News agency Avesta has published possibly the most boring story I’ve read about the prospects for higher education cooperation between Tajikistan and China. Seriously, this post could easily have been called ‘Diplomacy wins, or: How to make a story from nothing’.
Bear in mind I read a lot of news stories about education in Central Asia (I know, I know, it’s a selfless task) and I come across my fair share of government-issued press releases or uncritical adulation of whatever new policy the Eternal Leader of the Spotless Country has come up with.
But this one was so vague and, well, diplomatic that I am translating it in full so that English language readers can share my pain (Russian language readers, you can check out the original here):
Education cooperation between universities in Tajikistan and China discussed in Beijing
Avesta.tj, 3 December 2019
The Ambassador of Tajikistan to China Parviz Davlatzoda visited Beijing City University, the press service of the Republic of Tajikistan in the Chinese People’s Republic reports.
During the Ambassador’s meeting with Liu Song, the Rector of Beijing university, the parties exchanged views on the prospects for cooperation in the areas of science, education and culture.
Parviz Davlatzoda noted that Tajikistan attaches great importance on educational cooperation, particularly in relation to professional training of highly qualified personnel
The Rector of the university and heads of departments acquainted the Tajik diplomat with the University’s phases of development. The main directions of the university’s activities in research and teaching were presented.
The parties also discussed possibilities to cooperation in the field of international education, research and industrial activity.
The parties noted the importance of establishing and developing cooperation between universities in both countries through organizing joint events and participating in each others’ conferences and seminars.
The immportance of actively engaging in academic mobility programmes for students and faculty was also underlined.
Still awake? Well done you, and congratulations Avesta for producing this yawnfest.
The might of Chinese businesses operating in Tajikistan is growing, with news emerging of one company alone that will build three new schools in the country [ru] later this year, supporting over 1,000 students. This is not the first such initiative, which is being posited as evidence of Chinese corporate social responsibility. Other road-building companies have already financed the construction of of seven large schools in Tajikistan.
As the article on Radio Ozodi’s website [ru] points out, China is the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan. For a number of years it has been providing goods for markets and financing and undertaking a great number of construction and infrastructure projects for new roads, buildings and factories.
Chinese companies engaging in extra-mural activities to build schools is in keeping with the Chinese government’s foreign policy on education towards Tajikistan and Central Asia as a whole. In higher education, for example, Chinese efforts have led to the creation of initiatives such as the Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road which includes a Kazakh university partner and the Belt and Road Scholarship scheme targeted at students from Central, South, and South-East Asia.
Radio Ozodi also notes a proposed new Chinese-funded International University in Tajikistan which would accommodate an enormous 40,000 students (to put that into context, the entire tertiary student population of Tajikistan is around 250,000, so this new university would be able to teach nearly a fifth of that number!).
On the one hand, this is a clear example of a foreign government extending its ‘soft power‘ to another state, in this case China continuing to grow its influence in the Central Asia region through marketing-friendly projects in education.
On the other hand, there are also indications that the Tajik government is not just blindly accepting foreign cash. From my thesis research, for example, I’ve found that whilst the government is happy to allow such investment, it is far less content to accept Chinese cultural influence, something that often comes as a by-product of soft power initiatives. So yes, the government takes the money – and goodness knows it needs it – and it’s great that it is being invested in education, but once it’s in Tajikistan, the line is drawn and the money/investment is controlled locally.
Oh, and one of the three new schools – the biggest of the trio – will be in the President’s home region of Dangara. That must be a coincidence. Right?
Seminar // March 5, 2018 // Comparing internationalization in higher education in Tajikistan and Iraq, plus other papers
I’m delighted to invite you to a seminar I have organized being held on Monday March 5, 2018 from 11.30am-1pm in Toronto and also livestreamed online.
The seminar showcases some of the student research on internationalization in higher education being done at my faculty, OISE, that will be presented at the prestigious Comparative & International Education Society Annual Conference in late March.
It’s an opportunity for us to give our presentations a trial run and get your feedback, and for you to learn about our research without travelling all the way to Mexico City where the conference is being held!
