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.

It’s official – China now owns part of Tajikistan

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Wrapping up a deal done earlier this year, China has now formally taken over 1% of Tajikistan in the desolate eastern Tajik Pamir mountain range. A short but interesting – and ever so slightly sardonic – story on this is on the Asian Correspondent .

At the time, the Tajik government claimed moral victory over their gigantic and ever more powerful neighbours because they had not conceded (sorry, should I say “traded”) the full amount of land that China had asked for.

But friends and colleagues in Tajikistan complained to me over the summer that for a country the size of Greece, even 1% of landmass makes a difference. The main question I heard was “but why does China need even more land?”

It seems to me that the answer is: China doesn’t need more land, but what it does want to do is demonstrate its strength and cement the trading relationship that is putting Tajikistan increasingly into the hands of its new eastern master.

Chinese goods are already apparent everywhere, from “odnorazovie noski” (a pejorative Russian term for the quality of the Chinese socks that are sold in Tajik markets, suggesting they’re only good for one use) to Chinese workers re-asphalting the roads in the capital Dushanbe ahead of the country’s 20th anniversary celebrations earlier this year.

It makes you wonder what China’s next step will be…

Where in the world would you least expect high property costs?

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You could provide several answers to that question, but the article I’m posting here looks at Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. No, really.
 
Intrigued? Read the full article on the wonderful Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website for more.
 
By the way, this is my first post in the ‘bureaucratic madness’ category and it shows the really very detrimental impact that a poor taxation and manufacturing situation can have on a country.

Poverty and prejudice afflict Central Asian migrants in Moscow

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An interesting story from the Washington Post, reprinted here in the Seattle Times, focussing on the lifestyle of Tajik and Uzbek migrants working in Moscow.

Nation & World | Poverty, prejudice afflict migrants to Moscow | Seattle Times Newspaper.