Uzbekistan has bowed out of 2012 with a final “fingers up” to one of the best loved Soviet traditions, that of Father Frost (Дед Мороз or Father Christmas, reimagined for the Soviet New Year holiday) and Snow Maiden (Снегурочка – she has no European/American equivalent that I’m aware of). uznews.net has a remarkably critical article on the proposed government imposed change:
Father Frost, Snow Maiden renamed in Uzbekistan
The Uzbek Culture and Sport Ministry has recommended that all of the country’s theatres rename Father Frost to Star Magician and Snow Maiden to Star Fairy.Uzbekistan is trying to depart from traditions and images introduced during the Soviet period and changes being introduced in this connection have impacted New Year celebrations as well.
The country is going to see in the forthcoming year of 2013 without the usual Father Frost and Snow Maiden, but with new images which the Uzbek Culture and Sport Ministry started developing long before the holiday.
An actor from one of Tashkent’s theatres has said that the Culture and Sport Ministry on 12 November held a meeting with art managers of Tashkent’s theatres to discuss the New Year celebrations.
He recommended that art managers should develop images based on “American-European” New Year characters.
It is clear from the task’s context that Grandfather Frost and Snow Maiden, whom we have known since our childhood, must become absolutely new by appearance and content.
In the vision of culture officials, they can be heroes “approximate to Santa Claus” and its fairy assistant.
As a result of the meeting, it was decided to rename Father Frost as Star Magician, and Snow Maiden as Star Fairy.
The ministerial innovation, the actor said, made his whole company laugh.
“When we learnt about this innovation, we laughed for a long time at this nonsense and are still laughing,” he said.
However funny may it be, Uzbek theatre actors have nevertheless started playing the new New Year characters.
Reposted from Eurasia.net
Every July, Jamshid resigned himself to a month of study and buried his nose in his books.
Like many bright young Uzbeks, he was determined to spend the month cramming — poring through history books and brushing up on his language skills, all in a bid to ace his August 1 entrance exam and secure a spot at the prestigious Tashkent State Law Institute.
But Jamshid, who declined to use his real name, was no ordinary student. He was a “soldier,” a paid test-taker who spent four years in the trenches of one of Uzbekistan’s numerous education-cheating rings.
“My job every year was entering the institute as a ‘soldier’ — meaning, with a fake passport. It was my photo, but the information wasn’t mine,” Jamshid says. “We would finish our own studies at the institute in June, and then from the first of July we would start to study. We were living in a flat — a three- or four-room flat. And our only job was preparing for the tests.”
Corruption has been a long-standing vice in the educations systems of Central Asia and other countries in the former Soviet Union, where university space is limited and test scores paramount.
This year, some 431,000 Uzbek youths are vying for just 56,000 spots in the country’s universities and institutes — a ratio of nearly 8-to-1.
For high-demand schools like the Ferghana branch of the Tashkent Medical Academy, the challenge is even more stark. Applications there outnumber spaces 21-to-1. The ratio at Tashkent Islamic University is 13-to-1.
‘Money And Good Knowledge’
Would-be students like Gulruh, a native of Uzbekistan’s northwestern Khorezm Province hoping to study English at Tashkent University of Foreign Languages, say the scarcity of spots leaves them only one option.
“I set a goal to enter the university, but these days it is extremely hard. You need both money and good knowledge,” she says.
These Uzbek university students returning home from college in May are lucky. Failure to enter means a yearlong wait, followed by a new exam with equally uncertain results
Unlike students in the West, applicants in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union are able to apply to just one school a year. Their August 1 exams — multiple-choice, computer-graded forms in three specialized subjects — are the main determining factor in whether they get in.
Failure to enter means a yearlong wait, followed by a new exam with equally uncertain results. With the stakes so high, increasing numbers of students have turned to professional cheating rings who provide a range of services for fees rising as high as $10,000.
In addition to providing test-taking “soldiers,” such rings also concoct elaborate schemes for providing ordinary test-takers with hidden mobile phones, cheat sheets written in code, pen-scanners, and other methods for smuggling information in and out of test classrooms.