There will be four presentations, each lasting 15 minutes, with a question and answer session at the end moderated by OISE faculty member Dr Elizabeth Buckner.
I will be giving a presentation with Hayfa Jafar on our brand new study Iraq and Tajikistan, two countries where dramatic political, social and economic changes have taken place over the last 30 years. As these two states recover from the impact of conflict and international isolation, spaces are being created for higher education to open up and (re)connect with the international academic community. In our study, we look closely at internationalization of higher education as a symbol of change by examining and comparing the experiences of academics in both countries.
The other presentations, detailed in the poster below, take us on a global journey through the liberal arts curriculum in China’s Christian universities, the intersection of regionalization with internationalization in Chile and Brazil, and the experiences of leaders of internationalization in Ontario universities.
It promises to be a fascinating session and I hope you can join us. If you are in Toronto, the seminar is in room 7-105 at OISE (address in the poster below). If you would like to join us online, go to https://classroom.oise.utoronto.ca/cidec (enter as a Guest).
Test your connection ahead of time at https://admin.adobeconnect.com/common/help/en/support/meeting _test.htm
I recently reported on a new China-led university alliance, and noted the increasing influence of China in Central Asia.
So I thought it was good timing to note that Kyrgyz career diplomat and Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Abdyldaev was recently awarded an honorary academic post by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The award of Honorary Professor at the Chinese Diplomatic Academy (attached to the Ministry) came in recognition of Abdyldaev’s contributions to building relations between the two countries. Abdyldaev is a fluent Chinese speaker and lived for many years in China as a Soviet diplomat/Kyrgyz ambassador.
The use of honorary titles in academia is common around the world’s higher education systems. The award of such titles can be used by higher education institutions as a way to recognize an individual’s achievements, their contribution to the institution/community, or to symbolize something the institution wants to tell you about its values and principles. They can also be a way to build or cement a relationship with the individual (or whoever/whatever it is that the individual represents).
Witness, for example, the award of honorary doctorate to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev from Japan’s Tokai University and Korea University, both in 2010. In both cases, the awarding universities stressed the importance of country-to-country and institution-to-institution cooperation and the Kazakh government’s Bolashak scholarships, which have provided good funding for many students to study in both countries.
In the case of the Kyrgyz-Chinese connection noted above, the honorary title goes beyond institution to the level of the state. This is not surprising in a higher education system that remains very closely tied to the state, more so than in other jurisdictions where individual institutions have more autonomy to decide on their own awards.
In systems where universities have more autonomy, institutional values and principles through honorary awards are sometimes expressed in other ways. The University of Oxford’s famous denial of an honorary doctorate to Margaret Thatcher in 1985 demonstrated academics’ rejection of Thatcher’s social policy, which was seen as damaging UK science, education and health.
I don’t expect any such actions from Central Asian universities (yet?) but there’s certainly an interesting piece to the higher education jigsaw in considering the ways that institutions around the world use symbolic expressions like honorary degrees and titles that remains under-explored.
A small flurry of press stories recently (e.g. in University World News on 2 June, University World News on 4 May, The PIE News, Today.kz and ICEF Monitor) announced the arrival of a new partnership of higher education institutions, the Asian Universities’ Alliance (AUA). Bringing together 15 universities from 14 countries, the AUA aims to promote academic mobility between institutions and countries and enhance collaborative research activity.
As reported by University World News, the founding members include China’s Tsinghua University and Peking University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology or HKUST, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, South Korea’s Seoul National University, Japan’s University of Tokyo, Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, Myanmar’s University of Yangon, Malaysia’s University of Malaya, National University of Singapore, University of Indonesia, Sri Lanka’s University of Colombo, United Arab Emirates University, Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University.
University alliances are an excellent manifestation of the soft power potential of higher education (check out this Google search for many, many examples of this). As also noted by Andrew Gunn and Michael Mintrom writing for University World News, what is unusual about the AUA is its choice to focus only on top-ranking universities in Asia – many alliances bring together a range of institutional types from a number of world regions.
