KYRGYZSTAN: University politicisation to continue

The national referendum held in Kyrgyzstan last weekend in the wake of major unrest in mid-June will not halt the politicisation of universities, said a Kyrgyz opposition politician in exile who is familiar with the country's universities.

"Universities remain a tool of influence for several central and local governments. For some 20 years all governments in Kyrgyzstan have used students, universities and faculties for their own political purposes, and as an instrument of their own political gains," said Bakyt Beshimov, a former opposition member of the Kyrgyz parliament and deputy chairman of the country's Social Democratic party.

Beshimov, who fled into exile in August last year, is also a former president of Osh State University, one of the largest in the country. During 2006-08, he was vice-president of the private American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

He battled openly against political manoeuvring and corruption in universities. With some 200,000 students and 20,000 members of faculty, universities in Kyrgyzstan are important to the political process, Beshimov told University World News.

"They represent a tangible number of votes and through students, politicians also try to leverage parents to try to get additional votes."

In some cases, students are threatened with punishment, removal of their stipends or told they might do less well in their exams if they do not deliver votes. This is typical treatment, Beshimov said.

Meanwhile, state teachers and lecturers have in the past been routinely forced to hand out leaflets in support of the ruling administration, often under threat of forgoing salary, the independent International Foundation for Electoral Systems has reported.

"It is traditional in these areas of the world (Central Asia) - there is often pressure on students because they are vulnerable because of their financial status and the power relationship with the authorities," said Gavin Weise, Deputy Director for Europe and Asia at the foundation.

The most blatant politicisation was during the 'Tulip Revolution', as the 2005 civic uprising against then President Askar Akayev is known, when university rectors were openly deployed to campaign in favour of Akayev's daughter.

The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights reported that students at several universities across the country were forced to gather signatures for her nomination. Human Rights Watch also reported numerous and credible sources saying state employees including lecturers, as well as students, were forced to become members of the ruling party.

"Rectors are usually found from the immediate circle of the political elite, they are hand-picked individuals," said Elmira Satybaldieva, a former lecturer at AUCA. "It is common for rectors to run as members of parliament and start their own political parties. Some rectors are popular among the youth and that gives them a base for political activities."

Universities in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad became particular targets during recent unrest because of political rivalries on campus. In Osh, the large state universities are the centres of Kyrgyz nationalism.

"Students in the university dorms in Osh are from every corner of Kyrgyzstan and so what happens there in the south affects the whole of Kyrgyzstan. It is very easy to provoke an ethnic crisis by attacking the dorms in Osh," Beshimov said.

He was referring to reports from Osh and Jalalabad that armed groups had attempted to influence students in the dormitories. Rival armed gangs then stormed universities to flush them out during the wider unrest that hit the region in mid-June.

Although the unrest did not start at the universities in Osh and Jalalabad, they were a significant focus of acrimony between the Kyrgyz nationalist and Uzbek communities that 'outsiders' were attempting to stir up, according to Beshimov.

He said the bloody violence, which led to more than 260 deaths and 400,000 refugees and internally displaced people, was instigated from outside Kyrgyzstan.

"It is a mistake to consider this conflict an internal affair of Kyrgyzstan. The intent is to undermine the situation and cause a war between Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Chaos and disruption of the peace in the Ferghana Valley [comprising Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan] could undermine the operation of NATO and the US in Afghanistan," Beshimov said.

He said the private People's Friendship University in Jalalabad, burnt down on 19 May, taught many courses in Uzbek and had been used as a base for Uzbek nationalism.

Also in May, Uzbek leader Kadyrjan Batyrov, a wealthy businessman who had funded the construction of the university, inflamed local anger by repeatedly broadcasting that Uzbek should be a national language on par with Russian.

"Of course this was wrong and provoked an ethnic crisis in Jalalabad," Beshimov said. "Batyrov was saying Uzbek was not represented in the government. There is nothing wrong with these ideas but it was the wrong time and the wrong place. It should not have been at the university.

"I personally told Batyrov not to hold the discussion in public and provoke people, but to ask parliament to amend the law and invite people who are interested to discussions within a legal framework."

Instead, anti-Uzbek groups surrounded the university after Batyrov took shelter there. Batyrov's armed men opened fire from inside dormitories, killing two and injuring around 90 in the crowd outside. The university building was completely destroyed.

"Batyrov has disappeared. He is a wanted man," said Beshimov.

The current rector of Osh State University, Mukhtar Orozbekov, has also not been seen since mid-June, after arousing local anger because he sought to speak out in favour of the Uzbeks, using the university as a platform.

"Local people became very angry with the rector," said Gulnara Chokusheva, a representative in Bishkek of the EU's Tempus project to modernise universities in Central Asia.

The Education Ministry has pledged to rebuild state universities in Jalalabad and Osh but the future of the destroyed private People's Friendship University is unclear.

"It would be better for the Kyrgyz government and foreign aid to think of reconstructing the People's University as well. If they just take care of the state universities and neglect the People's University it will appear a kind of discrimination. It is important to make universities today a place of reconciliation," Beshimov said.

But reconciliation cannot occur without proper university leadership. Currently as many as seven acting university rectors are awaiting confirmation in the wake of the referendum, most of them put in place after unrest in April, which saw the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

"After every coup in Kyrgyzstan, the authorities in universities have been changed on the basis of political motivations; this happened after the most recent coup too. Within 24 hours they changed to be on the side of the new government," Beshimov said.

"Universities are not independent. In many, the principle of academic freedom and honesty is ignored. The majority of our institutions are corrupted."

During his time as an MP he failed to gain support for a new law that supported the principles of academic freedom. "Unfortunately the overwhelming majority of people failed to understand these values."

The referendum on 27 June was intended to give Kyrgyzstan's interim government under Roza Otunbayeva enough legitimacy to assert control in advance of national elections this October.

"The referendum will give the impression of stability for a while but in my view things will not get better," Beshimov said. "Universities will continue to be used as a political tool. They may even become more politicised."