‘Bunkers’ Of Cheating
Gulchehra, who spoke to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service in 2011 just after finishing her exams to enter Tashkent’s main pedagogical university, said people were openly using mobile phones during her tests — after paying test monitors to turn a blind eye.
“One man handed out four mobile phones and kept one for himself,” she says. “Then these people were getting answers via phone, and the controllers didn’t say anything to them. They gave [the teachers] the money in advance, some 10,000 to 20,000 soms ($5-$10). If these students enter the university and they go on to work in a bank or somewhere else, it means that we are losing. We are losing our future.”
The methods involved in cheating are diverse and often take their inspiration from military terms.
Some corruption rings, for example, rely on “bunkers” — secured rooms within the school building, or in nearby neighborhoods, where couriers can deliver tests to a team of book-laden researchers ready to correct wrong answers.
Others organize a “parachute” system — literally a way of tossing a test form out an open window to a well-versed corrector below.
The corruption is so widespread that even those employed with securing the results are seen as profiting from the system — down to the teachers who supervise the tests and the security forces who guard the classrooms.
One instructor at a Tashkent pedagogical institute said her attempts to control her students during a testing in 2011 were largely fruitless.
“I was a controller last year. I saw that some entrants had mobile phones. If they used them very openly, I asked them to put them down,” she says. “I don’t know who gave them those phones, but I heard that some teachers accept bribes to allow mobile phones in the room. They make money this way.
“But you know what? I know one guy didn’t even go to exams, and now he is studying in a prestigious university. I always tell entrants, you should either have golden pockets or a golden brain to enter university.”
‘Brightest’ In The World
The proliferation of cheating rings has meant that, at least on paper, Uzbek students are among the brightest in the world.
As recently as a decade ago, a score of 150 out of a possible 226.8 points — calculated according to three 36-question tests with a weighted point system — was enough to secure a spot at a university.
Now, even scores of 200 no longer guarantee students a spot, meaning even the cheaters are elbowing for a space.
Jamshid, who regularly earned as much as $3,000 for his single month of work as a cheating-ring soldier, says the practice has meant big business for those involved.
Ring operators, who maintain close ties to the state testing agency and the Ministry of Education, can bring in as much as $500,000 a year.
One testing ring that was busted last year in the city of Bukhara had proven so profitable that it had purchased $45,000 worth of equipment — including a mobile wi-fi unit that could create temporary hotspots. (Uzbekistan typically switches off mobile-phone service during the 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. testing time to prevent phone cheating; this year, a dispute over the MTS mobile provider will leave phones even more silent than usual.)
Jamshid — who retains so much knowledge from his test-taking days that his friends still refer to him as “the computer” — says the cheating rings are an irresistible draw for sharp-minded Uzbeks looking to make extra money.
As for the students who pay for their services — well, that’s a different story, he says.
“They have no knowledge. That’s why they are giving money. That’s the problem,” he says, laughing. “So you know, we get some students who really don’t know anything. Nothing. If these students enter the university and they go on to work in a bank or somewhere else, it means that we are losing. We are losing our future.”
(c) Evgeny Kuzmin, Eurasia.Net, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/65545
President Islam Karimov’s administration in Uzbekistan wants school-age children to be in school and studying. Yet a new rule imposed on schools and universities indicates that officials are worried Uzbek youngsters are learning too much.
Under a decree adopted in late May, students in Uzbekistan are banned from using, and even displaying mobile phones in schools. The official reason for the measure is a desire to ensure students aren’t distracted in class, and cannot cheat during exams. But certain provisions in the decree are prompting regional experts to suspect that the government has a hidden agenda: to restrict the ability of technology-savvy kids to both obtain and share information with the outside world.
These days any student, school employee, professor or visitor must switch their cellphone to silent mode upon entering an educational facility, and keep the device out of sight, in a place that is not readily accessible. It is specifically prohibited to keep a phone in one’s pocket, for example. The goal, according to the wording of the decree, is to “ensure the constitutional rights of students in getting a quality education and professional training, as well as to lower youth health risks for the interests of the nation and society.”