Gunn and Mintrom go a step further, suggesting that the AUA is “distinctive because of the extent to which it is a form of Chinese soft power.” Indeed, the AUA is led by Bejing-based Tsinghua, considered one of China’s best universities.
At a time when responses to China’s (literally) far-reaching One Belt, One Road economic and foreign policy have often expressed concern/fear about China’s grand plans, it is interesting that responses to the AUA have been largely positive, even though it is unashamedly focussed on increasing Asia’s position in global higher education.
Perhaps the lack of negativity comes from the lead institution’s more nuanced vision for the alliance. Quoted in The PIE News, Tsinghua University president Qiu Yong said that this was not about Asian universities trying to mimic their Western counterparts:
Higher education should not have only one voice. Western education is also successful but I do believe that there are Eastern educational philosophy and heritage that deserves to be cherished also.
(The fact that Tsinghua is providing US$1.5m of funding to kickstart the AUA may also help explain the aura of positivity…)
As you’ll have seen from the list of members above, there is one Central Asian institution in the new alliance – Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University. This gives me the opportunity to reflect on the impact that the new AUA may have in Central Asia, not just for Nazarbayev University, but more generally for higher education in the region.
I suggest that this could go one of two ways for universities in Central Asia.
First and foremost, Central Asian universities will be able to use the AUA to position themselves as a bridge between the US/Europe and Asia. Kazakhstan has already been doing this very effectively for a number of years, and the country’s President is very fond of the “heart of Eurasia” geopolitical symbolism in describing his country.
Indeed, Nazarbayev University President Shigeo Katsu echoes this discourse directly, and is quoted by Today.kz as saying:
Казахстан находится в сердце Евразии, между Востоком и Западом, поэтому я думаю, что важно развивать сотрудничество не только с западными, но и азиатскими вузами. Учрежденный сегодня Альянс азиатских вузов будет полезным не только для учреждений высшего образования как таковых, но и, в первую очередь, самих студентов, которые смогут общаться друг с другом на площадке молодежного форума Альянса.
[Kazakhstan is at the heart of Eurasia, between East and West. That’s why I believe that it’s important to develop cooperation with both Western and Asian universities. The new Alliance of Asian Universities will be useful not only for higher education institutions like ours, but also – and importantly – for students, who will be able to communicate with each other through the Alliance’s youth forum.
There are opportunities for other Central Asian universities to replicate this bridging symbolism in a way that makes sense for their own institutional missions.
A second possibility is that, rather than the AUA offering the opportunity for Central Asian universities to position themselves between Asia and the West, they might instead prefer to move in just one direction. I think it is feasible that a number of universities will see the AUA as legitimizing their own interests/strategies in connecting with Asian higher education.
China is increasingly influential in Central Asia, primarily through its economic might (although reports suggest this may be taking some time to embed). Universities could see the AUA as a way to benefit from this regional leadership, rather than struggling against it. Joining an alliance as an active and willing partner would certainly give institutions a stronger position in the AUA than being co-opted (coerced?) further down the line.
Does the AUA force universities to make a choice about whether to align with Asia or to join Kazakhstan’s strategy of straddling global groupings?
I don’t think so. Rather, I believe that universities in Central Asia that are minded to think strategically can benefit from the AUA without closing themselves off to other alliances. As Indian Institute of Technology Bombay Deputy Director Prasanna Mujumdar noted,
If we have strength to pool universities together, the best of minds from both sides, each with their own niche expertise to contribute…
…then you create the possibilities of enhancing the educational offerings of your university. You have a formal network of partners with whom you can exchange students, supporting their learning and broadening their worldview. You have the opportunity to draw on expertise (and potentially physical research equipment) not available in your own setting. And you are part of a bigger whole, able to look not just at the local and national environment but to a regional setting as well.
Creating and developing these factors means that your university is better positioned to then join other networks, whether these are bilateral partnerships or larger associations like the AUA.
