign faculty to work in Kazakhstani universities (a review of a new article on this is coming soon to the blog), and the introduction of Master’s degrees in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as a new level of degree that would in the old system have slotted between the old five year “spetsialist” degree and PhD-equivalent Candidate of Science.
Like other states and regions, the countries of Central Asia are now thoroughly exposed to the range of ideas, influences and processes flowing through higher education systems around the world.
What differentiates one state or region from another is how it decides to deal with those flows, and how much power, legitimacy and money it has available in making those decisions.
Kazakhstan has long stood out from its Central Asian neighbours in terms of the attention given to higher education. As I have argued elsewhere, the state takes higher education seriously and the extensive activity in this sector demonstrates the importance of higher education to the country.
In that context, it is unsurprising that a Kazakh university has become the first in Central Asia to establish a branch campus [ru]** outside the region.
The South Kazakhstan Pedagogical University has opened an office in Brussels, Belgium, with the aim of opening a full branch campus in the future. The university also hopes to build international partnerships, support “integration into the international education space” and “promote the image of education and science of a Kazakhstani higher education institution abroad”.
These are lofty ambitions. It is interesting to see the reputational/brand-building element, as this suggests that the initiative is not just to be beneficial to the institution but to the Kazakh higher education system more generally. This stands out from other similar initiatives where the common motivation tend to centre on the benefits for the institution opening the branch campus – financial gain, opportunity to support exchange of their academics and students, etc.
South Kazakhstan Pedagogical University also has ambitions to open offices at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and the University of Aveiro, Portugal.
We should applaud the initiative of this Kazakhstani institution to bring Kazakh higher education to Europe and its efforts to broaden academic mobility beyond the longstanding “North to South” flow of students to what they perceive as “better” academic systems.
I just hope that in this rush to “internationalize”, higher education systems and institutions retain distinctiveness. By copying models and ideas seen elsewhere, we can’t help but become more similar to one another. That might be seen as beneficial if it uniformly raises the quality of higher education, the options available to students regardless of their geographic location, and the ability to share and produce knowledge.
But if we forget our histories and we no longer care about having a diversity of different types of institutions in different parts of the world, then I worry that higher education will lose the ability to inspire, engender and build on creativity. Without creativity, there will be no discovery, and without discovery our world would become a very small and limiting place.
*By internationalization – a now over-used term that runs the risk of becoming a catch-all term like globalization – I mean exposing higher education institutions, curricula, faculty, students and structural arrangements to ideas from other systems. For Central Asia this mainly means harmonization with European higher education standards propagated through the Bologna Process, although the American higher education system also provides a strong model.
This exposure to outside ideas is taken on board locally in three different ways (I am grateful for “finding” new institutional theory, which gives me the ability to identify and summarize this). Firstly, ideas can be voluntarily adopted by individuals/institutions/their states. Secondly, they can be taken on because there is a feeling of “catch up” (our system is less good than X’s system, we’d better adopt Y change in order to avoid the risk of falling behind) or stemming from a desire to join an imagined international higher education community. Thirdly, there may a coercive element to the adoption, usually as a condition of receiving funding from an outside body for reform – such as the World Bank/Russian government funded project in Tajikistan to implement changes to the system of admissions to higher education.
**Branch campus – see Wikipedia for a decent explanation
Did you know that as far back as the 1970s – an era when most of Europe and North America was only just waking up to the idea of mass higher education – that more women than men were enrolled in universities in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan? And did you also know that these impressively high levels of female participation have been maintained in the post-Soviet period?
These were two of the findings from my recent study comparing how Central Asian women have fared in higher education since 1960. I decided to undertake the study after another paper I wrote last year showed that whilst female students in Tajikistan are more likely to be the subject of higher education reform efforts, they are least likely of all the possible stakeholder groups (faculty, students, government, international organizations) to have a say in the direction of that reform.
