Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer

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This week, four stories that at first glance appear quite different…

Kyrgyzstan photo (c) Telegraph

The UK’s Telegraph has featured a number of articles on Central Asia recently, and  the report I’d like to bring to your attention now is about the opening of a new British Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. This is, as the newspaper notes, ‘despite budget cutbacks’. Why now, you might ask, especially as Britain’s had embassies in the other Central Asian nations for longer – even in Tajikistan since 2003. The UK’s Foreign Office claims that this is for ‘strategic’ reasons, principally the fact that it hosts a US airbase (though new President Atambayev says he might close that down, which would appease Russia) but also because of the countries it borders.

China is also very interested in its borderlands, as this article from China Daily about Kazakhstan demonstrates.

Loading up the bus from China to Kazakhstan, (c) China Daily

Despite the long queues and visa troubles, it’s essentially an upbeat story about the importance of Chinese goods to the Kazakh market.  It’s fascinating to see the way China is positioned as the ‘elder brother’ in the relationship, and Kazakhstan as the poorer younger sibling – especially when the relative wealth of Kazakhstan is set against other Central Asian nations.

Eurasia.net also ran a story recently about the importance of a neighbouring country for economic benefit. However, this was the reverse of the bullish Chinese view, as in this case it’s all about how the Russian economy is propping up Tajikistan, which is now officially (according to the World Bank) the most remittance-dependent country in the world. As we saw during the recent diplomatic incident between Russia and Tajikistan, many Russians are starting to get fed up of this.

Finally, a story from Reuters about the role of nostalgia for the Soviet Union in keeping the Commonwealth of Independent States together. It brings together some of the content of the others stories I’ve mentioned and features some interesting Central Asian case studies.

So why bring these four seemingly disparate articles together? For me, there is a connection and it’s in the title of the post, which is a quote from Sun-tzu, the Chinese general and military strategist from the 5th century BCE.  All of these articles show that even in a world of borders, visas and nationalism, no country can exist without political, cultural and economic relationships with other nations. Or to paraphrase 16th century English poet John Donne, “no country is an island entire of itself; every country is a piece of the continent…”

Developments in Central Asian higher education, part 2: Kyrgyzstan

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Today, Kyrgyzstan swore in Almazbek Atambayev as its new President, the first peaceful transition of power in the country. Молодцы! This was an historic moment and widely reported: I liked stories on MSNBC and the ever-reliable BBC, as well as reporting by 24, a Kyrgyz news agency (in Russian). The UAE-based newspaper The Nation rightly praises the achievements of outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva.

Thus today seems a good time to continue my mini series on developments in Central Asian higher education by reflecting on the Kyrgyz higher education sector. This quote from the Asian Development Bank (2011) is a useful summary of the context:

“The country faces huge challenges in economic recovery, reconstruction, and social reconciliation. Success will not be easy given the considerable pressure on public financial resources in a weakened economy. Achieving sustainable robust economic growth remains the major challenge facing the country.”

I would identify two main trends in Kyrgyz higher education since 1991:

1. The growth of private providers offering university-level courses

This trend is not unique to Kyrgyzstan – Russia in particular has seen a massive upswing in the number of private providers since the end of everything-run-by-the-state communism. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) estimates that Kyrgyzstan has one of the largest private funding sources in higher education in the world. This has led many commentators to claim that higher education has become a market – Slabodyanyuk even says “Временами оно даже напоминает базар. Главная цель – продать товар.” (“Sometimes they even remind of you of a bazaar. The main aim is to sell goods.”)

Often, private providers replace a gap in state funding, but in Kyrgyzstan the higher education sector has not suffered from the same cuts as in other countries: in fact, more than 20% of public expenditure goes on education (at all levels). It appears the challenges noted by the Asian Development Bank are holding the government back from achieving its goals.

This leads on to the second trend, which puts Kyrgyzstan apart from many other post-Soviet countries:

2. An emphasis on quality and participation

The country has high expectations for education and rising participation rates and overall higher education policy is oriented towards improving quality. It is the only Central Asian country to have participated in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), demonstrating a commitment by the government to assessing educational levels and development at international standards. The government has also begun the process – like in Kazakhstan – of making the higher education system more compatible with the Bologna Process. However, in the 2006 PISA assessment, the country was ranked last out of 57 participating countries.

