Kyrgyzstan

The use and abuse of honorary titles in academia

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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.

Town and gown dispute update: Statement from University of Central Asia 

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Shortly after my post on the rising tension in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan following an alleged town and gown dispute after a sports match, the University of Central Asia has now issued a detailed version of the incident on its Facebook page. The English version is copied below in full:

UCA LOOKS TO BUILD BRIDGES FOLLOWING BASKETBALL SAGA

Emotions ran high in Naryn yesterday (June 8) as the basketball team from the University of Central Asia and the Naryn Club Team continued their feud – but all ended well with apologies from both sides.

On May 27 at a basketball game on the UCA Campus in Naryn, a physical altercation ensued between the UCA Team and the Naryn Club Team, consisting of students from the Naryn State University and the Naryn Sports School. The matter was handled by the UCA faculty and security present at the game, and the teams left without further incident.

Yesterday, June 8, while some UCA students were in the town of Naryn on academic assignment, they were recognised by a few players from the Naryn Club Team, and verbal insults were exchanged which led to physical threats. The Naryn Club members quickly called for reinforcements and in a short time a mob of some 80 individuals had gathered. Most had simply shown up in support and were unaware of the issues involved.

It was suggested a meeting take place at one of UCA’s off campus buildings to resolve the issues. The Governor of Naryn, the Deputy Mayor, and the Dean of UCA’s School of Arts and Sciences, along with some community leaders, presided at this meeting. The Governor’s plea for good sense to prevail went unheeded. After some heated verbal exchanges, and in the interest of maintaining peace and civility, the involved UCA students apologized for the incident at the basketball game, and the crowd dispersed soon thereafter.

UCA has been working closely with the authorities including with the Governor and Mayor of Naryn to arrive at an amicable resolution. Today, accompanied by the Governor and senior government officials, a student delegation as well as some leaders of the crowd that gathered yesterday, came to UCA’s Naryn Campus and conveyed their apologies to the UCA leadership and students for yesterday’s unfortunate incident. The Governor conveyed his appreciation of UCA and the benefits it has brought to the town of Naryn, and urged the gathering to build bridges. The meeting ended in an atmosphere of forgiveness from both sides. 

Working in close cooperation with the authorities in Bishkek and Naryn, UCA is continuing its investigation into the causes of the incident, so that appropriate action can be taken, including how such altercations can be prevented in the future. 

Town and gown clash at the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan

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Local residents gather at the UCA campus in Naryn on June 8, 2017. Image (C) Akipress

Reports are coming in of a clash between university students at the new campus of the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, and local inhabitants. Tempers flared between town and gown in which some of the university’s students from neighbouring Tajikistan allegedly “beat up locals during the basketball match” (source: Akipress).

This led a large group of local residents to gather at the university campus on June 8 to demand retribution. The Akipress story is reproduced below. A video on the Akipress Facebook page shows a large gathering that is heated at times. It ends with Dr Diana Pauna, UCA’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, explaining the need for the students to learn not only to be better sports people but to learn some life lessons from this unfortunate incident.

Apparently, five students – and also some professors – got down on their knees by way of apology to the local residents.

Today, June 9, news is emerging that the national government is treating the response of local residents as hooliganism and a violation of public order.

The flare-up has become a nationwide controversy in Kyrgyzstan. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the images of angry protesters humiliating  young students and their professors by making them (not violently) get down on their knees is shocking and embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. Bear in mind that this happened in a country where social and cultural norms and traditions are an extremely important part of life with continuing relevance. The Kyrgyz are known for being extremely hospitable and most pride themselves on this reputation.

This has led to media responses by some well-known Kyrgyz figures such as Ilim Karypbekov, also from Naryn. In a passionate article singing the praises of UCA [ru, reproduced from his Facebook page] (with some great photos too), Karypbekov writes that he is speechless, unable to explain the “horror, disturbance, shame and bitterness” of what happened. He says that the people of Naryn are the ones that should be on their knees in front of the AKDN. He says the incident will make people question Kyrgyz hospitality and the safety of international students in the country.

Secondly, the government will be highly conscious of the particular university that is the target of locals’ anger. The UCA is a major new university funded mainly by the Aga Khan Development Network and the brainchild of the Aga Khan himself, with a vision firmly rooted in positive development for Central Asia.

Thirdly, there’s more than a whiff of social tension in the air. This is not just a hierarchy mismatch – students vs elder local residents, town vs gown. There are potentially some ethnic issues too, given that the students who allegedly sparked the fight on May 27 are not from Kyrgyzstan but southern neighbour Tajikistan. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, new national identities have been forged and (re)created and seemingly out of nowhere, a new or revived sense of difference between former Soviet republics has emerged. Kyrgyzstan has a rocky history with another neighbour, Uzbekistan, with frequent border clashes in the Ferghana Valley area (see e.g. this story from August 2016). There has been significantly less conflict with Tajikistan despite the thorny and probably unresolvable border question created by Stalin, but there have been a few incidents. (Madeleine Reeves’ Border Work is a great book if you want to get into this area more deeply.)