As a result, I decided to explore this in further detail through the lens of female participation in higher education between the Soviet era and the current period. I should be clear that I don’t view participation as a proxy for quality of education, persistence (do the students complete the education?) or post-study destination, all of which might tell us more about female empowerment than participation, which is more connected to gender parity. However, at least my study puts Central Asian women at the forefront, which is more than I can say for other studies!
The other point about my study that stands out is the use of two different datasets – the first from the USSR State Statistics Committee covering the period 1960-1989 and the second from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics for data from 2000 to date (I couldn’t find any data for the 1990s, which does of course limit the study as it was a period of immense upheaval and you can’t see this reflected in the data). I believe that this is the first time these two datasets have been cross-hatched to analyse gender and higher education in Central Asia.
As you can see from the graph below, there is a very distinct difference between female enrollment rates in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and the other three Central Asian republics.
The experience of Uzbekistan was of greater gains towards female equality than Tajikistan, starting from higher participation rates in the 1960s that were more or less sustained throughout the Soviet period. Only Turkmenistan appears to bear a semblance to trends in Tajikistan during the Soviet period, although here too the starting point for female participation in 1960 was higher by 7% than in Tajikistan.
The worrying drop in female participation in the early 2000s in Tajikistan appears to have been remedied in recent years: if the current growth trend continues to be consistent at around 2% per year, then it is feasible to hypothesize that parity in enrollment by gender in Tajikistan could be achieved within the next six years.
2015 data for Uzbekistan is not available but between 2005 and 2010 the picture was similar to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with a 1% drop in female participation but from a much lower starting point. It is hard to offer any detailed interpretation for Turkmenistan where data is only available for one of the time points; however, there was a 5% decrease in enrollment between 1989 and 2015.
So: that’s an overview of my data, my rationale, and some of the findings. What do you think? What important stories does the data tell us that I’ve missed? Why is female participation in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan so much higher? Could the prospects for Tajikistan be as tentatively optimistic as I’ve suggested (and wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something positive to say about Tajikistan for once)?
Happy new year! This is my fifth year of blogging on Central Asia, focussing on issues relating to higher education and social change. I open the year with an interesting analytical think piece from global intelligence agency Stratfor that attempts to surmise what the future might hold for the region. It’s available on their website at https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/central-asia-different-kind-threat and copied below, (c) Stratfor 2016.
*UPDATE* 7 January 2016: Hot on the heels of Stratfor’s piece, I read another similar ‘future gazing’ article from Middle Eastern site Al-Monitor. This one is authored by Turkish journalist Zülfikar Doğan. It is written in the same realist vein as the Stratfor article, i.e. using states as the main actors of analysis. Though focussing more on Turkey’s role, I’d argue that the piece comes to somewhat similar conclusions. This article is copied below underneath the Stratfor article, is (c) Al-Monitor/Zülfikar Doğan and is also available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/turkey-losing-its-standing-in-central-asia-after-middle-east.html.
The Stratfor article generated some interesting discussions (see the Comments section at the end of the piece) and I’d love to know your thoughts on the Al-Monitor story too.
Central Asia: A Different Kind of Threat
Editor’s Note: This is the last installment of a five-part series that explores the past, present and future of the confrontation between Russia and the West on the Eurasian landmass. Part one explored the origins of the conflict, part two examined Ukraine, part three looked at Eastern Europe, and part four considered the Caucasus.
Much like the Caucasus, Central Asia serves as a relatively new but no less important staging ground for the ongoing competition between Russia and the West. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the region has been somewhat of a melange of indecision and opportunism: Kazakhstan has stayed close with Russia, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have stayed relatively neutral. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other hand, have had difficulty settling on which foreign patron to support as violent upheavals have swung their foreign policies back and forth.
Over the coming decades, instability and internal conflict will continue to pose the greatest threats to the region as the influence of Russia and the West in Central Asia fades. But in their place, two new powers will rise that will shape the future of the region: Turkey and China.
