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