The key challenge for universities in Central Asia will be to demonstrate the value they can bring to such partnerships. The many strengths they have are often overlooked because the countries of Central Asia are considered to be marginal in the world system or because the legacy of the Soviet higher education system is (wrongly, in my view) dismissed as weak/irrelevant. Views like this are hard to overcome, and make the challenge for universities harder, but it is imperative that universities do what they can to step up to this challenge.
Following on from my post at the beginning of January 2016, Central Asia: what lies ahead?, I’m going to dedicate the rest of this month to thinking about the situation in the region in the coming year. I plan to do this at both a macro (state, regional) level as well as considering the implications at a meso (institutional) level, focussing where possible on higher education. This plan is facilitated by reports and news stories that have already been coming my way.
I open the series with an article from Kazakhstan-based Astana Times of 18 January that does a wonderful job of setting the global picture for the region. In the article,
journalist Aiman Turebekova reports on the findings of the state-sponsored Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan (which I wish used the English acronym KISS rather than its actual abbreviation, KazISS!), which an organization has the aim of providing analytical support to the President.
The KazISS report focusses on global events that could have important implications for the political and economic development, stability and security of Central Asian countries. This is beautifully presented through an infographic which I have copied below, and is (c) KazISS. The infographic offers an immediate visual interpretation of the extent to which the world interacts/intersects with Central Asia, and thus the importance of what is happening globally to what happens in Central Asia. An English translation of these headlines and the full Astana Times story [en] can be accessed on the Astana Times website or downloaded as a pdf here: Top Kazakh Think Tank Anticipates 10 Most Important Events in Central Asia in 2016 18.01.16.
The ten headlines, using the same numerical order as in the infographic, are:
- The deterioration of conditions in world markets and the slowdown in economic growth in Central Asian countries
- Finding new means of economic cooperation in Eurasia
- Expanding Chinese investment presence in Central Asia
- Continuing instability in Afghanistan and implications for the regional security agenda
- The increased terrorist threat arising from the Syrian conflict
- Increased efforts by Central Asian countries in the field of regional security
- Next election cycle in Central Asian countries
- A new stage in the development of regional transport and energy projects
- Iran’s return to regional processes
- A decision on Kazakhstan’s bid for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018
Breaking these points down, we can identify three overarching themes that relate to the regional, global and national levels:
- Regional: The importance of regional cooperation, both at the level of the Central Asian countries and in partnership with other regional players such as Russia, China and Iran. The Central Asian countries have varying degrees of influence in the direction of regional processes (2, 3, 6, 8, 9);
- Global: The impact of transnational activities and processes, where the Central Asian countries may have limited ability to effect or control change (1, 10);
- National: Political and security concerns arising both from external factors such as terrorism and Syria and ongoing instability in Afghanistan, as well as internal factors such as forthcoming elections (4, 5, 7).
The analysis draws extensively on the Kazakh experience (the other Central Asian countries, for example, have little direct involvement in Kazakhstan’s bid to join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member) and this serves as a reminder that whilst we frequently think about the five Central Asian countries in their regional form, that they are all at different stages from one another, with different contexts and varying priorities. It’s a bit like describing France and Poland or Spain and Sweden in the same breath simply because they are all members of the European Union. This should not undermine the importance of analysis at the regional level, but help us recognize that we must also understand what is happening at the individual country level.
Happy new year! This is my fifth year of blogging on Central Asia, focussing on issues relating to higher education and social change. I open the year with an interesting analytical think piece from global intelligence agency Stratfor that attempts to surmise what the future might hold for the region. It’s available on their website at https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/central-asia-different-kind-threat and copied below, (c) Stratfor 2016.
*UPDATE* 7 January 2016: Hot on the heels of Stratfor’s piece, I read another similar ‘future gazing’ article from Middle Eastern site Al-Monitor. This one is authored by Turkish journalist Zülfikar Doğan. It is written in the same realist vein as the Stratfor article, i.e. using states as the main actors of analysis. Though focussing more on Turkey’s role, I’d argue that the piece comes to somewhat similar conclusions. This article is copied below underneath the Stratfor article, is (c) Al-Monitor/Zülfikar Doğan and is also available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/turkey-losing-its-standing-in-central-asia-after-middle-east.html.