Throughout history, powerful empires, including Persian, Mongol and Turkish empires, have fought to control Central Asia. Russia did not join the fray until the late 18th century. When it did, its expansion into the region was gradual, starting in the area that is now Kazakhstan. From there, it slowly penetrated southward into modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The Russian Empire’s initial forays into Central Asia coincided with the British Empire’s expansion into the Indian subcontinent, giving rise to what would be known as the Great Game, a long-running battle for regional control. Imperial Russia wanted an outlet to the sea and a buffer between potentially hostile powers in Asia, be they indigenous peoples or imperial armies. Afghanistan would later become just that, separating the Russian and British empires and eventually playing an important role in subsequent conflicts between Russia and the West in Central Asia.
Though the Russian Empire’s collapse in 1917 led to a brief and unstable period of independence in Central Asia, its Soviet successor would once again pull the region into its orbit in the following decade. Soviet rule dramatically changed the politics of Central Asia. Peoples from other parts of the Soviet bloc were forced to resettle throughout the region, while Russification programs emphasized the adoption of Russian language and customs. Central Asia became closed off to the West and to the Muslim states surrounding it, including Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 accelerated the bloc’s undoing and gave the West the upper hand in the Cold War. Substantial support from the West, especially the United States, enabled the Afghan mujahideen to counter the Soviet military’s efforts to prop up the communist government in Kabul. This exposed the Soviet Union’s military weakness and drained its economic and political resources, reducing Moscow’s ability to continue contending with the West on a global scale.
The Past 25 Years: The Afghan Conflict Creates Volatility
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — gained their independence. With the exception of Tajikistan, which descended into a chaotic civil war almost immediately, all installed their former Communist Party secretaries as their new presidents.
In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s two largest states, these presidents have remained in power at the head of highly centralized political systems ever since. Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has maintained a close relationship with Russia by joining the Moscow-led Customs Union (now the Eurasian Union) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance. Though it has relied on the West to develop its large oil and natural gas resources, Kazakhstan has remained tied to Russia strategically. Uzbekistan, however, has remained neutralunder President Islam Karimov’s rule, eschewing alliances with both Russia and the West. While it did host U.S. and NATO military bases for a time during the West’s war in Afghanistan, it later closed them after the West raised concerns over human rights abuses. Uzbekistan has also retained close economic ties with Russia but has avoided participating in Moscow-led integration projects.
Like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan has attempted to keep its distance from both Russia and the West. President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov has maintained his predecessor’s isolationist policies, keeping power highly centralized under his office. Though Turkmenistan initially sent most of its considerable natural gas output to Russia, in recent years it has rerouted much of its supplies to China amid a steep drop in Russian imports. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan continues to explore other export options, including the Trans-Caspian and TAPI pipelines to Europe and South Asia. In the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, Europe has been particularly interested in courting Turkmenistan as an alternative natural gas supplier to Russia, though the Kremlin has so far been successful in halting projects that would send Turkmen natural gas to the Continent. Now approached by the West, Russia and China, Turkmenistan continues to seek a balance between all three without formally aligning with any of them.
Unlike their other Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been politically unstable since the fall of the Soviet Union. In Kyrgyzstan, revolutions took place in 2005 and 2010; the first brought to power an administration friendly with the West and the second replaced that government with one that favors Russia. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has strengthened its ties to the Kremlin, joining the Eurasian Union and allowing Russia to expand its military presence in the country while expelling the United States from the Manas air base in 2014. In Tajikistan, civil war raged from 1992 to 1997, when the pro-Russia faction led by President Emomali Rakhmon emerged victorious. Rakhmon has ruled the country ever since, pulling it closer to Russia, particularly in terms of security and military cooperation.
Along with each country’s unique circumstances, the evolution of Russia’s relationship with the West inAfghanistan has shaped the rivalry in Central Asia. At the start of the U.S. invasion and during NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, both sides cooperated extensively. In fact, Russia brokered access to strategic military bases and lines of supply in Central Asia on behalf of U.S. and Western forces. But as the war dragged on, Moscow grew fearful of the West’s intention to maintain a long-term military presence in the region, potentially challenging Russia’s role as a regional heavyweight. Central Asian states then evicted Western forces from their bases and severed their supply routes. Now, with the Taliban and the Islamic State gaining strength in Afghanistan, Russia and the United States are lobbying for competing border security initiatives with the countries of Central Asia.
