A meeting with Hillary Clinton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Ramila Mukairshoeva

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

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

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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.”

A two-pronged post: higher education in Russia and spreading the word

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Hello everyone. Rather than two posts in one day, today’s single post combines two quite different topics. Read on…

The first topic is about higher education in contemporary Russia. I’ve just come across the work of Daria Luchinskaya, a PhD student at the University of Warwick, who has some really interesting points to make about the modernisation of the system. Some of these are handily summarised in this article on University World News.

Having done a little research myself into the post-Soviet higher education system, I agree that Luchinskaya has covered the key points facing the Russian system:

  • state funding levels
  • rise (and future demise?) of private higher education providers
  • the pressures of internationalisation, such as aligning the education system to the Bologna process, and staff and student mobility
  • making the system more competitive e.g. through the creation of federal and national research universities

It would be interesting to see what Luchinskaya has to say about how the current system and its challenges are interepeted in Russia, both by students and by other ‘stakeholders’. For example, I have read that employers are sceptical about students coming out of university with Bologna-friendly degrees, wondering how a three year Bachelor’s degree could be equal to the former system of four or five years of undergraduate study.

The second ‘prong’ of the post is about communications. Can I ask for your help?

Could you pass on details of the blog to others that you think would be interested, and encourage them to sign up for email updates? I’ve just joined academia.edu in a bid to enhance my own network, but your assistance would be very much appreciated.

And please, please leave some comments! Some people have been kind enough to email/text me about the blog, but it would be great to get some discussion going here.

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading.

Some thoughts on violence in Central Asia

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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. 

Guess the country…

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The UK-based Telegraph newspaper today has a story on what will be the one of the world’s biggest mosques. The start of building on the 115,000-capacity building closely follows the official launch of the world’s tallest flagpole in the same country.

Can you guess where?

A further clue: the mosque, 70% funded by Qatar, has a budget of US$100m, whilst the flagpole is estimated to have cost around US$30m.

Have you guessed yet?

It must be some rich country, right? So perhaps it’s Kazakhstan, the most affluent of the Central Asian countries.

No.

Or maybe it’s closed-to-the-world-Turkmenistan, which has a fine tradition of building grand budget-busting monuments, such a revolving gold statue of the former President.

No again. OK, I’ll put you out of your misery.

It’s Tajikistan, a country where 47% of the population live in poverty (2009, source: World Bank) and where the GDP per capita is $820 (2010, source: World Bank).

Those statistics are so stark compared to the expenditure against the two enormous building projects that it’s almost impossible to know how to try and reconcile them.

But surely a good start for the government would be to pump as much funding into developing the country’s people and resources through improved education, health care, infrastructure, industrial investment – and not into wild constructions that serve only to grab international headlines for a second or two.

What do you think?

A new “Cоюз нерушимый республик свободных”?

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Sorry – I haven’t yet mentioned that some posts may be all or partly in Russian, but I’ll ensure there is always an English translation. In addition, as the blog develops I’m hoping to get a range of colleagues contributing and it may be that some people feel more comfortable writing in Russian.

But the quote in today’s title couldn’t really be in anything other than Russian. If you’re not from the former Soviet Union – or, like me, an avid watcher of all things (post-)Soviet – the title is the first line of the 1977 version of the Soviet national anthem.

It translates as ‘An unbreakable  union of free republics’ and is a reflection of the force and imposed alliance that emanated from the Russian capital of the Soviet Union. (Just talk to anyone in Tajikistan who knows someone working as a migrant labourer in Russia and they will be quick to tell you that the ‘friendship of the people’ is long gone, if indeed it ever existed as more than a construct. But perhaps more on that another time).

The reason for the eyebrows-raised use of the anthem is in response to a story in today’s Moscow Times about everyone’s favourite quasi-President, Vladimir Putin. ‘Putin Calls for New “Euroasian Union” of Former Soviet Countries’ describes a Russian vision for a new (but most definitely not Soviet, we are assured) union involving Russia’s friends Belarus and Kazakhstan but also some of the Central Asian countries.

It’s certainly an interesting idea, but the article doesn’t talk about how the union would interact with pre-existing unions and networks, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (which also involves China) or the customs union between the aforementioned triangle of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Likewise, no opinion on the union from the proposed member countries is given. That said, I’d hazard a guess that Tajik President Emomali Rahmon would say yes (if they bothered to ask him) – the country is falling over itself to accept financial assistance from Russia, although it’s carefully packaged as strategic cooperation.

So what’s the aim of the union and why now? The offical line is that the union would be a ‘bridge’ between countries in Europe and Asia-Pacific, with a focus on Commonwealth of Independent States. That sounds like a way of Russia focussing on countries that it has former connections with where it might not be too hard to impose influence again.

Why now? Well, the Moscow Times points out that there’s a presidential election next year, so Putin may have one eye on some easy wins in his likely presidential campaign. But to be honest, Putin is as Putin does, so this may have come up simply because he felt like it. Just wait for the accompanying photoshoot…

By the way, the full glorious words to the Soviet national anthem are here – a wonderful journey into possibility and propaganda.

Attention-grabbing headline further degrades the value of universities

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I’ve just seen this article in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper and I am seething.

The headline – ‘Students to pay up to £50 an hour to attend lectures’ – is probably the worst part of it. It’s quite literally a cheap shot at universities by trying to demonstrate their worth through some kind of twisted cost/benefit analysis of the value of a lecture.

Yes, I agree that it’s important for future students to understand the benefits they will get from going to university, as opposed to pursuing a different path when they finish school. But these benefits can be extremely difficult to quantify, and for a young person (and, these days, their parents too) thinking about their future, I suspect this article will only add to the sense that there must be a list of tangible (mainly finance-related) outcomes on offer from a university education.

For a much more reasoned and robust perspective on the value of a university education which does not let the dollar signs cloud its views, I recommend an article by Professor Sir David Watson called ‘What is a university for?’

It may have been published back in 2002, but its messages are still very relevant – and in fact Watson kicks off with a 1359 quote from Lady Clare: ‘through their study and teaching at the university, the scholars should discover and acquire the precious pearl of learning so that it does not stay hidden under a bushel but is displayed abroad to enlighten those who walk in the dark paths of ignorance.’

In typical fashion, Watson gives a list of 10 contemporary challenges for British universities. These are:

1. The expansion of the knowledge economy

2. Investment and “something for something”

3. Accountability and the “quality wars”

4. Instrumentality and student choice

5. Student lifestyles

6. The Information Age Mindset

7. Social polarisation

8. Sector organisation

9. Public confidence

10. The necessity of research

Articles like the one in the Telegraph today will simply induce yet another moral panic for the British higher education sector, right at the time when universities should be doing everything they can to overcome the ‘dark paths of ignorance’ by continuing to deliver quality higher education in the face of severe budget cuts.