Bureaucratic madness

Bureaucracy 2.0: Red tape redux in Tajikistan

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Bureaucracy lives and thrives in the higher education institutions of Central Asia. It may be more than 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed but the volokita (red tape i.e. bureaucracy) that the USSR was so well known for remains in many social institutions of the formerly Soviet states. Universities are no exception.

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An aerial view of the UCA Khorog campus in its first phase of development (C) University of Central Asia

Opened to great aplomb in September 2017, the second campus of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan follows hot on the heels of the opening of the first campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan a year earlier.

Created in 2000, the University of Central Asia (UCA) aims to foster economic and social development in mountainous communities in Central Asia, with a novel model to open three campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Each should attract people from within the countries and from further abroad, provide a “world-class” education (something, it seems, all universities now aspire to), and create a new generation of leaders, business people and so on.

That’s the grand, expensive, and truly remarkable vision for UCA.

The reality of working with the three host states has proved quite different, as recent events exemplify.

Unconfirmed rumours are circulating that UCA won’t in fact be able to run its new courses at the Khorog campus this year because they haven’t got all their documents in order.

Yes, you heard that right.

A state of the art brand new university (I was able to visit the campus shortly before it opened, and can confirm that the facilities are quite outstanding) that has been set up with the explicit purpose of trying to improve life in Tajikistan is being forced to suspend its activities because of a paperwork problem.

A story that started on independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus’ website on October 6 claimed that not all the documents required to receive a state licence to run a university have been received and as a result, the Ministry of Education and Science has not yet formally given approval for UCA to operate in Tajikistan.

That original story now appears unavailable but another news agency, Ozodagon, took up the story on October 11 [ru], although appeared to have little to add to the facts.

UCA declined to be interviewed by Ozodagon other than to say that the story carried by Asia-Plus was incorrect.

Apparently UCA will continue teaching, either online or by transferring the first Khorog cohort to Naryn, where business continues as usual.

originalWhether or not it is true that UCA’s licence has not been granted (and my reading is that it is not, but that there is likely some truth around the edges), the more important point this story raises is the pervasive nature of bureaucracy in Tajikistan and the related problem of getting a job done.

Where is the incentive to innovate, to set up a small business, bring in foreign investment – or yes, even open a university – when the requirements set by the state for doing so are so difficult and extensive? Of course it’s important that enterprises operating within the jurisdiction of a state adhere to regulations laid out by that state and endeavour to do the best job they can.

But in the case of Tajikistan, the bureaucracy goes too far.

During my fieldwork this summer, I witnessed this first hand. A university administrator was attempting to get a piece of documentation signed off by a Ministry of Education official, and after many months of hard work with many colleagues across the university had the document ready. The document was significant in length and recounted in detail the curriculum plans for that particular institution for the forthcoming academic year.

Despite dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s (almost literally), the administrator returned from the visit to the Ministry crestfallen. The civil servant had refused to sign the document.

Why?

Because the document had not quite printed properly and three letters were missing from one word.

The word itself was understandable despite missing the last few letters.

Eventually, after several anguished hours of working out how to fix this without re-printing the document – which had been produced on a special size of paper – a very manual cut and paste job saved the day.

After a second trip to the Ministry, the mandatory signature and stamp were received to the great relief of my administrator colleague.

This entire spectacle appears to solve no purpose other than provide personal satisfaction to the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Education. Look under the surface and there’s a lot more at stake. Corruption – the possibility of making someone’s life so difficult that it’s easier to pay a bribe than go through the legal channels – is high up on the agenda.

The broader political agenda of the Tajik government also plays a role, which is a subject for more detailed discussion another time.

And then there’s the possibility that the two incidents mentioned above merely symbolize an extreme level of bureaucratization of the sort that Weber, in laying out his ideas about the modern rational and technical era over a century ago, could not have begun to imagine.

Emomali

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The President of Tajikistan (his official title is now somewhat longer and less catchy: The Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, His Excellency Emomali Rahmon) strikes a great pose and can be found in action all over Tajikistan. I’ve saved you the trouble of traipsing around the capital Dushanbe by creating this gallery of posters, taken this summer, purely for your viewing pleasure. No, really, you’re welcome.