The Next 25 Years: Other Powers Overtake Russia and the West
As in the rest of the former Soviet periphery, the competition between Russia and the West will be heavily influenced by the demographic changes set to take place in Central Asia in the next 25 years. But unlike Eastern Europe and the Orthodox countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia is on the verge of a tremendous population increase. By 2050, Kazakhstan’s population will rise by 27 percent (from 17.6 million people to 22.4 million), Uzbekistan’s by 24 percent (from 29.9 million people to 37.1 million) and Turkmenistan’s by 22 percent (from 5.4 million people to 6.6 million). At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s population will grow by 39 percent (from 5.9 million people to 8.2 million) while Tajikistan’s will rise by an astonishing 70 percent (from 8.4 million people to 14.3 million).
While such population growth is normally conducive to economic growth and military strength, it will occur in Central Asia at a time when the region’s resources, including water and food, are already strained. The population explosion will hit hardest in the Fergana Valley, which is the region’s demographic core and is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There, the Soviets designed convoluted borders to intentionally create divisions between the Central Asian states. The area has already been the site of several ethnic conflicts. With the number of people expected to rise dramatically in the next 25-35 years, the Fergana Valley will likely become a hotbed of tension and conflict in the region.
Meanwhile, Central Asia’s cultural makeup will undoubtedly change. The widespread use of Russian as a lingua franca, which is rooted in the Soviet period, will probably decline as new generations with no memory of their countries’ Soviet past grow up. Russia will see its influence over the region decline as such cultural bonds — as well as its own capabilities to project economic and military power — weaken. The transition from Soviet-era leaders like Nazarbayev and Rakhmon, who have favored Russia over the West, to new rulers from the post-Soviet generation will make Central Asia a more unpredictable place that is open to contestation — a change that is unlikely to favor Russia.
However, the West will also see its ability to influence Central Asia decline as the regionalization of Europe forces the Continent to focus on matters closer to home. Still, countries in Central and Eastern Europe may seek to import Central Asian energy supplies through the Caspian corridor to diversify away from Russia. Meanwhile, the United States will remain an important player in the region. As in the Caucasus, it will be selective in how it engages in Central Asia, preferring to step in from time to time to keep any single external power from gaining too much influence.
While the reach of Russia and the West recedes over the coming decades, two other powers will rise in their place: Turkey and China. Four of the five states in Central Asia are ethnically Turkic, and as Russia’s cultural bonds in the region fade, Turkey’s will strengthen. Because Turkey’s population is predicted to grow by more than 20 percent, reaching 96 million people, it will have greater economic and military power to match its rising soft power. China, for its part, has already made economic inroads into the region over the past decade, and its economic influence will likely continue to grow. Such growth will be aided by the fact that Russia will not continue to be able to financially support many Central Asian states. That said, China will still have to contend with Turkey, which will be more active in the region. But this contest is unlikely to take on a military dimension; China and Turkey will have more immediate security concerns in East Asia and the Middle East.
Afghanistan will continue to have a significant impact in Central Asia, not as a regional power with influence but as a weak state with the potential to destabilize the region. Cross-border ties between ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens on either side of the boundary between Afghanistan and Central Asia will grow. This could increase the likelihood of Islamist and militant elements spilling over into the region. Although they will continue to compete at a strategic level, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States will cooperate at a tactical level to prevent the rise of powerful radical Islamist groups in Central Asia. For the foreseeable future, instability and conflict within and between Central Asian states will continue to pose the largest threat to the region, one that will be far more difficult to contain.
Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky
First the Middle East, now Central Asia slipping away from Turkey
The sanctions Moscow imposed after the Nov. 24 downing of a Russian plane are spreading to Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as Central Asian countries that had established close ties with Ankara after the collapse of the Soviet Union appear to be preparing to distance themselves from Turkey. At the December 2015 Moscow summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — which includes the Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in addition to Russia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belarus and Armenia — calls were made for Turkey to apologize to Russia.