There is no official response from UCA about the incident. It seems to me that something indeed must have happened at that ill-fated basketball match, and indeed we have video and photographic evidence of the response by locals on June 8. How and if the students will be disciplined is a matter for UCA.

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Town and gown disputes in university towns like Oxford would often lead to violent fights in the past

Disputes between students and local residents is a theme that has been recurring as long as universities have existed. Such conflicts in today’s world are normally raised and resolved through non-violent means, which is in part why the Naryn/UCA scandal hits hard.

The bigger and longer-term question is whether this causes irreparable damage to town and gown relations between UCA and the residents of Naryn. I tend to think not. There is enough vested interest in the UCA project that means a resolution is likely to be reached quickly.

Whether this will do enough to overcome any lingering concerns local residents may have is another matter, and I very much hope that in bringing a resolution about, methods that are appropriate and accepted by all parties are employed.

 

Akipress story from June 8:

Angered Naryn youth made the University of Central Asia foreign students to get down on their bended knees to apologize for a conflict that arose after the students “beat up locals during the basketball match.”

On June 8, dozens of young people in Naryn gathered for protests in front of the University demanding the authorities to step in the conflict. The protesters demanded to detain responsible students from Tajikistan who have allegedly beaten up local residents during the sports competition at the UCA on May 27.

Governor of Naryn region Amanbai Kayipov and other officials met with the protesters.

During the meeting, the angered mob demanded the Tajik students to apologize on bended knees and also demanded to expell the students from Kyrgyzstan.

After a while, students and some of the professors got on their knees and asked for apology.

The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000. The Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan, and His Highness the Aga Khan signed the International Treaty and Charter establishing this secular and private University; ratified by the respective parliaments, and registered with the United Nations. The Presidents are the Patrons of UCA and His Highness is the Chancellor.

The UCA Naryn Campus launched in September 2016. It is the first phase of a larger vision for the 252-hectare site, gifted by the Kyrgyz Government. Classes commenced for the inaugural class of 71 undergraduates at the Naryn Campus on 5 September.

 

Academic diplomacy aims to bolster Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations

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Grumpy Cat has mastered the art of diplomacy

Rifts between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are well documented, particularly in the border areas around the Ferghana Valley. The two most recent disputes that reached the international press came in March 2016 and August 2016. The geographical complexity of this area of Central Asia is visible in the second map below, which places the Ferghana Valley at the heart of these three countries. Here you can begin to see some of the intersections – including nine exclaves, little pockets of land belonging to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan that sit like little islands within another of the three states.

It is rare for politicians in the region to extend overtures aimed at appeasing these tensions. Somehow each spate of conflicts is overcome, but it leaves behind distrust and uncertainty. Yet in a break to what you could call a “new tradition” of non-diplomacy, it has been heartening to see Uzbekistan ostensibly opening up to Tajikistan in recent weeks since the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. A relaxation of visa arrangements and better inter-country travel opportunities have been mooted, both of which would represent a significant (and positive) shift in the countries’ relations.

Nonetheless, relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan appear to remain fraught, particularly when it comes to matters pertaining to the Ferghana Valley area. If leaders cannot use politics to overcome these disputes, it seems there might be an opening for other state actors such as universities to make important moves towards engendering better neighbourly relations between the two countries. Academic diplomacy, as this is known, can create a safer space for governments to find ways to work together through what has been called “international meetings of minds“.

This week in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, a delegation from Uzbekistan was welcomed in an initiative led by Osh State University [ru]. This was a return visit after a Kyrgyz delegation went to the Andijan region of Uzbekistan at the start of October, culminating in the signing of a memorandum of cooperation.

The Uzbek delegation, which included Deputy Prime Minister of Uzbekistan Adham Ikramov, met with Osh SU students, visited the university’s medical faculty and enjoyed cultural events. Speaking at the university, Ikramov noted that good relations between the two countries should inform the long-term development of their mutual cooperation. In particular, Ikramov noted that Uzbek universities could learn from the way Osh SU has been developing e-learning. Accompanying the Deputy Prime Minister, Rector of (Uzbek) Andijan State University Akram Yuldashev expressed his hopes that the visit would reinforce relations between the countries and bring young people together. This might lead to future cooperation, such as holding conferences or undertaking joint publicity activities.

