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

Four low-ranking Russian universities have been added to Kazakhstan's Bolashaq scholarship program, which usually only considers colleges that are among the top 250 schools in at least two out of three influential global rating systems. file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Bolashaq is the name of the well-known Kazakh scholarship program that has sent more than 11,000 people to study in prestigious universities abroad -- mostly in Britain and the United States -- since it was created in 1993.

But the government's recent addition of four low-rated Russian technological universities to Bolashaq's program rankings is causing controversy.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said on January 21 that the scholarship program should focus on Russian technological schools.

But experts in Kazakhstan criticized Toqaev’s instruction to add the Russian schools as being politically motivated, with critics saying the president was trying to show his loyalty to Moscow, which supported him during the massive January unrest that led to hundreds of people being killed in the Central Asian nation.

Bolashaq awards an all-expenses paid scholarship to high-performing young Kazakhs for them to study in foreign universities that have high academic rankings. After receiving their diplomas, the graduates are obligated to return and work at least five years in their home country.

Kazakhstan’s Center for International Programs, which runs Bolashaq, relies on three influential global rankings by Quacquarelli Symonds, Times Higher Education, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities when deciding which universities to include in its program.

A requirement for the universities used in Bolashaq is for them to be among the top 250 schools in at least two of these three rankings.

But the four Russian universities recently added to the Bolashaq program -- Bauman Moscow State Technical University, the National Research Nuclear University, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and St. Petersburg State University -- don't make the grade.

But when asked about this by RFE/RL, the Center for International Programs said, “[the new universities were added] on Toqaev’s instruction.”

The center added that the four Russian universities are among the top 20 schools ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and BRICS, a grouping of five emerging economies, including Russia.

The Bolashaq program had never previously relied on the national ratings of the OECD and BRICS countries when adding new universities. Until now, only a handful top Russian schools with relatively high academic rankings -- including the Russian State University and several medical schools -- were among Bolashaq destination universities.

Quality Concerns

Toqaev’s decision sparked criticism in Kazakhstan, with some former Bolashaq participants expressing concern about the quality of education in Russia.

A former Bolashaq scholarship holder who got a degree in advanced control and systems engineering from the University of Manchester said Russia lags far behind Western countries when it comes to engineering technology.

“To learn advanced technologies one must study in the West, not in Russia,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Studying in English provides an added bonus at many western universities, according to another Bolashaq participant.

“In the rapidly developing world, textbooks in science and technology are constantly updated and the latest scientific information is available in English,” said Asiya Ermukhambetova, a University College London graduate who has a PhD in chemical engineering.

Many people contend that Toqaev’s decision to add the lower-rated universities was a kind of "thank-you" to Moscow.

In January, Toqaev sought support from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help stabilize the country amid nationwide anti-government protests sparked by a fuel price hike. The CSTO agreed and briefly deployed troops to Kazakhstan.

Political analyst and former Bolashaq scholar Shalkar Nurseit (file photo)
Political analyst and former Bolashaq scholar Shalkar Nurseit (file photo)

“It is Toqaev’s way of trying to demonstrate his loyalty to Russia and President Vladimir Putin,” political analyst Shalkar Nurseit said.

“Following the CSTO’s help, Toqaev needed to come up with a concrete move to prove to Moscow that he is a pro-Russian president,” said Nurseit, who studied in the United States on a Bolashaq scholarship.

Russia is also interested in accepting Kazakhs to its universities because it hopes they will potentially become Russia sympathizers after studying and living in the country for several years, Nurseit added.

“I wouldn’t call it a partnership in the sphere of education. The goal is to train pro-Russian specialists, and Russia will help with this,” Nurseit told RFE/RL.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Yelnur Alimova.