A subsequent OECD/IBRD report concludes that “there is a pressing need to modernize higher education in the Kyrgyz Republic so it can respond to the needs of a small economy for educated human capital”. The poor result of the PISA assessment must be set against the context of recent political challenges, but nevertheless indicates that the sector needs to be managed more efficiently, primarily by the Ministry of Education and Science but also by universities themselves.

Amsler has suggested that education systems in Central Asia suffer from a status of ‘global inferiority’. However, this mini report on Kyrgyz higher education suggests to me that there are some glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel, which come from the government’s commitment to making improvements. This commitment may not yet have led to the efficiency and equality of opportunity that is being strived towards, but what has happened so far is at least some progress. That is more than can be said of other post-Soviet countries.

 

References

Amsler, S. (2008). Higher Education Reform in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. In J. E. Canaan & W. Shumar (Eds.), Structure and Agency in the Neoliberal University. Abingdon: Routledge.

Asian Development Bank. (2011). Economic Trends and Prospects in Developing Asia:Central Asia.

National Tempus Office Kyrgyzstan. (October 2010). Higher Education in Kyrgyzstan: European Commission.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development & The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. (2010). Kyrgyz Republic 2010: Lessons from PISA.Paris: OECD.

Slabodyanyuk, N. (no date) Как выбрать университет? (How to choose a university?) http://www.inform.kg/ru/kak_vybrat_universitet/

Political myth or reality in Kazakhstan?

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I was interested to read a story on the American Washington Post website about the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The article seems intended to be light-hearted but I actually found it a little contradictory. The title makes it clear that the newspaper believes Nazarbayev to be authoritarian and paints a negative picture of his style of rule, but then says ‘Nazarbayev enjoys genuine popularity and is widely seen as a guarantor of stability…’. Stability should not be underestimated in a country that was not able to rule itself for 80 years and at the fall of the Soviet Union was thrown into all sorts of tumult.

That is not to say the governments of Kazakhstan or other Central Asian nations are perfect (or sometimes even just “good”), but the point I’m trying to make is that Western reporting of Central Asia is generally negative and can be patronising too, often implicitly suggesting that the way things are done is inferior to the way “we” do it.

That’s why I was happier to see EurasiaNet’s story about the President’s daughter. I can’t deny that its underlying precept is somewhat cynical, but at least it doesn’t pretend that other countries do things any better – the closing quote suggests Tony Blair (whose foundation was recently appointed to advise the Kazakh government): ‘might want to offer the president a piece of advice: Don’t rewrite political history in a bid to burnish your democratic credentials’.

Whilst I’m on the topic of Kazakhstan, I’d like to draw your attention to Vox Populi, a Kazakh news website that uses photos to tell stories. They recently launched a special project looking back on 20 years of independence. It’s absolutely fascinating, not just for people who didn’t live through the fall of the Soviet Union, but also for people who did and were too young to really remember the politics of it all.

Vox Populi has got five years of photos and explanatory captions published, with more to come. Click on the years to view: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995. Each year also has a slide show mode (on the right hand side next to the title). The comments from site users are also worth reading!

English Russia also has the 1991 photos with well translated English captions.

Have a great weekend!

The end of the affair… for now

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Well, it took two weeks but the Russian and Estonian pilots have today been released from jail after their sentences were reduced to 2,5 years, of which they’ve served six months and the remaining two years were pardoned.

Are you surprised?

No, I thought not. Me neither.

So how will both sides recover from what has been an almighty diplomatic disaster?

It’s important to note that this is far less important an issue for Russia than it is for Tajikistan. So for Russia, the follow up action is to drop its sanctions-based threats. There have been two of these: firstly, that fruit and vegetables from Tajikistan would be banned on health grounds. (My journalist friend Dima makes some very perceptive comments on the wider issue of food sanctions at the end of a previous post.) Secondly, the Russian health ministry can stop its scaremongering about the risk that Tajik migrants in Russia are carrying HIV or other viruses, this of course being a perfect excuse to send them home.

