Critical engagement and endangered academic freedom in Tajikistan

For academics, critical engagement is not only about terminating collaboration with Tajik state institutions. It is also a matter of building competent partner institutions and scholars.

Hafiz Boboyorov
20 March 2018

Tajik National University, Dushanbe. Public Domain / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.The academic community has initiated a debate on the growing challenges to academic freedom in Tajikistan. Scholars are concerned with the peculiarities of conducting field research in the wider context of Central Asia, as discussed in the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) Taskforce on Fieldwork Safety in 2016, as well as at the CESS Regional Conference in Bishkek in 2017.

In Tajikistan, however, the focus has been on some notorious incidents of persecution and detention of researchers. Especially since 2015, the increase in the politicisation of the scientific profession, beyond the usual self-censorship, forced some scholars (myself included) to leave the country. These developments are directly related to the Law on the Leader of the Nation adopted in 2015, which legalised the supreme status of the President of Tajikistan over the people and the state, as well as secured him and his family immunity from prosecution.

Some contributions to the recent debate by Malika Bahovadinova, Karolina Kluczewska, and Nazira Sodatsayrova consider that ethical shortcomings by researchers are the main cause of the challenge of doing research in the authoritarian environment of Tajikistan. I concede to this point, and to what these scholars define as the power hierarchy between foreign scholars and their local partners. We cannot ignore the fact that a significant proportion of academic grants goes to specific fields of academic enquiry according to priorities set by both western policy-makers and local elites.

At the same time, these problems do not automatically indicate that all western academic partners and funding bodies are unaware of this troubling situation. Through my own collaboration with German institutions, I witnessed that funding institutions have started supporting interactive research projects that engage local researchers in jointly designing proposals, independently conducting field research, and producing internationally recognised scientific works. I believe that this manner of long-term critical engagement will considerably improve the situation.

Critical engagement should provide institutional support to independent scholars who have been ousted from the system for not having bowed to political repression

However, the authoritarian nature and ideological functions of Tajik academic institutions remain a major problem, as I experienced first-hand during my 18 years working at the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, from December 1998 to June 2016. Paradoxically, the more a local institution is closed, the more it produces western-dominated knowledge. The administrations of these institutions forbid or hamper effective collaboration between scholars and their international peers, which reduces the former’s knowledge of theory and method and reproduces the empirically and ethically ignorant knowledge and methodology observed by Bahovadinova and Kluczewska in some western researchers in Tajikistan.

Bahovadinova and Kluczewska acknowledge that without the permission of these institutions they cannot carry out their research. They also warn that the termination of partnership with local institutions isolates and thus complicates further the situation of Tajik academia. However, such partnerships in an authoritarian context are problematic. First of all, the partner institutions set the rules for doing field research. In addition, in the last years the research activities of academic institutions have been directly monitored by the state’s security services.

Critical engagement with politically and socially sensitive topics — such as the authoritarian state and religious radicalisation — is discouraged or outright forbidden by administrations, scientific councils and security supervisors at academic institutions. The latter circulate conspiracy theories to the effect that critical engagement corresponds to a threat against social and political order and stability. They refuse to accept the claims to impartiality, validity and reliability which are the requirements of western academia.

Since by its very nature critical engagement will incite the authorities’ political sensitivities, ethical reflection by western partners can only be part of the solution as long as the problems of academic freedom are directly related to the authoritarian control and politicisation of academia. In their contributions to the debate, Edward Schatz and John Heathershaw emphasise this important point. Due to recent developments, Tajikistan is no longer the country that once enjoyed a minimum of academic freedom, even if this was the product of the authorities’ disinterest. Today, the scientific and educational sectors are effectively controlled via the revival of Soviet-type security institutions and practices and, as a consequence, the Tajik academic community is under strict political surveillance.

In her assessment of the situation, Bahovadinova notices that there are still scholars in the system, who are engaged with critical research in their fields and the domestic academic environment still tolerates them. Indeed, the politicised academic environment of Tajikistan occasionally allows such critical engagement as exceptions and for reputational purposes. In most cases, however, the critical engagement of Tajik scholars depends on their personal dispositions and sometimes self-sacrifices, as they have often been discredited personally or alienated institutionally, resulting in their eventual exclusion from academia in the country.

