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Qishloq Ovozi

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev gestures to the crowd during the opening ceremony of the Hazrat Sultan mosque in Astana in July 2012.

Many young people enter universities with the hope that one day their education will help them stand out from the crowd. But in Kazakhstan, it seems you have to stand in the crowd first.

Some university students in Kazakhstan complain they are being forced by university staff to attend events sponsored by officials.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, has been reporting about the so-called "massovka," the people who are ordered to attend events where local or national politicians will be present. The word derives from a Russian term referring to movie extras and crowd scenes.

Marlen (a pseudonym) is a student from the Al-Farabi University in Almaty. "We don't have a choice," he said. "They [university officials] tell us to go and we are obligated to go."

Marlen said he had spent a good deal of his "free" time -- up to six hours in a television studio or 12 hours at a stadium -- waiting for the president to speak or watch bicycle races.

"If you don't go, you get put on the blacklist, they could take away your room at the dormitory, or maybe next year you won't get a dorm room. Sometimes we're threatened with receiving bad grades," Marlen told Azattyq.

Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, from Abai University, also in Almaty, said university officials often bus students to conferences and forums to be part of the audience.

"We go to events at the mayor's office, scientific conferences, events organized by the Writers' Union, jubilees for poets and writers. The leadership at the university demands we take part," the student said. "If we don't go, they will be very picky at exam time," he added.

A student at the Eurasian National University in Astana who gave her name as Balnurzhan said, "We hold small flags and applaud at all the events where the president, Astana, or ministers are present.'

Balnurzhan explained, "If students ignore these events, they could mark you as having missed classes," and such students will not graduate.

Azattyq spoke with Gul Bayandina, a spokeswoman at Kazakhstan's National University, who admitted the university did encourage students to attend political and sporting events sponsored by the authorities, "but students attend of their own volition, we do not force anyone [to go]."

Arman Ukeev, a representative of the Kazakh National Pedagogical University, said the university did receive requests from the local administration to have "30 people at some event, or maybe 50," but he added, "We try not to send students."

The Almaty mayor's office said accusations students were forced to attend such events were "groundless."

Azattyq contacted Fatima Abzapieva, a professor with some 30 years of experience, who said the habit of ordering students to attend public events, political or sports, "is left over from Soviet times." She said organizations such as the young pioneers, the Komsomoltsy, or later Communist Party were examples of groups that demanded their members attend certain public functions so that pictures or footage of the events would show large crowds.

"In the directives concrete numbers of students, needed for events were indicated," she said.

A university professor in Almaty, Askar Shamgaliev, said he did not see any harm in coaxing students to attend events sponsored by the authorities. "Participation in such events develops the perceptions and thinking of students, he said.

Audio recordings of Azattyq's conversations, in Kazakh, with some of these people are available here.

RFE/RL's Ruslan Medelbek contributed to this report
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atamabev in Bishke on October 31.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be touring all five of the Central Asian states starting on October 31 and ending on November 2.

It is Kerry's first trip to the region in more than 2 1/2 years as secretary of state, and it comes as the United States and Central Asia enter a new relationship: the post-Afghanistan relationship.

Though the United States will be keeping some troops in Afghanistan at least through the end of 2016, gone are the days when the United States, of need, had to court Central Asia's governments. The U.S. base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan is closed, as is the NATO base outside Dushanbe in Tajikistan. And the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that once ferried goods by rail and road from Europe through Russia and Central Asia into Afghanistan was shut down last year.

So Kerry goes to Central Asia with perhaps the strongest hand a U.S. secretary of state has had in some 15 years. This time, the United States really does not need anything from Central Asia.

However, the view from here at the Qishloq is that Central Asia could really use help from the United States.

Central Asia's foreign policy is a balancing act. There are many outside players in this crossroad of Eurasia, but three main parties are Russia, China, and the United States. So without the United States as a friend and partner, Central Asia is left with Russia and China. Not an enviable situation, particularly since both are neighbors.

If either Russia or China, or both, decides to put pressure on Central Asia, there is not much the Central Asian states could do to resist without another great power supporting them.

Another point worth remembering is no matter how one views the results of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the Central Asians certainly have benefited in terms of security from having U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan since late 2001. In fact, the United States even paid the Central Asian states for allowing U.S. forces to use Central Asian airports (in every Central Asian country) and transiting goods through their territories.

So now Kerry visits, hopefully to discuss the new relationship between the United States and Central Asia. There is no longer any need to mute criticism or avoid uncomfortable topics during this trip.

Remember the WikiLeaks cable about Uzbek President Islam Karimov in March 2009 warning U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland that Uzbekistan might suspend the transit of goods via the NDN as retaliation for the United States giving an award to Uzbek rights activist Mutabar Tajikbaeva?

That won't work anymore. And neither will many other games Central Asian leaders knew they could play because the United States needed them.

So now would be a good time to go back to some of the policies of the 1990s, when the United States put more emphasis on friendship and alliances with partners in Central Asia that shared, or at least were trying to share, U.S. values and ideals.

And no more: "We're moving toward democracy, taking into consideration our traditions and history." Mongolia got it right and they did not have any more experience with democracy than the countries in Central Asia.

The Qishloq does not wish to give advice to Kerry about what quid pro quo there should be for good ties with the United States.

But I do support these suggestions and encourage anyone reading this to also look at these statements. And I hope Kerry will raise these issues when he meets with Central Asian leaders:

Kerry Should Speak Up for Human Rights in Central Asia

United States: Feature Rights in Central Asia Talks

CPJ Urges Kerry To Call For Release Of imprisoned Journalists In Central Asia

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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