Taken at face value, such goals, as enumerated in this decree, are legitimate, even laudable. But additional sections of the decree suggest it is actually aimed at helping the government defend its own interests, not those of students. In particular, one section expressly forbids students or school employees to use mobile phones to shoot video or take pictures that “‘damages the image of the educational facility.”
“While parts of the law may promote a legitimate interest in combating cheating and minimizing distractions in the classroom, there is reason to view it as an extension of the government’s well-documented campaign to restrict freedom of expression and stifle civic discussion in the country,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with EurasiaNet.org.
“Uzbek authorities are well aware that an increasing number of Uzbeks access the internet, get news, and discuss societal issues not via their computers, but over their mobile phones,” Swerdlow added. “As far back as 1992, when authorities in Tashkent brutally crushed student protests, Tashkent has understood that universities are ideological battlegrounds that must be closely monitored and controlled.”
The provision banning the use of video and photography seems specifically targeted at stifling citizen journalism. Cellphones have been involved in reporting incidents in Central Asia over the past few years, enabling information to reach the outside world that was deeply embarrassing for authoritarian governments in the region. The most conspicuous example is the 2011 arms depot mishap in Abadan, Turkmenistan. In one recent Uzbek case, according to Swerdlow, someone caught a school principal in the western region of Karakalpakstan publicly humiliating students for failing to meet their cotton harvest quota. Another set of videos documented bribery in Uzbek schools. The videos went viral in Uzbekistan.
“These are topics Uzbek authorities do not want students and others making films about or even discussing,” Swerdlow said. Uzbekistan is the subject of international criticism for the continuing use of forced child labor in the cotton sector.
If the Uzbek government was interested in merely keeping kids off their cellphones and focused on their coursework, there are more efficient ways of doing it, suggested Anton Nossik, media director at SUP, the company that owns the popular blogging platform LiveJournal.
“The most efficient way to fight against mobiles would be to jam them in the auditoriums where quiet is required, like movie theaters,” Nossik said. “Jammers can have limited coverage – you exit from the room and get your signal back.”
Evgeny Kuzmin is an editorial associate at Eurasianet.
Here are a couple of stories about cotton-rich Uzbekistan.
The first, from a blog called Why Nations Fail, looks at the phenomenon of children being forced to pick cotton when they should be in school. Below is an extract from the blog post specific to Uzbekistan:
… For starters, take Uzbekistan. Why does it have 1/15 of the US income per capita? Perhaps it is because of “human capital” — Uzbekis having less education and education and skills? Well there’s a surprise, Uzbekistan has close to complete primary and secondary school enrollment, and close to 100% literacy. But look a bit deeper, and you’ll see something a little unusual going on in Uzbeki schools.
The basis of Uzbekistan’s economy is cotton, which makes up 45% of exports. The cotton bolls start to ripen and are ready to be picked in early September, at about the same time that children return to school. But as soon as the children arrive the schools are emptied of 2.7 million children (2006 figures) who are sent by the government to pick the cotton. Teachers, instead of being instructors, became labor recruiters. In the words of Gulnaz, a mother of two of these children:
“At the beginning of each school year, approximately at the beginning of September, the classes in school are suspended, and instead of classes children are sent to the cotton harvest. Nobody asks for the consent of parents. They don’t have weekend holidays [during the harvesting season]. If a child is for any reason left at home, his teacher or class curator comes over and denounces the parents. They assign a plan to each child, from 20 to 60 kg per day depending on the child’s age. If a child fails to fulfill this plan then next morning he is lambasted in front of the whole class.”
Children in Uzbekistan bringing in their cotton quota (from WHY NATIONS FAIL, original from EJ Foundation).
The harvest lasts for two months. Rural children lucky enough to be assigned to farms close to home can walk or are bused to work. Children farther away or from urban areas have to sleep in the sheds or storehouses with the machinery and animals. There are no toilets or kitchens. Children have to bring their own food for lunch. In the spring, school is closed for compulsory hoeing, weeding, and transplanting.
