Trends in Secular Educational Development in Azerbaijan and Central Asia: Implications for Social Stability and Regional Security

Trends in Secular Educational Development in Azerbaijan and Central Asia
Implications for Social Stability and Regional Security

by Mark S. Johnson
December 1, 2004

This essay provides an overview of trends in the secular education system in the five Central Asian states plus Azerbaijan. The picture he paints is generally grim. Upon closer examination, however, the picture varies in different countries of Central Asia.

The public or secular educational systems in Azerbaijan and post–Soviet Central Asia are clearly failing, particularly in the poorest regions and for the most disadvantaged elements of the population. This study finds that the situation—while perhaps salvageable—is rapidly approaching the “tipping point” of systemic failure, especially in the poorest nations such as the Kyrgyz Republic (or Kyrgyzstan) and Tajikistan. As one indicator, there is an undeniable flight into elite private provision and study abroad, as well as a very real “brain drain” out of the educational sector and even out of the region. There is also a small but growing trend toward separatist Islamic education, especially in the “Islamic belt” of southern Kazakhstan, southern Kyrgyzstan, the Ferghana Valley, Tajikistan, and possibly rural Azerbaijan. [1] Thus, the important question that must be asked is—can anything be done to remedy the situation? This study finds that these negative trends can still be reversed if vigorous measures are taken to bolster the integrity, capacity, and quality of the secular educational systems.

The analyses of each country in the region that are contained in this report suggest a spectrum of national responses to these educational crises. The top tier—those nations with at least the potential to overcome these problems—includes Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. A belated consensus seems to be emerging in these two countries. After a decade of inertia on the need for comprehensive reform, efforts would be funded at least in part by state oil profits. Serious questions remain, however, whether endemic corruption in the educational sector can be overcome and the domestic political will found to persevere against entrenched interests, including university rectors and school administrators.

In the middle tier, although tenuously so, stand Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where the severity of the crisis has generated an official awareness of the need for both comprehensive reform and significant commitments of international assistance. However, administrative incapacity, widespread poverty, and corruption in both nations have hindered domestic reform programs and squandered at least some international assistance efforts.

Finally, there is the bottom tier, which includes Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The authorities in these countries have either been wary of, or resistant to, educational reforms that threaten to compromise either their entrenched positions or their self–perceived ability to control the younger generation. While this approach has led these states to attempt to preserve such key elements of the Soviet educational system as involuntary vocational

[1] Azizulla Gaziev, “Islamic Education in Southern Kazakhstan, Southern Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan,” unpublished report prepared for The National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle, Wash., 2004.