Armenia holds the term presidency of the CIS-Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of former Soviet republics. The military chiefs of member states met before the gathering of heads of state to hear their term chairman, Gen. Yuri Khachaturov, Armenian chief of the General Staff, harshly criticize Turkey. Khachaturov noted, “Chiefs of staff of all member states of the organization supported the Russian actions and denounced Turkey’s attack against the Su-24 plane that was seen as an incendiary, shameless aggression. As Russia said immediately after the attack, we also saw it as a stab in the back.”
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, term chairman of CIS, also asked the summit to express its support for Russia and denounce Turkey. He said, “As member states, we declared our support for the Russian position and decided to urgently declare unity to combat terror. Turkey’s attitude and its shooting down of the Russian plane have been a setback to the struggle against terror.”
The real shock for Ankara was not Sargsyan’s words, but those of the Kyrgyzstan head of state, President Almazbek Atambayev, who in the past had addressed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “my older brother.” After the August 2014 presidential elections, Atambayev had appeared with Erdogan, who was delivering his victory speech, andlavishly praised him. At the CIS summit, Atambayev expressed support for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin and suggested Erdogan and Turkey apologize to Russia.
The support for Russia among the Central Asian Turkic republics, which have received billions of dollars of credit and financing support from Turkey, and Atambayev’s call for an apology shocked Turkey, disillusioning Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party government. In 2014, the Cooperation and Coordination Agency of Turkey had provided the republics more than $3.5 billion. When asked about Atambayev’s comment, Erdogan spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said, “If nothing else, it was an unfortunate statement.”
Russia’s freeze on issuing transit permits to Turkish truckers in October has severely disrupted Turkish exports to the Central Asian republics. Concerned with the prospect of losing the Central Asian market, where Turkey has sizable construction contracts and investments, Ankara began using the Caspian Sea for its exports thanks to Azerbaijan opening its gates.
Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, ordered that Caspian port capacity be increased and transit documents waived for Turkish trucks. Even if Turkish truck traffic through the Caspian reaches 50,000 a year, it would still fall far short of sustaining exports to the Central Asian market.
With the sharp decline in oil and natural gas prices, Azerbaijan had to devalue its currency 47% against the dollar and euro. Given the economic bottlenecks it faces, no one can be sure that the country can indefinitely be a contributor in regard to Turkey’s commercial and energy needs.
Moreover, an Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Switzerland Dec. 19 did not yield a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. Instead, both countries announced that their cease-fire had ended. This development greatly concerns Turkey, because it could negatively affect its use of the Azerbaijani route for its exports. Meanwhile, Russia and Armenia, which have been boosting political and economic links, in late December decided to also expand their military cooperation.
In mid-December, Putin announced that visa requirements for Georgian nationals would be eased and soon thereafter abolished. It has become clear that the Russian-Armenian air defense agreement, normalization of Russian-Georgian relations and resumption of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia will impede Turkey’s access to the Caucasus. There are also fears that Russia, which has been firing cruise missiles from its navy based in the Caspian, could block passage through that sea, severely restricting Turkey’s access to Central Asia via that route.
Russia also made use of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to move against Turkey’s relations with the Turkic republics. Turkey-EEU negotiations to establish a free trade zone were suspended, and instead, Putin announced, the EEU would enter into talks with Iran. Thus, Russia is helping advance Iranian economic interests in Central Asia by closing the doors on Turkey advocating a customs union and regional free trade. No doubt, this brought Turkey one step closer to losing Central Asia in the wake of its isolation in the Middle East.
Here’s a transcription (though not a literal translation) of a very informative 8 minute video from Radio Ozodi [ru]. It shows a growing interest in studying abroad, but the programme has a clear moral drive behind its interesting content – see the last paragraph. Makes me wonder if the Kazakh government didn’t inspire the piece: the state provides excellent funding for its young people in the form of Bolashak scholarships but the programme notes that more than half of the 10,000+ scholars haven’t returned to Kazakhstan (which is a condition of the award). Brain drain alert?