So school or no school, children aren’t learning all that much in Uzbeki schools. They are instead being coerced to work. This type of coercion is actually all too common, and is indicative of the sorts of institutions that not only fail to impart human capital to children, but are at the root of much more widespread economic and social failure. “
(c) Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
A more unusual perspective for those of us based in Europe/North America comes from South Korea. The Korea Times reports on Uzbekistan’s efforts to emulate South Korea’s experience in expanding educational opportunities and improving quality. This arose following an educational conference in Uzbekistan this February attended by a number of Korean universities. Here is an excerpt from the article, entitled Uzbekistan all out to reform education:
In an ambitious effort to upgrade and reform its educational system, the Uzbek government, under the initiative of President Islam Karimov, hosted an international educational conference last month: “Fostering a Well Educated and Intellectually Advanced Generation – A Critical Prerequisite for Sustainable Development and Modernization of a Country.” …
Addressing the global forum, President Karimov emphasized that the “National Program for Training of Specialists” his government adopted 15 years ago “stands as an inseparable and integral part of our own Uzbek model of economic and political reforms based on a step-by-step and evolutionary principle of building a new society in the country.”
“The program is aimed at completely rejecting stereotypes and dogmas of the communist ideology imposed in the past, consolidating democratic values in the minds of the people, and firstly, among the young generation,” he said.
The program features 12-year universal compulsory and free education via a “9+3” plan, namely nine years of study in a secondary school and the next three years in specialized professional colleges and academic lyceums where students obtain vocational training in the two to three specialties demanded by the labor market, he explained.
Noting that more than 1,500 new professional colleges and academic lyceums have been built, Karimov said, “We attach great importance to giving pupils not only a broad-scale knowledge and vocational skills, but also to compulsory learning foreign languages.”
“This is the most important condition for active communication of our young people with their counterparts from foreign countries, and allows them to get an extensive knowledge of everything that is going on in the modern world and enjoy a huge world of intellectual treasure.”
The higher institutions play an important role in reforming the educational process and training highly qualified personnel required in the labor market, he said. During the last years their number has increased twice and now there are more than 230,000 students studying at 59 universities and other higher educational institutions, he added.
“The annual expenditure for reforming and developing education in Uzbekistan makes up 10-12 percent of GDP and their share of the spending side of the government’s budget exceeds 35 percent, and this by itself serves as confirmation of the huge attention being paid to this sphere,” he said.
Article is (c) The Korea Times.
Karimov concluded that “The new generation, the educated youth who are free of any vestiges of the past are today turning into a vital driving force for democratization, liberalization and renewal, and the confident growth of the country.”
I will leave you to make your own conclusion, particularly contrasted to the cotton picking story, about whether Karimov’s words sound genuine or not.
The letter from academics at London Metropolitan University that I featured yesterday clearly ruffled some feathers at the university. In response, the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University wrote this reply in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (thanks to David Wolfson for spotting this):
Thursday 16 February 2012 21.00 GMT
David Hardman et al (Letters, 14 February) correctly point out that London Metropolitan University is proud of its dedication to social justice. There are more ways, however, of addressing injustices in or elsewhere Uzbekistan than by severance of all communications.
Iran shows where that approach has not worked. The university is involved in Uzbekistan with a translation project, funded by the British Council, and an academic quality-assurance project, funded by the EU. In past years we trained human rights defenders in Uzbekistan, funded by the Foreign Office. We also receive international students from Uzbekistan. We believe these things contribute to dialogue between two very different societies. They build skills and connections, without lending legitimacy to regimes or military actions.
Presumably, if we should not have connections with Uzbekistan, we should not connect with other countries in the same human-rights band, such as China, India and Russia.
Professor Malcolm Gillies
Vice-chancellor, London Metropolitan University
The Guardian’s website is www.guardian.co.uk
Emma adds: Suggestions on a postcard (well, the electronic equivalent is to leave a comment below) for what will happen next at London Met…
Are today’s students in the former Soviet Union too political or not political enough? Two recent stories from Uzbekistan and Russia suggest that either way, students will end up being criticised: you’re damned if you do care and you’re damned if you don’t.
