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Central Asia: Challenges To Civic Education Remain

  • Antoine Blua

More than 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Central Asian republics have not yet developed strong civil societies, while socioeconomic disaffection is high among their populations. One of the challenges is to produce citizens able to make decisions based on only their own judgment. RFE/RL reports that this is an essential step in establishing working democracies.

Prague, 11 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- More than a decade after independence, Central Asian governments still face the challenge of educating their populations to be good citizens.

International organizations in the region say the consolidation of power by small elites has excluded many ordinary people from the political process. At the same time, educators in the region have inherited a Soviet-era civic curriculum using outdated teaching methodologies and materials touting communist ideology.

Yevgenii Melnikov is a secondary-education-program coordinator working for the Open Society Institute in Uzbekistan. He tells RFE/RL that the existing civic-education programs "promote ideas such as supremacy of law, patriotism, and obligation. They are packed with state ideology and lack an emphasis in individual rights and liberties, and do not address the actual needs of youth. The major objective of such state courses is that they encourage subservient citizenship."

He differentiates among the five formerly Soviet Central Asian states, depending on the level of openness of the society. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, he says, are more open than Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Being a citizen requires an understanding of one's rights, duties and responsibilities. Melnikov points out that before a person can undertake these duties, he or she must first be capable of exercising critical, independent judgement. "The [demands] of citizenship do not receive the proper [attention] in state educational programs. I believe the essential qualities of every young person are [to have] a sufficient awareness of the society [and] the individual rights and responsibilities in civic issues. [This includes] the ability to form independent analyses, and the ability to successfully express, present, and defend one's own opinions."

Specialists in the region say citizens often are not aware of their basic rights. One legal group in Kyrgyzstan recently reported that up to three-quarters of all women were unaware they can legally seek government aid to cope with domestic violence.

Fatima Sharopova is the head of a "judiciary clinic" in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. She says informing citizens of their rights begins with educating children: "Children have started to believe that their rights can be protected. And they know whom to address [now]. We know it from the appeals coming to us."

One of the challenges facing civic educators is to facilitate interaction between the population and government officials. Too often, still, officials are viewed as being on a pedestal, beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.

Bebs Chorak is the deputy director of Street Law, a Washington-based organization that works in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Her group hopes to educate young people about human rights and democracy. She says many don't believe officials will talk to them, "And so we're always pushing [people] to call an official, to ask him." She says there is the perception of a communication barrier and people do not believe they can cross it. "That's the biggest barrier -- I think -- to [changing behaviors]," she says. "As long as they think officials are different from them, [it will] be a problem."

Chorak's group tries to promote the concept of rule of law. This means that no individual is above the law and that all behavior is subject to the same rules no matter who a person is. This implies laws are legitimate and fair.

Chorak says her group is also trying to teach people that they are the ones who make the laws. Decrees are not something that are handed down, but rather reflect the needs and desires of the citizens. "Law seems to be something that's given to them, not something they have created -- that they can change. I [have] had lots of lawyers tell me: 'This is the law, there's no discussion about it; this is what it is.' And I would really have to make them sit down and see that there was room in that law for discussion."

Chorak says each country and culture will have to find its own way forward. There are no set blueprints. "Democracy -- as we know -- [reflects a] culture, and you just don't go to another country and change their culture. As people learn to use their critical thinking processes and they learn to question officials, they [will develop their own form of democracy]. And when they develop whatever form of government or whatever form of democracy they end up with through this evolution, it will be theirs."

She says this process will take a long time, and all one can hope for is that it will lead to a fairer system.

(RFE/RL Tajik Service's Sojida Djakhfarova contributed to this report.)

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