The Stratfor article generated some interesting discussions (see the Comments section at the end of the piece) and I’d love to know your thoughts on the Al-Monitor story too.
Central Asia: A Different Kind of Threat
Editor’s Note: This is the last installment of a five-part series that explores the past, present and future of the confrontation between Russia and the West on the Eurasian landmass. Part one explored the origins of the conflict, part two examined Ukraine, part three looked at Eastern Europe, and part four considered the Caucasus.
Much like the Caucasus, Central Asia serves as a relatively new but no less important staging ground for the ongoing competition between Russia and the West. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the region has been somewhat of a melange of indecision and opportunism: Kazakhstan has stayed close with Russia, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have stayed relatively neutral. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other hand, have had difficulty settling on which foreign patron to support as violent upheavals have swung their foreign policies back and forth.
Over the coming decades, instability and internal conflict will continue to pose the greatest threats to the region as the influence of Russia and the West in Central Asia fades. But in their place, two new powers will rise that will shape the future of the region: Turkey and China.
Throughout history, powerful empires, including Persian, Mongol and Turkish empires, have fought to control Central Asia. Russia did not join the fray until the late 18th century. When it did, its expansion into the region was gradual, starting in the area that is now Kazakhstan. From there, it slowly penetrated southward into modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The Russian Empire’s initial forays into Central Asia coincided with the British Empire’s expansion into the Indian subcontinent, giving rise to what would be known as the Great Game, a long-running battle for regional control. Imperial Russia wanted an outlet to the sea and a buffer between potentially hostile powers in Asia, be they indigenous peoples or imperial armies. Afghanistan would later become just that, separating the Russian and British empires and eventually playing an important role in subsequent conflicts between Russia and the West in Central Asia.
Though the Russian Empire’s collapse in 1917 led to a brief and unstable period of independence in Central Asia, its Soviet successor would once again pull the region into its orbit in the following decade. Soviet rule dramatically changed the politics of Central Asia. Peoples from other parts of the Soviet bloc were forced to resettle throughout the region, while Russification programs emphasized the adoption of Russian language and customs. Central Asia became closed off to the West and to the Muslim states surrounding it, including Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 accelerated the bloc’s undoing and gave the West the upper hand in the Cold War. Substantial support from the West, especially the United States, enabled the Afghan mujahideen to counter the Soviet military’s efforts to prop up the communist government in Kabul. This exposed the Soviet Union’s military weakness and drained its economic and political resources, reducing Moscow’s ability to continue contending with the West on a global scale.
The Past 25 Years: The Afghan Conflict Creates Volatility
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — gained their independence. With the exception of Tajikistan, which descended into a chaotic civil war almost immediately, all installed their former Communist Party secretaries as their new presidents.
In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s two largest states, these presidents have remained in power at the head of highly centralized political systems ever since. Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has maintained a close relationship with Russia by joining the Moscow-led Customs Union (now the Eurasian Union) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance. Though it has relied on the West to develop its large oil and natural gas resources, Kazakhstan has remained tied to Russia strategically. Uzbekistan, however, has remained neutralunder President Islam Karimov’s rule, eschewing alliances with both Russia and the West. While it did host U.S. and NATO military bases for a time during the West’s war in Afghanistan, it later closed them after the West raised concerns over human rights abuses. Uzbekistan has also retained close economic ties with Russia but has avoided participating in Moscow-led integration projects.
Like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan has attempted to keep its distance from both Russia and the West. President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov has maintained his predecessor’s isolationist policies, keeping power highly centralized under his office. Though Turkmenistan initially sent most of its considerable natural gas output to Russia, in recent years it has rerouted much of its supplies to China amid a steep drop in Russian imports. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan continues to explore other export options, including the Trans-Caspian and TAPI pipelines to Europe and South Asia. In the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, Europe has been particularly interested in courting Turkmenistan as an alternative natural gas supplier to Russia, though the Kremlin has so far been successful in halting projects that would send Turkmen natural gas to the Continent. Now approached by the West, Russia and China, Turkmenistan continues to seek a balance between all three without formally aligning with any of them.