Vertical hierarchies based on administrative positions and academic degrees enforce scholars’ financial and political dependence

In order to disempower Professor Hojimuhammad Umarov, the Institute of Economic Studies, where he chaired a department, was closed down. He is one of the country’s top economists and openly criticises the corrupted policies and practices of the Tajik state. Dozens of books and articles by Professor Sulton Nawruzov — a prominent social scientist who produced several books and articles on the political deals and struggles inside the Academy of Sciences — have been all but ignored. He was himself forgotten even on the day of his death on 26 January, 2018. These examples represent the actual decline of academic freedom in Tajikistan and how effective the authorities have been in silencing scholars. Professor Nawruzov defined such methods as academic “consumptionism”, by which he described how scientific administrators and powerful scholars prevent critical engagement in their institutions.

I agree with Schatz and Heathershaw that critical engagement in its broader sense would be the appropriate remedy to improve the situation. But in order to better plan and implement critical engagement with Tajikistan’s academia, it is necessary to understand some aspects of authoritarian rule. One important aspect concerns the authoritarian administration of academic institutions. Research institutions, including the Tajik Academy of Sciences, are both separated from universities and economically dependent on the government. This does not allow free scientific work due to financial and administrative dependence on the government and the consequent lack of institutional support to critical engagement.

Moreover, vertical hierarchies based on administrative positions and academic degrees enforce scholars’ financial and political dependence, as administrative and scholarly rewards are obtained (and maintained) in return for political loyalty: scholars who show more political loyalty are appointed to administrative positions, along patron-client logic. The Soviet-era Accreditation Commission and its Councils of Scientists set both bureaucratic and political rules to prevent critical engagement by Tajik scholars.

Scholars who have administrative positions or are close to the government through the ruling political party or personal connections have privileged access to the resources of their institutions, and do not need third-party funding from foundations and research councils. Often, they tend to view third-party funding and local colleagues who cooperate with foreign-funded projects as a threat to their careers. Actually, the dominant discourse in the academic community of Tajikistan interprets third-party funding as a means for recruiting “foreign agents” inside academia. Bahovadinova and Sodatsayrova are right to affirm that third-party funding provides support to a few local partners, but this often results in the marginalisation of these scholars rather than with the fostering of mutual dialogue involving administrative staff and elites.

Bearing in mind such effects of third-party funding, especially international funding, I agree with Schatz and Heathershaw when they suggest that critical engagement includes “engaging with academic societies, advisory councils and research funding bodies.” Such funding should not support non-critical partnerships. But the question remains as to how this “radical” type of critical engagement can be implemented when funding bodies cannot find competent institutions and scholars willing to collaborate in Tajikistan.

Critical engagement is not only about terminating collaboration with local state institutions which produce knowledge for authoritarian rule; it is also a matter of building competent partner institutions and scholars, with the aim of abolishing what Bahovadinova defines as “a knowledge production hierarchy.” At its lower levels, this hierarchy involves both local NGOs and state institutions. including the Academy of Sciences and the Centre for Strategic Research under the President of Tajikistan, which have the dual function of collecting raw data for western experts and, most importantly, of symbolically and normatively legitimising the authoritarian state. Hence, critical engagement should provide institutional support to independent scholars who have been ousted from the system for not having bowed to political repression. Such support could help them to continue working in their academic fields.

In a recent exchange on the subject at Radio Free Europe, Schatz mentioned a forthcoming peer-reviewed international journal where Central Asian scholars will be able to publish their works in Central Asian languages. Naturally, the journal will attract more attention and scholarly exchange if the contents are also translated into English. Central Asian scholars need more support in getting access to peer-reviewed journals on the region. Such constructive engagement can provide substantial solutions to some of the problems raised by Bahovadinova, including to Tajikistan’s scientific negligence and the marginalisation of Tajik scholars in both academic events and the international job market.


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