Nursultan Nazarbayev

Is there space for civil society in Kazakhstan?

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Peaceful it may be, but it’s probably still too much for the Kazakh government to take…

I’ve been meaning to repost an article from The Diplomat on civil society in Kazakhstan for a while. With news of more arrests today after activists have unfurled banners and quoted the constitution, the topic of civil society in Kazakhstan is becoming a hot one.

Tantalizingly entitled How can Kazakhstan revitalize its civil society?, author Sergey Marinin points to education as one key response to the question. Specifically, Marinin emphasizes the role that the growing number of Western educated Kazakhs can play in supporting the development of civil society, which has historically been more closely associated with the state in Kazakhstan than identifiable as a separate arena.

As Marinin says,

“Politically disenchanted youth lean toward civic activism because the state excludes them from official decision-making processes”

Thus, Marinin offers a ‘win-win solution’: employ graduates returning to Kazakhstan to teach in higher education institutions (HEIs)*, deploying the experience of living and studying in Western contexts to support the development of critical thinking among students and non-Soviet management practices among faculty and staff.

*Marinin does not mention that around half of Kazakhstan’s HEIs are now privately run or that there are ongoing waves of privatization in the sector, meaning that higher education is, on paper, no longer a state sector staffed by civil servants. However, in practice, the state still retains a high level of steering control over the sector.

With the historic changes at the top of the political order unfolding before our eyes after the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first and until recently only President of Kazakhstan, this is a moment of hope for proponents of civil society. Could the forthcoming presidential election open up opportunities for the non-state sector to make its views heard?

It’s not only Marinin who thinks that citizens with study abroad experience might hold the key to unlocking civil society in the former Soviet space. University of Oxford academic Maia Chankseliani has found links between student mobility and democratic development when students from the former Soviet region head to Europe and the US (see also her summary of the article in The Conversation).

However, despite major investment by the Kazakh government and students’ families in study abroad to the West, Chankseliani finds that most students from Kazakhstan – along with the other Central Asian states – head to Russia if they study abroad. And the more students go to Russia, the stronger the (negative) effect is on democratization.

Moving beyond the study abroad destination, emerging research by Aliya Kuzhabekova and colleagues at Nazarbayev University has found that students returning from a spell abroad are finding it difficult to access local networks as they readjust to being back in Kazakhstan. Instead, study abroad returnees working in higher education are beginning to set up their own informal networks and alliances, coming together to help make their voices heard.

I reported on another type of grassroots movement being organized by those who are still abroad just recently: #scienceiamdoing – Kazakh women tell all about research and life abroad

Kuzhabekova et al’s study and movements like the PhD Girls’ Union add important nuance to the state/civil society (or authoritarian/democratic) debate. These examples demonstrate how people – well educated, with experience of living abroad, and often young – are attempting to advance civil society in Kazakhstan within the framework of a state that continues to be extremely powerful.

Despite these shoots of hope, it is clear that those advocating for civil society have a long road ahead. Overt attempts to propound democratic ideals such as hanging up banners with extracts from the constitution have not gone down well. At all.

Will the Kazakh state ever be open to civil society?

Well, it could be if Tokayev – Nazarbayev’s likely successor in this June’s presidential elections – turns out to be more like neighbouring Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev who everyone thought would continue the repressive actions of his predecessor Karimov but appears to have taken a more radical reform path.

However, whilst Nazarbayev is still around (where Karimov was not), it looks like there won’t be any real change in direction in Kazakhstan. The space for civil society remains small. It is actions led by study abroad returnees within that space may be what hold the key to eventually leading change from within.

What will President Nazarbayev’s legacy be for higher education?

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I’m not the only one on the meme game this week. After incoming Kazakh President Tokayev announced that the capital Astana would be renamed after Nursultan, the internet had a field day. This image is from a Moscow Times round-up.

Central Asia watchers were caught on the hop this week with the sudden resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev after nearly 30 years in power.

In this week’s University’s World News, I take a look at how higher education has changed in Kazakhstan. I think there are five big stories to tell about higher education in the Nazarbayev era, and that these will shape the legacy he leaves behind in the country.

My article is available at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20190322064346509

 

New Education Minister for Kazakhstan

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Kulyash Shamshidinova in her role at the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools. Photo (c) http://nis.edu.kz/ru/about/corp-gov/subsid-org/

Following Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s recent firing of his entire cabinet (well, they resigned en masse, but under considerable pressure from the top to do so), a new Minister of Education and Science has been appointed.

Replacing Yerlan Sagadiyev at the helm of Kazakhstan’s constantly reforming education system is Kulyash Nogataevna Shamshidinova [ru].