Unlike their other Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been politically unstable since the fall of the Soviet Union. In Kyrgyzstan, revolutions took place in 2005 and 2010; the first brought to power an administration friendly with the West and the second replaced that government with one that favors Russia. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has strengthened its ties to the Kremlin, joining the Eurasian Union and allowing Russia to expand its military presence in the country while expelling the United States from the Manas air base in 2014. In Tajikistan, civil war raged from 1992 to 1997, when the pro-Russia faction led by President Emomali Rakhmon emerged victorious. Rakhmon has ruled the country ever since, pulling it closer to Russia, particularly in terms of security and military cooperation.
Along with each country’s unique circumstances, the evolution of Russia’s relationship with the West inAfghanistan has shaped the rivalry in Central Asia. At the start of the U.S. invasion and during NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, both sides cooperated extensively. In fact, Russia brokered access to strategic military bases and lines of supply in Central Asia on behalf of U.S. and Western forces. But as the war dragged on, Moscow grew fearful of the West’s intention to maintain a long-term military presence in the region, potentially challenging Russia’s role as a regional heavyweight. Central Asian states then evicted Western forces from their bases and severed their supply routes. Now, with the Taliban and the Islamic State gaining strength in Afghanistan, Russia and the United States are lobbying for competing border security initiatives with the countries of Central Asia.
The Next 25 Years: Other Powers Overtake Russia and the West
As in the rest of the former Soviet periphery, the competition between Russia and the West will be heavily influenced by the demographic changes set to take place in Central Asia in the next 25 years. But unlike Eastern Europe and the Orthodox countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia is on the verge of a tremendous population increase. By 2050, Kazakhstan’s population will rise by 27 percent (from 17.6 million people to 22.4 million), Uzbekistan’s by 24 percent (from 29.9 million people to 37.1 million) and Turkmenistan’s by 22 percent (from 5.4 million people to 6.6 million). At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s population will grow by 39 percent (from 5.9 million people to 8.2 million) while Tajikistan’s will rise by an astonishing 70 percent (from 8.4 million people to 14.3 million).
While such population growth is normally conducive to economic growth and military strength, it will occur in Central Asia at a time when the region’s resources, including water and food, are already strained. The population explosion will hit hardest in the Fergana Valley, which is the region’s demographic core and is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There, the Soviets designed convoluted borders to intentionally create divisions between the Central Asian states. The area has already been the site of several ethnic conflicts. With the number of people expected to rise dramatically in the next 25-35 years, the Fergana Valley will likely become a hotbed of tension and conflict in the region.
Meanwhile, Central Asia’s cultural makeup will undoubtedly change. The widespread use of Russian as a lingua franca, which is rooted in the Soviet period, will probably decline as new generations with no memory of their countries’ Soviet past grow up. Russia will see its influence over the region decline as such cultural bonds — as well as its own capabilities to project economic and military power — weaken. The transition from Soviet-era leaders like Nazarbayev and Rakhmon, who have favored Russia over the West, to new rulers from the post-Soviet generation will make Central Asia a more unpredictable place that is open to contestation — a change that is unlikely to favor Russia.
However, the West will also see its ability to influence Central Asia decline as the regionalization of Europe forces the Continent to focus on matters closer to home. Still, countries in Central and Eastern Europe may seek to import Central Asian energy supplies through the Caspian corridor to diversify away from Russia. Meanwhile, the United States will remain an important player in the region. As in the Caucasus, it will be selective in how it engages in Central Asia, preferring to step in from time to time to keep any single external power from gaining too much influence.