It will take more effort on the part of the Tajik government as it will have to attempt to regain some trust and goodwill from Russia. The government may not want to, but it will want to have the million-odd Tajik migrant workers sent back unemployed from Russia even less. Further, the Tajik government is still angling after Russian support for the construction of the Rogun dam and for a range of other projects.

Thus the economic imperative will win out and in a few months’ time we’ll be back to where we were before, a post-imperial dependency that shows no signs of becoming a more equal partnership.

In the meantime, I hope that the impact of this flare-up does not make life bad for the individuals that high level politicking seem to ignore, such as all the Tajiks in Russia who are trying to do their jobs and make some money to help their families at home. My thoughts right now are for the safety and well-being of these people. Let the governments fend for themselves.

 

 

Straws on a camel’s back

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The “aeroplane affair” between Russia and Tajikistan, as I suspected, shows no sign of landing (excuse the pun) anytime soon. Konstantin Parshin has – again – written an excellent article summarising what’s happened over the last few days, so if you’re not following this story elsewhere (and even if you are), do read what he has to say. He’s based in Tajikistan and clearly has his ear to the ground.

Whilst my previous post about this incident took a somewhat sardonic look at the latest episode of post-Soviet squabbling, I have since been reflecting much more seriously about the repercussions this event could have for the political scene in Tajikistan.

Think about the following sentences as a chain of events, each magnifying the impact of the one before it. The first few hundred migrants have now been sent home from Russia and there are threats that more will follow. I hear reports from Moscow-based Tajiks that they are too afraid to leave their apartments due to anti-immigrant/nationalistic feeling amongst Russians. If this continues for a while, then they will probably lose their jobs for not turning up. If they lose their jobs, they lose their source of income. They may get sent home by the Russian government in any case. So the income from migrant workers’ wages that the Tajik economy is so dependent on starts to drop. Large numbers of mainly young men, mainly from rural areas, may come back to Tajikistan, and there certainly aren’t jobs for them to go to: that’s why they left in the first place. Then consider the altered social circumstances that these men will find when they return to their villages and see how the women/old men/children have been adapting without them.

All this leaves you with a a shrinking economy and more significantly, potentially a large group of unemployed young people  with not much in the world going well for them.

And it’s not just this situation which could have longer lasting impact, as stories are circulating about a host of other issues that are making people in Tajikistan angry and frustrated:

  • an incident on the north-west border with Uzbekistan, where shots were fired over an alleged illegal border crossing with a possible fatality on the Uzbek side
  • allegations that a pensioner in the south of Tajikistan slapped the President in anger at the government initiative asking Tajiks to buy shares in the Rogun dam project when many people don’t even earn enough through salary or pension to provide basic food and shelter for themselves and their families
  • ongoing frustrations in the Gorno Badakhshan Semi-Autonomous Region in the east of the country towards the national government, where the appetite for full independence appears to be on the rise again

Now set these events and feelings against what’s happening in two other Central Asian states. Whilst the recent presidential election in Kyrgyzstan wasn’t perfect, it was at least peaceful and led to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe saying they feel “cautiously optimistic about the future of democracy in Kyrgyzstan”. And in Kazakhstan, the President – not known for his overtly democratic tendencies – has today called a snap election for January 2012 in order to try and increase the number of parties in parliament (currently just one party is represented).

And then finally consider the impact that a lot of very angry and frustrated people in other parts of the world have had over the last year, notably North Africa. No one is yet talking about whether there will be a “Libya effect” in Tajikistan, but with increasing internet literacy and access, it can be expected that many Tajiks – particularly those in urban areas – may be very knowledgeable about the events of the Arab Spring.

Add all of these parts together and you see that there are already many straws loaded on the camel’s back. The question is, just how many more straws can it take before the load will become too heavy?

Russian pilots and Tajik workers, or How to lose friends and alienate people

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For the last few weeks, I haven’t had any interesting stories to report under my favourite ‘bureaucratic madness’ category. Central Asia seems to have been a pretty sensible place of late.

However, I’m pleased to report that the Tajik government is back on form with a new episode of red tape craziness. As I’ve suggested in the title, this episode could be subtitled “How to lose friends and alienate people”, paraphrasing a hugely popular book called “How to win friends and influence people” by Dale Carnegie, first published back in 1936.