In Uzbekistan, the government has introduced a new moral code – no less than 23 pages long – in an attempt to rectify what it sees as poor behaviour amongst students. Apparently students are getting too wild for the government’s liking, with allegations of inappropriate dressing and listening to music that’s just way too foreign. The government clearly sees this as a threat
On the other hand, a visiting student at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in Russia has posted a well-written critique of the lack of politics at the Institute. The author sees this as contrary given that graduates of the Institute often go on to high-level positions in government and business. A small murmur of interest has arisen at the Institute since the post-election demonstrations in Russia in December 2011, but whether this is maintained remains to be seen.
I’d love to hear what current students in the region have to say about this.
Happy new year! I hope you enjoyed a peaceful and happy holiday and are looking forward to what 2012 will bring.
You’ll notice I had a break from this blog too, spent with my family and friends and including a fantastic four-way Skype call on New Year’s Eve with my parents in Italy, my brother in the USA, my sister in London and my husband and me in Oxford! I also caught up with family and friends as far apart as Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Hungary and Australia as well as those closer to home. The world feels even more connected and global at times like these.
For today’s post, I thought it would be interesting to look at the new year addresses given by the leaders of the four Central Asian countries this blog covers to see if these shed any light on their hopes and plans for the year ahead.
Starting with Tajikistan, President Rakhmon makes open acknowledgement of the 1 million or so Tajiks currently living out of the country by referring to them in addition to his “co-compatriots” (i.e. the ones living in Tajikistan). He looks back on “one of the most important years” of the country’s history as it celebrated 20 years of independence, and talks several times about patriotism and national unity – signs of concern about a resurgence of the regionalism that partly led to the 1992-1997 civil war? He makes no reference to ongoing poverty in the country but instead hopes that this year will see a “growth in the authority and image of Tajikistan in the international arena.”
In Kyrgyzstan, new President Atambayev also talked about unity and how people have become more confident in themselves since showing that the country can “develop under conditions of democracy and freedom.” He spoke about the government’s accountability to the people and also the responsibility of individuals to helping ensure peace and prosperity for all. He signs off with lots of warm and wonderful wishes, including my personal favourite of the four addresses: “On this New Year’s Eve, all of us, like little children, await wonders. We believe in miracles!”
Kazakhstan‘s President Nazarbayev has a head start on the other nations due to the country’s higher levels of economic wealth and development, and this is recognised in his address. His words talk about the fact that Kazakhstan is united, and seen as a “strong, contemporary and respected nation in the world” that has one of the world’s most dynamic economies. I liked the fact that he thanked Kazakhs for their support of his “course” (i.e. pathway/decision-making) over the past year, although of course this masks underlying issues about the political system that I won’t go into right now.
President Karimov of Uzbekistan also talks about unity, so clearly this is the buzzword of the moment! He believes that 2011 was a year of wide-scale reform in the country that is recognised by the respect given by other countries (is that a reference to Hilary Clinton’s total failure to mention human rights in her recent visit?). Interestingly, he mentions climate change in a speech that seems to focus on rural issues and needs, although it is passed over quickly. Like the other leaders, he too stresses the need for his fellow citizens to help retain peace and stability but in a break from the similarity, he ends on a religious note: “may the Almighty protect us from all misfortunes and be a reliable support on our way”.
Of course, a new year’s address is never going to boldly uncover the deep and pressing problems that every country faces and I’m sure that in the coming months, the Central Asian nations will give us much to think about and that my favourite category of “bureaucratic madness” will be put to use again. But in the meantime, please enjoy this opportunity to celebrate, to think positively and to hope for a better future.
A slightly light-hearted post today as I’ve spent the last few days unwell and my mind is not in serious analysis mode right now!
As anyone in Central Asia will know, the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a short visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over the weekend. This post is a round-up of some of the stories about the visit, which offered a rare occasion for Central Asia to get an airing in the international press. I think the opportunity was a missed one judging by the quality of the articles I chose…
Ahead of her arrival, ABC News published a handy pronunciation guide for anyone struggling to work out just where the stress goes in ‘Tashkent’. No, seriously.
Further help came from the American Washington Post, who described the two countries as ‘Afghanistan’s neighbours’. I’m not sure that’s an appellation most people would feel overly excited about.
