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.

Starting as I hope to go on…

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Hello, and welcome to my blog! 

All the advice I’ve read about starting a blog says you should focus on one area you’re particularly interested in. Well, I’ve got a lot of quite different interests so I’ve chosen to focus on two areas, which do sometimes overlap:

1. Central Asia and the post-Soviet world

One of the categories I’ve created for this blog is ‘bureaucratic madness’, which should give you a flavour of the way I see a lot of the post-Soviet world. Having personally experienced plenty of volokita (Russian for ‘red tape’) over the years, I now enjoy admiring the craziness from the comparatively genteel bureaucracy of the UK, where I currently live.

As well as observing inane laws and practices, I have a more serious interest in the development of the post-Soviet space, particularly in Central Asia, so I’ll plan to report on more sobering news and stories too. 

2. Higher education

I’ve worked in this field for over a decade and completed an MBA in Higher Education Management in 2011, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that I take a keen interest in policy and developments in higher education.

I plan to post stories and comments on the things that get me most excited/worked up. I expect that this will be mainly UK-based but I also follow international systems, particularly in developing countries.

My main geographic focus internationally is, yes, you guessed it, Central Asian higher education. There is almost nothing written about this field so one of my aims in life (with my academic hat on) is to research this area and get more people around the world thinking about it.

 

I’ve already got a few stories to post about, so I’ll end the intro post here and move on. Enjoy the blog and do please let me know if you have suggestions or ideas for future posts or themes.

Emma