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Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarships

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Got a degree but don’t want to use your qualification working out in the middle of nowhere without your family and earning a pittance?

If you’re a graduate of a Tajik university and you’ve had funding from the state to support your studies, the ruling of a regional court this week is that if this rural employment opportunity doesn’t appeal, TOUGH LUCK. You either go or you repay your scholarship instead.

State scholarship students are contractually bound to work in a job that’s in line with their area of study for three years after graduating and this judicial reinforcement of the rules underlines that there’s very little tolerance in Tajikistan for anyone who disagrees with the government’s thinking.

One of four Tajik graduates who’s been ordered to repay their scholarship explains that he declined the school teaching job offered to him because it would have meant leaving his family and children to work in a rural area and on top of that, not earning enough to provide for his children. From that perspective, you can understand why he chose to overlook the clause in his scholarship contract he’d agreed to several years before.

The idea that scholarships are provided conditionally is not unusual – the British government, for example, requires its Chevening Scholars to leave the country at the end of their studies and has the power to cancel UK visas should the scholar apply to stay after completing their studies. In addition, many private foundations and organisations offering scholarships to study abroad do so with the provision that the scholar will return at some point in the future, thus bringing back the benefit of their learning and experiences to their home country (though they don’t have the enforcement power of a government that also manages visas!). Fair enough, you might say.

This case, however, doesn’t come across quite as reasonably as the examples I have just given. Fundamentally, until and unless the labour market improves in Tajikistan, the supply of good jobs for university graduates is slim, which can force graduates to look for opportunities that don’t directly connect to the subject they studied. The connections between subject of study and employment sector are no longer as closely aligned as they were under the centrally planned Soviet system, which controlled not just the flow of jobs but the supply of subjects in each university.

In parts of the world, it is common for graduates to seek work that may not instinctively seem to connect with what they studied at university, but in fact the connections lie in the applicability of the skills the graduate has learned during their study. And there are some jobs that you can’t do a degree in, like many of the jobs in university administration. So, for example, someone with a history degree might end up working as a university manager (like me): whilst I don’t work on the university’s archives or do other directly historical-related work, I do employ the analytical, writing, teamwork and other skills I learned as an undergraduate.

Another reason that this case doesn’t sit comfortably relates to the low salaries of state employees, including teachers. Many graduates who would otherwise be well qualified to work in schools are deliberately choosing work in other areas, notably the private sector and aid/development organisations in Tajikistan because the salaries and conditions are a great improvement on the meagre pay packet the state is able to offer.

Now that this case has been to court and the court ruled in favour of the government, Tajik students should think carefully before signing their names on the dotted line of a state scholarship contract.

My translation of the original article by Alexander Shabalin [ru] that appears in News-Asia this week (and has been syndicated to a number of other agencies) is below, and attached with the original Russian version here: Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarship money.

Tajik graduates ordered to repay state scholarship funding for not working in line with area of study

Alexander Shabalin, © News-Asia, http://www.news-asia.ru/view/society//8427

Translation © Emma Sabzalieva

24 June 2015

Four Tajik university graduates have been accused of not working according in line with their area of study (referred to in the region as ‘specialism’) after finishing university. The Sughd Regional Court has ordered the young people to repay 32,000 Tajik somoni (USD$5,000) to the government.

The court found the four graduates of Khujand University guilty of not having completed a government requirement of working in their specialist area (i.e. the industry most closely linked to the subject studied at university). One of the graduates, Abdushukur Ustoboev, who completed a degree with the specialism ‘Folk Art’ at the Faculty of Painting and Graphics at Khujand State University, said that he had to turn down work as an art teacher in a rural school because of the salary, which was so low he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family. He also noted that he wasn’t in a position to repay the 8,000 somoni (USD$1,300) payment ordered by the court.

“I understand that the government has supported our education, but you also need to understand that I am not prepared to repay the money following the court order. I was told to work in a remote rural school as an art teacher for three years after graduating and to live there without my family and children. I didn’t do it, and now I’ve been prosecuted for it,” said Abdushukur Ustoboev.

