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New publication: Scientific nationalism in a globalizing world

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Handbook on the Politics of Higher Education
Hot off the press copies of the Handbook on the Politics of Higher Education

After a break from blogging to attend the recent and quite fantastic World Cup in Russia, I’m back with the good news that I have a new publication out.

This is a book chapter co-written with my supervisor Professor Creso Sá and is titled Scientific nationalism in a globalizing world.

It’s part of a hefty new Handbook on the Politics of Higher Education, which also features chapters by luminaries in the field such as Susan Robertson, Rosemary Deem, Roger King and many, many others. The aim of the Handbook is straightforward: to address the growing politicization of higher education and offer a variety of perspectives on the politics of higher education that will improve our understanding and analysis.

Our chapter, part of a section on political economy and global governance, dives deeper into the politics of academic science. We take two notions – scientific nationalism and scientific globalism – that have different ways of conceptualising the purpose of science as well as how and why it is supported (and by whom) – but which both in different ways help to explain patterns seen in science policies around the world.

On the one hand, scientific nationalism offers a viewpoint of science as being of critical importance to nation states – even as they are increasingly intertwined in global affairs, the idea is that support for academic science will enhance national competitiveness or innovation.

On the other hand, the idea of scientific globalism is one that derives from universalist ideas of the pursuit of science being borderless and not something that can or should be privatized or commercialized. Cross-national academic communities of scientists working together on ‘grand challenges’ would be an excellent example of scientific globalism.

We studied national science policies in twenty countries across all continents and with a very wide range of economic and political contexts. Despite this diversity, we found the depth of commonalities across the policies remarkable. For instance, almost all of the policies expressed a desire to become (or remain) globally competitive, with great importance placed on science as a tool to achieve that goal. From Saudi Arabia to South Africa and from Canada to China, this positioning was embraced around the world.

In addition to similarities across the policies, we also identified a number of tensions that arise from the dual existence of both logics of scientific nationalism and scientific globalism. Whilst scientific nationalism is well anchored in a global institutional order, there was  clear friction with ideas stemming from more globalist thinking. This is encapsulated well in how the policies talk about the mobility of scientists and researchers. Nations want their scientists to cooperate globally and to be able to travel around the world, but many countries also expressed a desire for said scientists to ultimately return to their home country to utilize the skills and experience gained abroad.

Written at the end of 2016 and start of 2017, we end the chapter by considering some areas for future research in this topic. For example, how will science policy making be affected by the emerging politics of neo-nationalism or nativism (e.g. Brexit in the UK, Trump in the US to name just two mid-2010s events)? And – worryingly – could scientific globalism be under threat from the rise of xenophobic right-wing populism?

The Handbook has had some very nice reviews already, being described by Simon Marginson as ‘much the best available collection of its kind’ (praise indeed!).

The attached flyer – Handbook on the Politics of Higher Education – gives more details about the book and how to buy it with a 20% discount. You can also access details on the publisher’s website at https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/handbook-on-the-politics-of-higher-education. If you’re based at a university/HEI, do please encourage your library to get a copy either of the heavyweight hardback or the e-book.

A visual tour of Central Asia’s universities

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I’ve had a small gallery of my pictures of Central Asia’s universities up on this site for a while, and have been meaning to update it after taking lots more photos this summer.

So here we are, for your viewing pleasure (well, mainly for mine), here is a new and updated gallery showcasing just a few of the many and varied universities and colleges in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:

Ищу участников для интервью

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Дорогие читатели моего блога!

Мне нужна ваша помощь найти участников для интервью. Читаете дальше…

Летом 2017 г. я буду проводить исследование для своей кандидатской диссертации. Название моей диссертации: Как реагирует высшее образование на крупные институциональные изменения? Падение Советского Союза и университеты в Казахстане, Кыргызстане и Таджикистане.

Я ищу нынешних и бывших преподавателей для интервью (на русском или на английском языках).

Дата: Июль или август 2017г

Место: Алматы, Астана, Бишкек, Душанбе или Хорог

Для интервью есть две группы:

Группа 1

  • У вас была преподавательская работа в одном или нескольких университетах, который(е) был(и) основан(ы) во время Советского Союза, включая период 1988-1994 гг; и
  • Университет(ы), в котором(ых) вы работали, находится в Казахстане, Кыргызстане или Таджикистане.

ИЛИ

Группа 2

  • Вы работали в новом университете, который был основан в период с 1991 по 1996 гг; и
  • Вы начали работать там в первые два года с момента открытия университета; и
  • Вы работали там не менее пяти лет; и
  • Этот университет находится в Казахстане, Кыргызстане или Таджикистане.

ЗНАЕТЕ ЛИ ВЫ ПРЕПОДАВАТЕЛЯ, КОТОРЫЙ ПОДХОДИТ КРИТЕРИИ ГРУППЫ 1 ИЛИ 2?

Если да, пожалуйста, отпраляйте им ссылку на страницу, где можно найти подробную информацию об исследовании – www.emmasabzalieva.com/thesis.

Вы сможете им дать мой эл. адрес (emma.sabzalieva@mail.utoronto.ca) чтобы они связывались со мной.

Также я хочу попросить вас поделиться этой информации на социальных сетях.

Спасибо заранее!

Эмма

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

Igoe michael 1

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.

Five years of blogging on Central Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma

Paid to protest: More on student protests in Tajikistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Spray bottle” could be a metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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