While the reach of Russia and the West recedes over the coming decades, two other powers will rise in their place: Turkey and China. Four of the five states in Central Asia are ethnically Turkic, and as Russia’s cultural bonds in the region fade, Turkey’s will strengthen. Because Turkey’s population is predicted to grow by more than 20 percent, reaching 96 million people, it will have greater economic and military power to match its rising soft power. China, for its part, has already made economic inroads into the region over the past decade, and its economic influence will likely continue to grow. Such growth will be aided by the fact that Russia will not continue to be able to financially support many Central Asian states. That said, China will still have to contend with Turkey, which will be more active in the region. But this contest is unlikely to take on a military dimension; China and Turkey will have more immediate security concerns in East Asia and the Middle East.
Afghanistan will continue to have a significant impact in Central Asia, not as a regional power with influence but as a weak state with the potential to destabilize the region. Cross-border ties between ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens on either side of the boundary between Afghanistan and Central Asia will grow. This could increase the likelihood of Islamist and militant elements spilling over into the region. Although they will continue to compete at a strategic level, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States will cooperate at a tactical level to prevent the rise of powerful radical Islamist groups in Central Asia. For the foreseeable future, instability and conflict within and between Central Asian states will continue to pose the largest threat to the region, one that will be far more difficult to contain.
Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky
First the Middle East, now Central Asia slipping away from Turkey
The sanctions Moscow imposed after the Nov. 24 downing of a Russian plane are spreading to Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as Central Asian countries that had established close ties with Ankara after the collapse of the Soviet Union appear to be preparing to distance themselves from Turkey. At the December 2015 Moscow summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — which includes the Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in addition to Russia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belarus and Armenia — calls were made for Turkey to apologize to Russia.
Armenia holds the term presidency of the CIS-Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of former Soviet republics. The military chiefs of member states met before the gathering of heads of state to hear their term chairman, Gen. Yuri Khachaturov, Armenian chief of the General Staff, harshly criticize Turkey. Khachaturov noted, “Chiefs of staff of all member states of the organization supported the Russian actions and denounced Turkey’s attack against the Su-24 plane that was seen as an incendiary, shameless aggression. As Russia said immediately after the attack, we also saw it as a stab in the back.”
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, term chairman of CIS, also asked the summit to express its support for Russia and denounce Turkey. He said, “As member states, we declared our support for the Russian position and decided to urgently declare unity to combat terror. Turkey’s attitude and its shooting down of the Russian plane have been a setback to the struggle against terror.”
The real shock for Ankara was not Sargsyan’s words, but those of the Kyrgyzstan head of state, President Almazbek Atambayev, who in the past had addressed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “my older brother.” After the August 2014 presidential elections, Atambayev had appeared with Erdogan, who was delivering his victory speech, andlavishly praised him. At the CIS summit, Atambayev expressed support for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin and suggested Erdogan and Turkey apologize to Russia.
The support for Russia among the Central Asian Turkic republics, which have received billions of dollars of credit and financing support from Turkey, and Atambayev’s call for an apology shocked Turkey, disillusioning Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party government. In 2014, the Cooperation and Coordination Agency of Turkey had provided the republics more than $3.5 billion. When asked about Atambayev’s comment, Erdogan spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said, “If nothing else, it was an unfortunate statement.”
Russia’s freeze on issuing transit permits to Turkish truckers in October has severely disrupted Turkish exports to the Central Asian republics. Concerned with the prospect of losing the Central Asian market, where Turkey has sizable construction contracts and investments, Ankara began using the Caspian Sea for its exports thanks to Azerbaijan opening its gates.
Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, ordered that Caspian port capacity be increased and transit documents waived for Turkish trucks. Even if Turkish truck traffic through the Caspian reaches 50,000 a year, it would still fall far short of sustaining exports to the Central Asian market.
With the sharp decline in oil and natural gas prices, Azerbaijan had to devalue its currency 47% against the dollar and euro. Given the economic bottlenecks it faces, no one can be sure that the country can indefinitely be a contributor in regard to Turkey’s commercial and energy needs.
Moreover, an Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Switzerland Dec. 19 did not yield a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. Instead, both countries announced that their cease-fire had ended. This development greatly concerns Turkey, because it could negatively affect its use of the Azerbaijani route for its exports. Meanwhile, Russia and Armenia, which have been boosting political and economic links, in late December decided to also expand their military cooperation.