The Tajik Ministry of Education requires university students receiving state scholarships to work for three years after graduating in a job allocated to them according to their area of study. This requirement is in place because the government wants to get a return on its financial investment in the students’ education – and in this case, this meant sending them to work in schools in remote mountainous regions of the country. According to official figures, there is a shortage of more than 600 school teachers in a range of subject areas in the Sughd region.

Mamura Yusufzoda, Press Secretary for the Rector of Khujand State University, said that there was no one to teach the specialisms studied by the four graduates who came before the court (painting and graphics, geo-ecology, biology and chemistry) to in schools outside of large towns in Tajikistan. As a result, the university decided to take tougher measures against any students who didn’t want to take up work in their specialist area. According to the figures held by the university’s lawyers, 40 out of 500 completing students at Khujand State University refused to work according to their specialism in 2014. The university’s lawyers also reported that, before enrolling at university, every state-funded scholarship student signs a contract which explains their obligation to work for three years in a place where they can use their specialism. Only after that time does the graduate have the right to receive their degree certificate.

High heels in the headlines again

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What is it about Tajik educational leaders and fashion? Not content with the controversy this caused last year (see my articles high heels for higher learning and high heels hit the headlines), the Pro-Rector of the Tajik Pedagogical University has followed in the (high-heeled?) footsteps of his Rector Abdujabbor Rahmonov by banning several female students from class yesterday… for wearing shoes without heels.

Pro-Rector Iskandar Aminov said “We don’t want these girls who’ve turned up in shoes without heels to fall ill in this weather. These girls are future mothers, and our roads are full of water. In those shoes they could get ill. It would be better if they wore heeled shoes. Scientific advice supporting this initiative suggests that girls [coming to university] shouldn’t be allowed in with shoes without heels.”

The six ‘girls’ (where has the respect gone for these poor women?) were sent home to change their shoes.

The story [ru], reported yesterday by Ozodagon, a Tajik news agency, is starting to spread very quickly on social media. People are discussing it vigorously; there is outrage (especially among women) that people are being dictated to about the way they dress; there is also bemusement that someone in such a senior position could genuinely think that there is ‘scientific’ evidence somewhere out there to support this.

Readers outside of Central Asia may well be wondering how on earth a university – supposedly a fount of knowledge and learning – could make such an outlandish proclamation. Those of you who are more familiar with Tajikistan are more likely to see this absurdity as yet another example of  the misguided way that the country is supposedly being run.

 

High heels for higher learning?

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A scandal is bubbling between the Rector of the Tajik State Pedagogical University, Abdujabbor Rahmonov, and the only vocal national newspaper (inasmuch as it can be vocal in Tajikistan), Asia-Plus. The reason? The rector’s decision to impose a supplementary dress code on female students requiring them to wear high heeled shoes (though only up to 10cm high) and clothes made of single-block colour [ru].

I read through Asia-Plus’ latest reportage on the situation with complete bewilderment. Could it really be that the Rector believes that ordering such a dress code (which is much more explicit than the national dress code for university students) – and having security guards at the entrance of the university checking this in what in Russian is called face control – will enhance female students’ learning experience? Will it make them smarter or better equipped to learn?

Of course, the answer is no.

This is not the first time Abdujabbor Rahmonov has interfered in such affairs. As Minister of Education, he introduced a dress code into schools which included such rules as banning male teachers from having beards.

The worrying part of what would otherwise be simply a farce is that the Asia-Plus journalist who attempted to ascertain whether the university really had imposed this enhanced dress code by interviewing female students wound up in the local police station. The Rector then requested that the police investigate [ru] what he calls the ‘incorrect and illegal actions of the journalist’, allegedly so because Rahmonov happened to appear in the background of some of the journalist’s photos (she explains that he was driving in to the university when she was taking photos of the female students she had been interviewing). The good news is that the police have decided not to take the request forward [ru], as they don’t believe that the journalist had been breaking the law.

Public reaction on Asia-Plus’ Facebook page [ru/tj] has been one of both outrage, disbelief and lack of surprise. Here’s a typical (repeatable!) quote: “Where is Tajikistan and its government heading? Rather than starting with high heels… it would be better to strengthen teaching, stop bribe-taking and simply give students the chance to study…”

New Year, new you? Father Christmas redesigned, Uzbek style

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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.