Emma’s transcription. Original video can be found at http://rus.ozodi.org/media/video/25299778.html, (c) Radio Ozodi, 12.03.2014
In Kazakhstan, the Bolashak scholarship competition is now open. Thousands of ambitious young people will apply for funding to study in Europe, USA and China. And across Central Asia, study abroad isn’t just a sign of quality and reputation but an investment in their future. The programme discusses the possibilities of studying abroad.
Abu Bakri Saidullo is studying in Dresden, Germany. He wants to graduate with distinction before returning to Tajikistan where he plans to run a business. “We get really up to date knowledge here. I don’t think you can get that kind of knowledge in universities at home,” he says. Abu Bakri is self-funding his studies. The cost per semester is €250 which covers tuition and six months of accommodation in halls of residence.
There are also plenty of opportunities for talented students to obtain funding to study abroad. 30 year old Ilkhom Aslanov from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, has studied in India and Japan and is now in Germany. He comes from a modest background and couldn’t have afforded to self-fund his studies. He says there is a good choice of institutions in Germany and that influenced his decision to apply. The application process was quite cumbersome but in the end he was awarded a grant by DAAD (https://www.daad.de).
Young people in Turkmenistan, however, prefer to study in former Soviet countries and Turkey, mainly for language reasons. Eliza Kenenbaeva is completing her studies at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Her studies are funded by the Soros Foundation which is why she took up her place, but she says that other Turkmen students are attracted by the low fees and proximity of AUCA to their home country. She also says that it helps that the educational systems are similar, as are Turkmen and Kyrgyz languages.
Although the number of Turkmen students in Kyrgyzstan has fallen in recent years due to travel restrictions on Turkmen citizens, they continue to be attracted by the low cost of study ($2-3,000) and the absence of a language barrier.
The criteria for obtaining a scholarship to study abroad, which the commentator points out is the only way to study abroad without cost, can include:
- Academic achievements
- Research and academic potential
- Leadership qualities
- Financial situation
Aynura Chollonkulova, a Bishkek-based careers adviser, says that funding bodies will also consider your personal characteristics. Students initially want to base their choice by the country they want to study in, but she and her experienced consultants advise them instead to focus on their area of specialisation.
In Kazakhstan, the state-funded Bolashak scholarship programme has enabled more than 10,000 Kazakh students to study abroad over the last 20 years. More than 6,000 of them have already completed their studies. The aim of the programme is to train highly qualified specialists who can work at an international level.
Scholars have to return to Kazakhstan and work for at least five years for any public or private sector company or the state as a condition of the funding. However, according to official figures, more than 50% of scholars haven’t returned to Kazakhstan.
Gulzira Amanturlina did her Master’s at LSE, one of the best universities in the world. She then returned to Kazakhstan where she pursued a career in banking. She says she found work in a bank straight away after graduating, and that she was able to put into practice what she learnt in London. She was promoted to Director in 2010. Now she runs Eldani, a non-governmental organisation working with disabled people. Her work on social entrepreneurship and charity developed from what she learnt when studying abroad.
So, studying abroad provides a launching pad for your career – but it isn’t always a guarantee of success. Much depends on what you want to get from it: are you doing this just to live abroad, or do you want to obtain valuable knowledge and experience? It shouldn’t just be the scholar that benefits, but society as a whole.
There is something very Soviet/Central Asian about putting up monuments, and it’s definitely a fashionable thing to do at the moment (recent achievements include the world’s tallest flagpole in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan has the world record for the largest Ferris wheel). Today I can report that Kazakhstan is planning to build the country’s first monument ‘dedicated to the noble work of all teachers in the country’. The idea is to ‘to start a new tradition by creating a place for couples to lay flowers, young teachers to come and pledge their allegiance to upholding a professional honor code and to students to carry out their activities’.
The full story plus video [en] is available at http://caspionet.kz/eng/general/Monument_to_teachers_to_be_put_up_in_Pavlodar_1349668771.html.
I look forward to seeing this. Is this a world first? Please let me know if you have ever seen other such monuments – photos welcome!