The clear success of these two visits, at least on paper, gives hope that the strategy of “international meetings of the minds” could prove to be an effective way to start to rebuild trust and common bonds between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

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Map of Central Asia (c) http://www.allcountries.org/maps/central_asia_maps.html

 

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Map of the Ferghana Valley (c) http://www.exploretheworldmaps.com/fergana.html. Created by Eric Olason

 

 

A new phase for Central Asian higher education begins

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After many years in the pipeline (just do a quick search on my blog if you want to check the archives!), the University of Central Asia (UCA) has today welcomed its very first undergraduate students. True, they are a select few: just 71 students selected from the three UCA countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s also true that just one of the three envisaged campuses is up and running… but nonetheless, this is quite some achievement. Creating any new organisation is a challenge, but UCA has deliberately added to the complexity by working over three countries and physically building campuses in somewhat remote mountainous areas of those countries.

The university also grapples with other challenges such as dealing with endemic corruption in the region, raising awareness of and interest in an American style English-language education, proving that a good higher education can be obtained at home as well as abroad and more. Some of these issues are not specific to UCA but are issues all institutions in the region must deal with. Having worked for UCA (in a different guise) nearly 15 years ago when it was in the early stages of development, I sense that some of the great creativity and genuine innovation in earlier versions of the undergraduate curriculum have been lost or overtaken by other ideas and needs. Time will tell how the UCA offering is received and whether the concept will catch on.

For today, though, I would simply like to pass my congratulations to everyone involved in the grand UCA project, and to wish the students, staff and faculty all the very best of luck. An exciting adventure awaits!

The ironic fate of Soviet nostalgia

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Poster for the Soviet classic, “The irony of fate”, where the big joke is that all cities share the same street names

If you’re feeling nostalgic for the Soviet Union, for the days of free education, jobs for life, and street names that were the same in every city, then it seems you’re not alone.

Sputnik News today reports the results of a poll of over 12,000 people across 11 countries of the former Soviet Union who were asked whether life was better in the USSR than after it collapsed in 1991. On average, over 50% of those aged 35-64 agree that life was better before. This compares to an average of just under 30% of those aged 18-24 who felt the same – though how they might know this without having been born during the Soviet Union escapes me.

The breakdown of the results by country is interesting, particularly looking at unlikely outliers Uzbekistan and Moldova. In Uzbekistan, apparently almost no one misses the good old days, in stark contrast to its extremely economically successful neighbour Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan purports to have similar levels of nostalgia as Kazakhstan, despite enjoying a reputation as “Central Asia’s most stable state”. I’m not saying that political and economic success/stability as an independent country necessarily affects results, but I do feel surprised by the lukewarm response from older Tajiks based on my own extensive research and contacts in the country.

Comments on the Sputnik News website express a similar range of confusion and scepticism. Indeed, Sputnik News – a Russian government spin-off – is regularly accused of spouting Russian-friendly propaganda. Certainly, the way the statement is worded is highly subjective: why not flip the question and ask whether life is better now than it was during the Soviet Union? And why are the voices of those who weren’t even born when the Soviet Union collapsed given equal weight to those who lived a good part of their life with a different passport – and where are the over 65s?

Revitalizing the idea that times were better in the old days is not new – just look at the ongoing “ostalgie” stories about East Germany. If you have the time to explore this further, I strongly recommend Alexei Yurchak’s absolutely beautifully named 2005 book, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. It focusses on the 1960s-1980s, the many paradoxes of Soviet life and telling the story of the last Soviet generation – the very same people who now seem to be so nostalgic…

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(c) Sputnik News, August 17 2016

 

Kyrgyz athletes encouraged to “do it like Iceland” at Rio Olympics

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Footballing minnows Iceland stunned the world (or at least the parts of it that care that much about the beautiful game) in June by defeating England and knocking them out of the Euro 2016 championships, in the process progressing to the quarter finals for the first time in the nation’s history.

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Iceland’s fans performing the thunder clap at Euro 2016

Their victory instantly became part of modern footballing legend. When fellow underdogs Wales returned home defeated but triumphant after achieving a semi final place, their team led thousands of supporters in the “Icelandic thunder clap“, proudly echoing the stomps heard all over Iceland in the days before.

Word of Iceland’s triumph has spread far and wide, this week connecting with Central Asia as Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev counselled his small team of 19 Olympians ahead of their departure for Brazil. According to dpa/Europe Online, Atambayev told the sportspeople to “Do it with team spirit. Do it like tiny Iceland“. He went on to say “We have no oil resources, but we have our people who can accomplish great feats. May you be lucky in your pursuit for medals.”

Good luck to Kyrgyzstan, all the other Central Asian nations – and of course Iceland – at this year’s Olympics!