Kyrgyzstan: reform starts with education

Kyrgyzstan could be the first Central Asian parliamentary democracy. But the southern region has first to be reconciled and stabilized. The way forward is to use the well established Kyrgyz traditions of education to teach acceptance of ethnic diversity in schools and universities, explain Scott Horton and Baktybek Abdrisaev.
Scott Horton Baktybek Abdrisaev
18 October 2010

We still don’t know the full scope of the tragic violence that struck the south of Kyrgyzstan last June. The death count stopped at 356, but most observers are convinced that the number must run closer to 2,000. Hundreds of thousands lost property and many lost their homes.  The situation there remains tense and, in the view of many recent visitors, pregnant with violence. This is in some measure the legacy of diminished confidence in the nation’s political institutions, the degradation of its law enforcement and justice systems. It presents the most daunting challenge to the government of Kyrgyzstan’s new president, career diplomat Roza Otunbayeva.  

Although Otunbayeva was formally installed as the fixed-term president in a referendum that drew healthy numbers of Kyrgyz to the polls, the country remains in a state of anticipationParliamentary elections were held on October 10, and voting was highly fragmented. Five parties (two of them linked to the interim government) satisfied the requirements to enter parliament, where they will wrangle for posts in the new government. The elections gave rise to high levels of anxiety about the future, though they were the most open and fair elections voters have ever seen.

Kyrgyzstan map

Otunbayeva and the new government have an urgent challenge to meet in the nation’s south. They need to bring the region stability and they need to build confidence in their own police and courts to do so. That process is off to an extremely shaky start, as authorities in the south, led by the mayor of Osh, who last month openly defied Otunbayeva’s demand for his resignation, strike an uncompromising and ethnically partisan pose and Kyrgyz courts draw sharp criticism from a wide array of international observers over their handling of doubtful charges against a high-profile ethnically Uzbek human rights campaigner.  Otunbayeva’s own words offer a measure of reassurance, however, since she has used her position to criticize many of these false steps. 

However, the authorities in Bishkek are unlikely to succeed in their heavy task without support from the international community to enable them to clear the smoke surrounding the events in June. That effort could be advanced by the international investigation into the causes and scope of the June events to be led by Kimmo Kiljunen and by a special OSCE police mission to the area. These steps should provide a more reliable account of what transpired and help restore public confidence in the fairness of the local police.  The United States and the Russian Federation should be playing a leading role in this process.  Both lent a helping hand during the tragic events in June and were actively interested in the outcome of the October 10 elections. Washington supported the democratic process in general, for which special recognition is due. Moscow had its clear favourite: the Ar-Namys party of Felix Kulov, who promised a return to the previous strong presidential system. Once more, Russia and America are focused on narrowly understood security interests, rather than working to build on common understanding of threat and risks.  Both Russia and America should be concerned not just with their rights in military installations in the north, but with the overall security environment in Kyrgyzstan, starting with the difficult situation in the south.

Osh riots

Osh, last June: Hundreds of thousands lost property and many lost their homes (photo: www.ferghana.ru)

At the same time the foundations for stability and lasting reconciliation need to be laid in the south. We firmly believe that, in the tradition of the great Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, social development and reform need to be pursued through the process of education in addition to the political channels. Kyrgyzstan’s schools and universities need to teach, and themselves actually to reflect, a measure of the community that they aspire to build, a community which promotes the values of democracy and the rule of law and builds students into citizens who understand their responsibilities to, as well as their rights in, society. The curriculum needs to engage with communalism, the idea of ethnic communities living side by side, and the particular threat posed by the lack of it to the ancient cities and villages of Kyrgyzstan’s south. Osh has survived for two millennia and it achieved importance in the world as an outpost on the great Silk Road, offering shelter to a constantly changing blend of pilgrims, merchants and warriors. The only thing that has been constant about Osh has been the factor of change, as different believers and ethnic groups have come to fill its streets and markets. That is a proud legacy, severely challenged by the recent developments.

Kyrgyzstan has distinguished itself among the Central Asian republics with its strong support for higher education and willingness to experiment with evolving models on the international stage. It is home to three international style universities. Higher education in Kyrgyzstan’s south has ground to a halt since the events of June—and the government recently confirmed that it had no plans to reopen the region’s universities until after the elections and the formation of a new government. This adds to the south’s woes.  Kyrgyzstan’s government, and particularly the leaders in its international education sector, like the American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyz-Russian (Slavonic) University, Kyrgyz-Turkish (Manas) University and others urgently need to come together to address the crisis of higher education in the south. They should open their doors wide to new students from the region and they should give careful thought to developing projects to bring higher education back to Kyrgyzstan’s south in a manner that addresses the area’s urgent problems. 

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