An educator by training, Shamshidinova started her working life as a chemistry teacher before moving up through various local (Communist) party positions in the 1980s. After Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, she moved into educational administration before returning to politics, including a three year stint as Deputy Minister of Education between 2002 and 2005.

For the decade leading up to her latest appointment, Shamshidinova was Chair of the Board of the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools, a nationwide network of schools for the brightest and best young Kazakhstanis.

I don’t know much more about Shamshidinova beyond the official biographies detailing her impressive 40 year career in education and politics, so it’s hard to say at this point what her priorities might be (if you have more insight, please add a comment on this post!).

She’s the tenth holder of the post of Minister of Education and Science since this post was created in 1999, so on average postholders are moving on (or being shuffled) every couple of years. For more on government shuffling of officials across Central Asia and why this matters, read Catherine Putz’s recent article.

And if you’re curious to know more about why Kazakhstan’s government has seen a rash of new faces appear, I recommend Paolo Sorbello’s piece, ‘Kazakhstan appoints a new-old government‘.

Nazarbayev University Number 2?

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Could a new sibling for Nazarbayev University be on the way?

No stranger to creating new universities, Kazakhstan’s longstanding (and thus far only) president Nursultan Nazarbayev has already set up or led initiatives since founding KIMEP University in 1992.

Now, building on the investment and early successes of the eponymous Nazarbayev University – which the president apparently did not ask to be named after himself – Nazarbayev proclaimed recently that it is time for another institute. In a recent public statement, the president is quoted as saying

Based on the educational resource infrastructure we already have in place, I believe we need another regional university like Nazarbayev University. It will probably be a polytechnic university.

In his statement, the president also underlined the importance of what he called ‘high quality education’. Only higher education institutions that can deliver on quality should be allowed, he noted. Nazarbayev also talked about the need to partner with global universities – as Nazarbayev University has done so successfully both at institutional level and in attracting foreign faculty and senior administrators.

All that sounds like fighting talk – and in Kazakhstan, this kind of statement is usually an indication that action will follow, and will follow soon.

So, watch this space. Nazarbayev Polytechnic University, coming to a Kazakh city near you, soon.

 

Is President Nazarbayev legacy building?

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Better than a cat meme… A recently unveiled bronze monument of Nursultan Nazarbayev in Taldykorgan, south-eastern Kazakhstan

There have been a spate of stories recently about Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev that suggest a new stage in his quarter century long leadership of the nation. This stage consists of the development of a legacy that seeks to frame Nazarbayev as if being written for future history textbooks.

He has already taken on the mantle of Leader of the Nation (2010) after apparently relenting to pressure from parliament, has had the country’s vastly funded and international prestige-seeking university named after him (2010), and more recently has sought to quash rumours that he seeks to have the capital city named after him. Take a look at the US Washington Post’s story “What do you give the autocrat who has everything?” from November 2016 for a tongue in cheek retelling of the latter story.

Although such tendencies are often associated with the notion of the autocratic or authoritarian regime, as the American article noted above demonstrates, recent comments by Nazarbayev suggest that he is seeking to mould an image of himself that turns the tables on these well-worn and Western-centric tropes.

In a recent televised documentary about the past 25 years, Nazarbayev said:

We get called a “dictatorial” country, or moreover “autocratic.” This is nonsense. This is told by those who know nothing of our way of lives… the way we rule today is normal for our country

(Source: http://akipress.com/news:586373/, 12 December 2016)

Further, in an interview with Bloomberg Press last month [ru], Nazarbayev reminded readers that:

The desire of western countries to make Kazakhstan into an American-style democracy is completely unsustainable

This is not to say that Nazarbayev is against political change: in both sources I mention, he talks about the long-term nature of a shift in ideology. He mentions steps taken by Kazakhstan on this path, such as freedom of religion and language.

Despite these proclamations, US-based scholar Mariya Omelicheva suggests that this is more a quest for legitimacy building than for creating a legacy based on genuine change. Her recent study compares Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, noting that presidential speeches by Nazarbayev and his recently deceased Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov share similarities in that

The leadership of these states have been determined to maintain power under the guise of democracy without exposing themselves to the political risks of competition… They have every single formal democratic institution, but they strip them of their democratic essence.

In relation to what the leaders have promised to the people on the terms they define, progress is considerable. But as we are seeing around the world, not just in Central Asia, “rhetoric is manipulative” (Omelicheva).

To answer the question this blog poses – is Nazarbayev legacy building? – I think there is evidence that, at least through the official discourse, there is a trend in this direction. Yet what Omelicheva’s piece reminds us is that discourse and rhetoric are one thing, whereas genuine change in a political system is quite another. In this, legitimacy trumps legacy.