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Central Asia Live!

Tuesday 16 August 2022

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Over 10 weeks, RFE/RL hosted discussions on Twitter Spaces on various issues that affect daily life in Central Asia. We looked at global issues -- from the COVID-19 pandemic to the war in Ukraine and climate change -- through the prism of local experiences and opinions.

We heard from people from many different walks of life -- a restaurant owner, a gay man, journalists, and a young activist who grew up in a village helping other girls in rural areas to get an education, to name just a few.

And you can help us as we put together Season 2 by filling out this brief form.

Here's a look back at Season 1 of Central Asia Live!

Episode 1: Is The Russian Language Losing Its Dominance?

In Central Asia, Russian is still the language of education, science, services, and, often, official paperwork. And many parents still believe that their children have better chances of succeeding in life knowing Russian. These linguistic divisions --often between people of the same ethnicity -- have led to cultural clashes and resentment over unequal opportunities and discrimination. But things are slowly changing.

Issatay Minuarov, a sociologist from Kazakhstan; Bektour Iskender, a journalist from Kyrgyzstan and a co-founder of the Kloop news website; and Sevara Khamidova, a women’s rights activist from Uzbekistan, talked about shifts in government policies and attitudes among Russian speakers in favor of a more prominent role for native languages.

Read more here.

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Episode 2: What Is Life Like For Ordinary People In Turkmenistan?

For ordinary Turkmen citizens, life has become even harder since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, despite the fact the Turkmen authorities declared the country COVID-free. And the new president -- Serdar Berdymukhammedov --seems determined to continue the repressive course of his father, Gurbanguly, who ruled the country for over 15 years.

Gozel Khudayberdieva, a reporter with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, and Ruslan Myatiev, an editor with Turkmen.news, talked about subsidized food rations, border closures, new restrictions on women, and more.

Read more here.

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Episode 3: What Is It Like To Live As A Gay Or Trans Person In Central Asia?

In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, homosexuality is still a crime punishable by a prison sentence. It’s not against the law in Tajikistan, but LGBT people have no legal protections and are sometimes subjected to psychiatric treatment. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the climate for LGBT people is less repressive. Some openly speak out about their identities and rally for their rights, but social stigma, homophobia, and harassment are widespread in these conservative, predominantly Muslim societies.

Amir Mukambetov, former head of community empowerment at the LGBT rights organization Kyrgyz Indigo, and Sultana Kali, a trans activist from Kazakhstan, shared their personal experiences of growing up being different, finding their path to activism, and the challenges and achievements of their communities. We also heard Dastan Kasmamytov, a gay activist from Kyrgyzstan, talk about his campaign to increase the visibility of queer people in Central Asia by raising a rainbow flag on the world’s highest peaks.

Read more here.

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Episode 4: How Are People In Kyrgyzstan And Tajikistan Coping With Inflation?

COVID-19, severe droughts, supply problems caused by the pandemic, and, most recently, the war in Ukraine have all been contributing factors to the rising cost of living in Central Asia. For several months now, there have been reports of shortages and increased prices of food staples such as flour, rice, cooking oil, sugar, and in some parts, carrots and onions. And it's not only food that is getting expensive. So are fuel, electricity, gas, and everything else.

Mouslim Buriev, an independent researcher and resident of Dushanbe, and Sumsarbek Mamyraliev, a restaurant owner in Bishkek, shared how inflation has affected them and what they had to give up to cut their expenses.

Read more here.

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Episode 5: What Roles Do Tribalism And Kinship Play In Modern-Day Kazakhstan

In Central Asia, power and wealth are often kept and passed down in a family. But the concept of blood ties goes beyond immediate or extended family members. Political alliances and influential clans are also organized around tribal or regional kinship, which goes back centuries to the times when today’s Central Asian nations were a group of separate tribes.

Shalkar Nurseitov, a political analyst from Kazakhstan, explained the importance of belonging to the right tribe in politics and daily life.

Read more here.

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Episode 6: How Is Climate Change Affecting Tajikistan And Uzbekistan?

Water is arguably the most important resource in Central Asia. It is vital for agriculture, which feeds and provides livelihoods for the region’s predominantly rural population, as well as for hydropower stations that generate electricity for domestic consumption and export. But this resource is at risk.

Shahzoda Alikhanova, a natural resources management specialist from Uzbekistan who is currently a doctoral researcher at the Durrell Institute of Conservation Ecology at the University of Kent in the U.K., and Sher Khashimov, a journalist from Tajikistan, spoke about the impact of global warming on local communities, adaptations for a hotter and dryer future, and a lack of local scientific research and policy on grappling with climate change.

Read more here.

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Episode 7: What Is It Like To Work As A Journalist In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

For decades, Central Asian governments have kept a tight grip over information. State media dominate and serve as government mouthpieces. The few independent outlets in the region face growing financial pressures and efforts to stifle their reporting through a variety of means -- assaults, threats, arrests, and prosecution. Self-censorship is pervasive among journalists and bloggers.

Asem Zhapisheva, founder of Masa Media, an independent news website in Kazakhstan that covers human rights, and Nikita Makarenko, a freelance journalist from Uzbekistan, told about the tough decisions they have to make in difficult working conditions and the line between journalism and activism, and shared their thoughts about the future of journalism in their countries.

Read more here.

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Episode 8: How Is Tourism Doing In Tajikistan And Kyrgyzstan?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of international borders, the countries of Central Asia had pinned their hopes on international tourism to bring in revenue and create jobs.