In mid-December, Putin announced that visa requirements for Georgian nationals would be eased and soon thereafter abolished. It has become clear that the Russian-Armenian air defense agreement, normalization of Russian-Georgian relations and resumption of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia will impede Turkey’s access to the Caucasus. There are also fears that Russia, which has been firing cruise missiles from its navy based in the Caspian, could block passage through that sea, severely restricting Turkey’s access to Central Asia via that route.
Russia also made use of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to move against Turkey’s relations with the Turkic republics. Turkey-EEU negotiations to establish a free trade zone were suspended, and instead, Putin announced, the EEU would enter into talks with Iran. Thus, Russia is helping advance Iranian economic interests in Central Asia by closing the doors on Turkey advocating a customs union and regional free trade. No doubt, this brought Turkey one step closer to losing Central Asia in the wake of its isolation in the Middle East.
Today’s post picks up on a recent report by Yojana Sharma in University World News on a new alliance set up in China to bring together universities along the Silk Road, that ancient trading route linking China to Europe. In fact, the exact geography of ‘Silk Road’ is very broadly interpreted for this new grouping, bringing together as it does universities as far from the original Silk Road as Finland and Australia. That’s probably why it’s called the alliance of the New Silk Road!
The alliance is likely to be of strong interest to universities in Central Asia, and indeed the proposal to create a New Silk Road Economic Belt, which this universities alliance is connected to, was first publicly made by China’s President in Kazakhstan in 2013.
The title for the post is taken from the official invitation to attend the launch of the alliance at Xi’an Jiantong University in Shanghai this May. The invite says:
The New Silk Road is laden with hopes and dreams. It is a win-win road with friendship and prosperity. We extend a warm invitation to Xi’an at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, to endorse UANSR [Universities Alliance of the New Silk Raod] and most importantly promote the higher education, and make a difference in the traditions and innovations in the civilization.
Lofty ambitions, and it strikes me that this is a model for partnership that is worth monitoring closely to fully understand the impact it will have on Central Asian universities and even regional politics.
Chinese newspaper Shanghai Daily reports today on the rise of the Confucius Institute [en] in Kyrgyzstan. Confucius Institutes are non profit-making organisations connected to the Chinese Ministry of Education aiming to promote Chinese language and culture, somewhat akin to the British Council from the UK or the Goethe Instituts from Germany.
There are around 500 Confucius Institutes around the world after the first branch was opened in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2004. A few years ago, the Ministry of Education estimated that around 100 million people would by now be learning Chinese as a result of the Institutes’ language programmes.
Three Confucius Institutes operate in Kyrgyzstan, which shares a border with China. The aim of the Shanghai Daily article appears to be to raise awareness amongst its English language readership of the benefits that the Institutes and their staff are bringing for Kyrgyz people. It may be down to the translation from Chinese but the article does in places read like a propaganda piece:
The exhibition [that the Institute’s teacher from China organised to introduce China to local residents] turned out to be perfect, receiving a large number of student and teacher visitors.
Kyrgyz Education, Science and Culture Committee of Parliament has made positive comments on the Confucius Institutes in Kyrgyzstan, saying that thanks to the Confucius Institutes, Kyrgyzstan learns good teaching experience and methods.
China is a growing influence in Central Asia, much like in many other countries around the world. Chinese money is funding great new skyscrapers in Tajikistan, for example, and Chinese workers are now a common sight on building sites, in markets and so on.
But it’s not just one way, despite what you’d think from reading the Shanghai Daily report. A growing number of Central Asians are learning Chinese, not necessarily because they want to learn about China and its culture (ostensibly a key remit of the Confucius Institutes) but for economic benefit: with Chinese language they improve their employment prospects and expand the number of people they can do business with by a billion.
The Central Asian school and university students studying Chinese are making a shrewd move, but the even smarter students are the ones who also learn English (increasingly a global lingua franca), thus establishing themselves as truly global citizens who can operate pretty much anywhere around the world.