Tajik students not allowed to attend foreign-run events

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Having read about this last week, I was all set to think about the implications of the rather bizarre announcement from the Tajik Ministry of Education that they would be banning students from attending events run by foreign organisations. However, the kind people at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting have done this for me, so please find below a reprint of Galim Fastukhdinov’s article. You can also access it at http://iwpr.net/report-news/tajik-students-warned-foreign-events; (c) IWPR.

 

Tajik Students Warned Off “Foreign” Events

Fears that government wants to limit young people’s contact with ideas from abroad.
1 Nov 12
 

New instructions barring students in Tajikistan from attending events funded by foreign donors have alarmed civil society groups, who fear the measure will deny young people opportunities to broaden their horizons.

Commentators struggling to understand the decision have speculated that the authorities are acting out of fears that young people will become politicised by events which focus on democracy-building or leadership skills.

On October 8, the Central Asian state’s education ministry sent out written instructions to the heads of all universities, telling them to stop students participating in conferences, seminars and training courses arranged by international organisations, as such events were against the law.

The move came as a shock, as the Tajik government – which itself receives a lot of donor assistance – does not have a record of clamping down on activities run by international agencies or by local NGOs with funding from abroad.

When the media got hold of the education ministry document, it prompted fierce discussions.

In an attempt to take some of the heat out of the debate, the deputy education minister Farhod Rahimov, who put his name to the instruction, said the sole intention was to ensure that students turned up for classes, and said they were free to go to events in their spare time.

In an interview for IWPR, the head of the ministry’s international relations department, Tamara Nasimova, took a similar line, insisting there was no plan to shut out foreign influence, and pointing out that individual universities as well as the ministry itself had a free hand to set up international ties.

At the same time, Nasimova made it clear the education authorities were concerned about certain unspecified foreign groups which got young people involved in their activities without informing the relevant official bodies.

“No one knows what training methods they use or what they intend to teach young people,” she said, noting that the ministry wanted the organisers of such events to inform it and the university administration about the aim, number of participants and so on.

She said the ministry had refused to grant the London-based group International Alert permission to hold a one-week student camp this autumn, and had suggested postponing it until next summer.

In some cases, university administrators appear to be so keen to be following ministry orders that they have imposed their own, more rigorous rules.

The German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, for example, found that a planned meeting with students to brief them and test their language skills was cancelled. DAAD has a cooperation agreement in place with the education ministry, and had advance agreement for the October 23 event, in the northern city of Khujand.

DAAD representative Gulchehra Kakharova said the last-minute cancellation by Khujand university came as a blow to students who had been preparing for the test in the hope of winning scholarships to study in Germany.

Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, said he suspected the government wanted to prevent students becoming more politically aware and developing a better knowledge of events in the outside world.

“Participating in foreign [-funded] programmes and projects gives them an opportunity to develop leadership skills and engage with global trends,” he said.

Hakimov said the authorities might be especially nervous because the 2013 presidential election was coming up, and he also drew parallels with the Russian government’s clampdown on foreign-funded NGOs.

In Tajikistan, he said, there was little chance that civil society groups could source funding locally, so a more restrictive attitude to foreign funding would really squeeze them.

Farrukh Umarov, a researcher at Tajikistan’s Centre for Strategic Studies, said the ministry instruction followed by a public outcry followed a familiar pattern.

The government had a habit of imposing blanket bans on anything it considered a threat, without trying to test the public mood first, he said. The education ministry had previously outlawed both Islamic dress and miniskirts.

“In our country, a radical decision gets made without preparing public opinion for it. Then it’s implemented and leads to an outcry,” Umarov said.

Students at Tajik universities fear they will lose out on opportunities for contact with the outside world.

“Educational programmes run by international organisations have been useful because they offer us a chance to learn more than we’re taught at university,” a student in the capital Dushanbe said.

Asking not to be named, the student said he feared he could be expelled from his university if he continued attending events of this kind.

Another student asked, “What’s so bad about this? Take foreign-language courses, for instance. They haven’t had a negative impact on my studies. Now we’ll lose out on this.”

Galim Faskhutdinov is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.

If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at feedback.ca@iwpr.net.