Back in March 2011, two ethnic Russian pilots (by nationality, one is Russian and the other Estonian, although no news stories seem to know or care what the Estonian government thinks) were arrested for supposedly crossing the Tajik border illegally and smuggling aircraft parts into Tajikistan, and possibly on some other charges too. A few days ago, a Tajik court jailed them for 8 1/2 years.

Both pilots, whose day job is to fly humanitarian missions to Afghanistan, claim that they had been given verbal permission to make an emergency landing as their fuel supplies were running short. Under international norms, this request should be granted.

Moscow’s reaction has been quick and uncompromising, as reported for example by Russia Today in its story “Moscow outrage at Tajik sentence for Russian pilots“.  In essence: release the pilots or else we will throw out several hundred Tajik migrant workers.

Around a million Tajiks – mostly men – work in Russia and the remittances they send back home basically ensure that the cogs maintaining the country’s economy don’t totally grind to a halt. So the Russian government knows exactly how to hit Tajikistan where it hurts the most.

A Russian woman holds a poster aimed at Tajiks. It says “If you don’t want to be friends, then we won’t let you pump money out of Russia.” Awww, how sweet…
Image (c)  Novaya Gazeta 

An indication that this story is not yet over comes from an article on Pravda.ru published just a few hours before I started this blog post. “Tajikistan has promised to solve the problem of the Russian pilot” (in Russian) claims that the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has personally undertaken to sort this issue out. Tellingly, a quote from a high-ranking Tajik diplomat notes the importance of observing “союзнические отношения” (hard to translate, but akin to union-like relations, “union” here as in Soviet Union not trade union) with Russia.

This point suggests to me that the Tajik government has realised that “messing with Russia usually backfires”. This quote comes from a great article called “Dushanbe’s plane caper not flying with the Kremlin” by Konstantin Parshin for Eurasia.net, where the site’s usual dry humour comes out best with stories like this.

On a more serious note, Novaya Gazeta’s “We are all Tajiks now” (in Russian) reflects more broadly on the situation, examining it through a political/racial perspective. It’s a genuinely interesting article, though the comments at the end are disappointing.

So what have we learned from this episode, which is still rumbling on?

Well, the Soviet Union might be 20 years dead, but Russia still holds significant influence over (some of) its former Union-cousins, particularly those that are poor and not rich in natural resources.

Tajikistan has made some tentative move towards partnerships with other powers – in particular China, Iran, and the USA – but the “special relationship” with Russia still seems to hold sway. I suspect that whilst 1/7 of the population resides in Russia, the Motherland will continue to remain Tajikistan’s most strategic partner, although it’s certainly not an equal partnership.

And finally, someone really should translate “How to win friends and influence people” into Tajik…

Why study abroad?

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I’ve just had a conference paper proposal accepted and so have been thinking in some detail about study abroad, the subject of my paper. The conference is called ‘Micro-level analysis of well-being in Central Asia’ and will be held at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin next May.

My paper will be looking at the impact of studying abroad on the well-being of Tajik nationals. ‘Well-being’ can be defined both as an ambition to make one’s life better, as well as the steps a person takes to help them achieve their ambition.

My interest in study abroad tendencies has two roots:

  1. In particular, from observing study abroad motivations and trends, as well as the impact studying abroad has on colleagues and friends from Central Asia;
  2. More generally, from working with international students at universities in London and Oxford.

So when I found out about the conference it seemed like a great opportunity to explore study abroad in more detail. I will shortly start doing interviews to examine the lifecycle of the educational experience:

  • Motivations for study abroad
  • Prior to departure, perceptions of the impact of study abroad on well-being
  • Experiences gained whilst studying abroad (e.g. process of studying, living in and adapting to a new country)
  • Post-study abroad decisions: do students return to Tajikistan? Why/why not? What qualities/experience/skills/values do they take from their experience of studying abroad and how does this impact on and change their level of well-being?
  • The impact and perceptions of the educational experience of individuals for their families and communities

If you are from Tajikistan and you are studying abroad now, or have studied abroad, and would like to be interviewed for this study, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave me a comment here, or contact me via Facebook or LinkedIn.

I’ll be posting occasional updates on my study as it progresses. If you’d like to discuss any aspect of it in more detail, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.