Umeda Kurbonbekova, a mountain guide from Tajikistan and a travel agency owner, and Azamat Mamataaly-Uulu, a mountain guide and photographer from Kyrgyzstan, talked about the slow recovery of the tourism industry, the differences between domestic and international tourists, and country promotion. They also gave recommendations for the best places to see in their countries.

Read more here.

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Episode 9: How Do Young Kazakh And Kyrgyz Women Fight For Their Rights Through Social Media?

Domestic violence, sexual harassment, and gender inequality are pervasive in conservative Central Asian societies. In recent years, social media platforms have helped draw more attention to the ill-treatment of women and have become a place for victims to share their experiences. Moreover, a generation of young women across the region are using TikTok and Instagram to change the status quo and educate other women about their rights.

Aisana Ashim, a Kazakh journalist and the founder of Batyr Jamal, a new publication about women’s rights in the Kazakh and Russian languages, and Meerim Nurlanbekova, founder of the Village Girl project to empower girls in rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, discussed their projects, which rely heavily on social media, and whether social media backlash helps in seeking justice for victims of violence or sexual harassment. ​

Read more here.

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Episode 10: What Are The Challenges Of Higher Education In Tajikistan And Uzbekistan?

Around half of Central Asia's population is under 30 years old. This means the demand for education is high. Having a university diploma is associated with a chance for a better-paying, white-collar job. However, professions that are popular with students do not necessarily match the needs of the labor market. And universities are struggling with funding and shortages of academic staff.

Nafisabonu Urinkhojaeva, a university student in Tajikistan, and Niginakhon Saida, a private university instructor from Uzbekistan, talk about the quality of higher education in their countries, competition for places at universities, and brain drain.

Read more here.

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As always, thanks for listening!

Central Asia Live! will be back in September with a new season of lively conversations and debates. In the meantime, follow @RFERL on Twitter so you don't miss the latest news and features on Central Asia.

Tell us how we're doing by filling out this brief form. It will only take a few minutes and it will help us a lot.

You can also send any feedback or topics you’d like to be discussed to webteam@rferl.org.

Across the region, universities are struggling with funding and shortages of academic staff.

Around half of Central Asia's population is under 30 years old. This means the demand for education is high. Having a university diploma is associated with a chance for a better-paying, white-collar job. However, professions that are popular with students do not necessarily match the needs of the labor market.

The region inherited its public higher education system from the Soviet era. A diverse range of privately owned universities emerged during the independence years. Some of them offer quality Western-style education, although their tuition fees can be too expensive for most ordinary Central Asians. Some have been nothing more than "diploma factories" used to obtain degrees rather than knowledge.

Across the region, universities are struggling with funding and shortages of academic staff. This, along with high unemployment and low wages, forces young people to go abroad for education and work.

In a live discussion on August 4, I spoke with Nafisabonu Urinkhojaeva, a university student in Tajikistan, and Niginakhon Saida, a private university instructor from Uzbekistan, about the quality of higher education in their countries, competition for places at universities, and brain drain.

Key takeaways:

Nafisabonu Urinkhojaeva (Tajikistan): "Before I enrolled into my university, I was offered a presidential quota to study for free. But I would have to work for three years in Tajikistan after graduation. I didn't know what kind of job [the government] would provide me with in the future. Would I like it or not? They find a job for you, and you have to work there. That's why I chose to pay for my studies. As soon as I finish, I will go to study abroad.

"I wish we could choose our classes ourselves, maybe, to choose our professors. Also, I wish we had a better student life in our university."

Niginakhon Saida (Uzbekistan): "I'm still struggling to find my own style of teaching. I try to [have] more student-oriented classes where I would like them to engage more in discussion and learn from each other. But it's hard to dismantle this class hierarchy where they see a teacher as someone with power. They expect you to tell them what to do. This is one thing I struggle with.

"I also try to get rid of all tests and other [assignments] where it would require memorizing skills and focus on writing papers instead, which would involve critical thinking and analysis. But what I observe is that schools don't prepare students for these kinds of tasks. Every semester, I dedicate one class to teach students how to cite, paraphrase, avoid plagiarism, etc. Because in their mind, if they dug it out on the Internet and found some materials, it's their work.

"I believe that in Uzbekistan the hardest part of getting a higher education is the entrance exam. That's it. It doesn't matter what you do afterward. As long as you keep going to university, you keep paying fees, you will graduate. It doesn't matter whether you are studying well. When I was graduating, I taught at my public university as part of an internship. I had to teach 30 students who were majoring in English. I saw that half of the class could not speak any English. So I believe that entrance exams should be not that difficult, but studying should be harder and more demanding."

Listen to the full conversation here:

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Read more on the subject from RFE/RL:

How Top Officials, Relatives Scooped Up Kazakhstan's Higher-Education Sector

Showing Loyalty? Kazakh President Alters Scholarship Program To 'Please Russia'

Doctor Drain: 'Exodus' Of Tajiks To Russia Seen As Migration Laws Eased

Education Exodus: Uzbek Students Rushing Home To Study After Tashkent Eases Transfers

Central Asia Live! is taking a break for the rest of the month, but we'll be back in September with a new season of lively conversations and debates. Thanks for listening! In the meantime, follow @RFERL on Twitter so you don't miss the latest news and features on Central Asia. Send any feedback or discussion ideas to webteam@rferl.org.

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