Avesta.tj has several reports about the visit, including one entitled “Рогун и саксофон” (Rogun – a huge dam construction project that is always short of funds – and saxophone). With high hopes for a good local view on events, I was quickly disappointed. Clearly the journalist had become distracted by the novelty of a senior female politician.
Here are two short extracts: “Hillary is a good-looking woman. A strong woman. She was able to swallow the insult following the scandal of Bill and Monica’s saxophone lessons.” And just in case you didn’t think that was bad enough: “Hillary is a beautiful woman, but she came here as a politician, not a woman.” What a shame that trashy British tabloid News of the World has closed down, as the journalist could have had a great career with them.
Finally, over to CNN’s report on the visit. Two things about it made me laugh out loud. Firstly, the title’s focus on human rights discussions. Seriously? Just refer to my earlier post about forms of violence in the region to dispel any optimism on that front. And secondly – with apologies for my childishness – if you watch the short film on the webpage of Clinton being shown around the Botanic Garden in Dushanbe by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, look out for the gesture Rahmon makes with his hands about three quarters of the way through and Clinton’s bemused laugh in response.
A friend of mine was due to be present at a speech given by Clinton in Dushanbe, and I’m hoping she will post a more balanced first-hand account of the visit – watch this space!
To end today, a postscript that speaks volumes about where power lies in the post-imperial Western world…
With all the talk about Clinton’s visit, almost everyone has overlooked the fact that the UK sent its first ever government minister to Tajikistan. Follow that link for the only article I saw on this event. I’ll leave you with a quote from minister Alan Duncan – the word IF in sentence three should be up in huge letters:
“The future could be bright for Tajikistan. There are decision makers here we can work with. If they can attract international investors to their agricultural businesses, and encourage a better environment for entrepreneurs, Tajikistan could be a Central Asian success story.”
Several conversations I’ve had and articles I’ve read recently have been about violence in Central Asia. This isn’t just about physical violence – although this seems to loom large – but political and economic violence too.
First, on physical violence. I heard that a friend of a friend was beaten up after leaving a wedding in Tajikistan recently for no apparent reason. He doesn’t know who did it and as they took his phone and left him practically semi-conscious, it took him a few days to get home. Fortunately, he seems to be recovering now – but isn’t that just a hideous example of random and wanton violence?
Secondly, political violence. I know Ukraine isn’t really in the remit of this blog, but in keeping with the violence theme I’d like to register my disgust at the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Most people are saying that she’s likely to be released soon but that doesn’t excuse the state of using political violence to try and keep an opponent quiet.
On a smaller scale, evidence of this political violence extends to Tajikistan too. The trial of journalist Urunboi Usmonov has ended with a conviction for complicity in the activities of a banned Islamist organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Throughout, Mr Usmonov has vigorously denied this to be the case and the trial seems to have had very little evidence to support the prosecution. There has been national (muted, though, due to limitations on press freedom) and international outcry about Mr Usmonov’s arrest, which may explain why he won’t actually be jailed, having been granted an amnesty. As with Tymoshenko’s case, that’s just not good enough.
Finally, the interesting concept of economic violence and a very enlightening article by Bruno de Cordier of Ghent University in the Netherlands (thanks to Zaynura for bringing this to my attention). He argues that economic violence was extreme in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, but has now become more embedded and localised. He picks out the cotton trade and bazaar activity as two examples of this. Here’s an example he gives about cotton in Uzbekistan:
“While cotton exports are in the hands of a state-owned company and the political elite in the capital, and most of the cotton farm land is state-owned, crop production is overseen by provincial and district governors who are left with a great deal of discretion and autonomy as to how they deliver the requested harvest quota. Since both the income and political survival of these provincial strongmen depend on the delivery of the quota, crass exploitation, eviction threats against farmers from land that they lease from the state, and the forced replacement of staple crops like wheat and rice with cotton, are all common. Similar practices exist in other cotton areas…”
I encourage you to read De Cordier’s article in full and would be interested to hear your views on these various large- and small-scale examples of violence.