Shavkat Mirziyoyev

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.

Uzbek-Tajik higher education relations are warming up

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Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev and Tajikistan’s Rahmon – new BFFs??

The honeymoon period of Uzbekistan’s now not-so-new President Mirziyoyev just keeps on going. Even hardened critics of what was once a solidly authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan are having to admit that the reform-driven new leader, who took the reins after the death of longstanding President Karimov following his death in December 2016, may be serious about making serious and positive change in the country.

I have already reported on a historic recent trip by Mirziyoyev to the United States as one indication of the country’s new openness and readiness to engage with the world.

Today, I want to focus on Uzbekistan’s relations with neighbour Tajikistan. Historically frosty at best, the two countries mainly seem to disagree about water and borders – but of course the relationship is more complex than that. Yet in recent months, international roads that have long been closed are beginning to open and there are a small but growing number of direct flights between the two countries. There is a buzz around the possibilities for bilateral tourism and trade, the turnover of which has already doubled.

Following a state visit by Mirziyoyev to Tajikistan this March, his Tajik counterpart Rahmon has this week made a return visit. The agenda for the two day visit was wide-ranging, with talks and agreements planned spanning commerce to music. It was the first official visit by a Tajik leader to Uzbekistan since 1998, according to news agency Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

In the field of education, bilateral relations have been warming up since before this week’s official state visit. At the start of this month, an agreement between Tajikistan’s top ranked National University and Uzbekistan’s Samarqand State University was signed. It’s quite a broad agreement to cooperate on research, but is an important addition to Tajik National University’s existing partnerships with states universities in the Uzbek cities of Andijon, Ferghana and Tashkent.

Hopefully the relationships between universities and colleges in both countries will continue to improve, paving the way for greater exchanges of people and ideas. And improving cooperation in education may also help underpin a strong foundation for the countries’ broader bilateral relations.

A good news story to end the week!

A new era of international relations for Uzbek higher education

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My cats Maple and Simba welcome the new era of closer (US-Uzbek bilateral) relations

In a series of moves that have been tentatively welcomed by Central Asia-watchers, Uzbekistan has been enjoying a resurgence of international support under the presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Mirziyoyev’s highest profile international visit so far was a trip this week to the United States. Covered in good detail by English language outlets including the latest excellent Majlis podcast, an exclusive interview in The Diplomat with Uzbekistan’s Minister of Justice, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, his three day visit led to a wealth of pronouncements and new bilateral agreements being signed. Concluding the visit, there has been general agreement – as you might expect from any good diplomatic visit – that things are looking optimistic for the future of Uzbek-US relations (even if parts of the American press is still struggling to pronounce the Uzbek leader’s name).

Of interest for international academic relations are two agreements, both signed at state level. The first will launch an Uzbekistan-based programme to “support partnerships between U.S. universities and higher education institutions across Central Asia”; the second provides for financial support to expand English language teaching in Uzbekistan. The English programmes will be targeted at teachers and students at school and university level, journalists and professionals.

The Memorandum of Understanding on institutional partnerships provides several points for discussion and reflection. Partnerships in higher education are normally signed on an institution-to-institution basis either as a very general agreement to cooperate or with specific aims in mind (e.g. to run a joint degree programme). It is less common to see agreements signed at bi-national level; in this case, it looks like the two governments have a specific programme in mind that will facilitate the entry of American higher education institutions into Central Asia.

This links to another observation: that the partnership here extends beyond Uzbekistan, even though the visit of Mirziyoyev has otherwise had an exclusively bilateral nature. The press release on the two agreements does not go into further detail so we will have to wait and see how this programme pans out once we have more information.

With all the fanfare surrounding this overseas trip and the enthusiastic proclamation of the US government’s press release that these are “landmark” agreements, it would be easy to think that Uzbekistan’s education system has been isolated from the international academic community. To some extent, this is true, as was the case for other sectors of society under the rule of previous President Islam Karimov. For example, the European Union’s Bologna Process of degree harmonization and partnerships has had less impact in Uzbekistan than its Central Asian neighbours. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan’s higher education sector has actually been relatively international since the country became independent in 1991.

One of the region’s longest running international universities, the British Westminster International University in Tashkent, has been operating since 2002, offering teaching solely in the medium of English. A suprisingly wide range of other partnerships are also in operation, from Italy’s Turin Polytechnic University (opened in 2009) to recent (2014) South Korean entrant Inha University. Thus far, international academic relations such as these congregate in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. It is noteworthy that all of these were set up under inter-governmental agreements during the reign of Karimov.

I’d suggest two conclusions from all of this.

Firstly, this week’s visit by Mirziyoyev is a sure sign of the further reintegration of Uzbekistan into the global community, and it will be interesting to observe how these connections are (re)formed in similar and different ways to his predecessor Karimov. Such international relations are not new for Uzbekistan, but represent a new wave of outreach and partnerships.

Secondly, in terms of higher education, I think we are about to witness Uzbekistan building on its existing international ties and seeking greater convergence with the so-called “global academic community”, a phrase beloved of the Kazakhstans of this world. Thus, Kazakhstan now brings out its own university rankings and seeks to establish world-class universities in order to try and become more competitive with a model of higher education it observes globally.

Based on the country’s 2017-2021 Development Strategy [ru], it does indeed look like the current plan for Uzbekistan is towards this type of convergence. On higher education, the strategy callls for:

повышение качества и эффективности деятельности высших образовательных учреждений на основе внедрения международных стандартов обучения и оценки качества преподавания, поэтапное увеличение квоты приема в высшие образовательные учреждения

enhancement of the quality and effectiveness of higher education institutions based on international education standards and assessment of teaching quality, gradual increase in the admission quotas to higher education institutions

This raises much deeper questions about the nature of higher education worldwide. Is there such a thing as a globalized idea of the university? If there is, what are the implications for Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the many other countries seeking to emulate it? And for international academic relations, what is the future of partnerships such as those signed this week between the US and Uzbekistan if countries can produce their own globalized university?