Jan 21

Academic Freedom in Tajikistan Endangered: What is to be Done?

Academic freedom is imperiled in Tajikistan, and determined action by the international academic community is needed to encourage Tajik authorities to ease pressure on scholars.

The dire situation today concerning academic freedom sharply contrasts with that which existed during the late 1990s and early 2000s. A few decades ago, at a time when Central Asian Studies was beginning to establish itself as an international academic field, there was a surprising degree of freedom to conduct research in Tajikistan, despite the lingering effects of the country’s civil war. Universities and the Academy of Sciences had emerged from the dark years of the war with a willingness to collaborate with all-comers, and visiting academics were welcomed. At the time, there were few practical barriers to conducting research.

In some respects, this relationship was “extractive” and problematic. Foreign academics would arrive, hire research assistants whose contacts and skills they would rely upon, and extract data to write doctoral dissertations, or complete externally funded projects. Tajik academics and independent research organizations became dependent on external funding. Meanwhile, scholarship programs attracted the best young Tajik researchers to study overseas, and some understandably did not return. The country faced shortages of funding, expertise, and anaemic support — something that is particularly acute in post-conflict environments.

But today these growing pains have been replaced by problems on a whole new scale. Similar to what occurred in Uzbekistan in the early 2000s, over the last five years it has become increasingly difficult to collaborate with Tajik colleagues, as the government has enforced a growing number of formal and informal restrictions.

International scholars who have sought to make research cooperation less extractive by co-designing and co-publishing with Tajik scholars inadvertently put them at greater risk. In 2014, for example, our colleague Alexander Sodiqov was arrested, detained and charged with espionage after conducting an interview with an activist in Khorog. It took 36 days for the security services (SCNS) to be persuaded to release him.

Since 2014, the situation has kept deteriorating. We know directly of five further cases (including this one) of academics forced to leave Tajikistan because they faced pressure from the security services. While we have only worked directly with two of these six scholars, all have worked extensively with foreign academics, and all have been subject to SCNS investigations, or the threat thereof.

The evisceration of academic freedom in Tajikistan is rarely discussed publically. It was not even mentioned in the June 2017 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye.

Anonymous and/or confidential accounts provided to us reveal the mechanisms by which the repression of academics is occurring in Tajikistan. Most troubling is the fact that repression, although instigated by the SCNS, typically takes place with some level of cooperation, whether tacit or overt, of fellow scholars and state academic institutions. In other words, the closure of academic freedom is being facilitated by academics themselves through control mechanisms, surveillance and self-censorship.

The case of one Tajik academic — highlighted in this post on the Exeter website — is typical. The scholar, whose name was withheld due to concerns about reprisals, describes enduring various forms of pressure and repression, even prior to the opening of a case by the security services. When invited to participate in international conferences, the scholar was routinely required to be interviewed by his/her SCNS overseer. On occasion, s/he was warned that if s/he received an invitation again, someone else from the institution must accompany him/her or s/he would be banned from travel. Such meetings were more frequent when foreign colleagues were visiting or in residence at the anonymous academic’s institution.

Cases such as this highlight that while international collaboration may be empowering, Tajik authorities are not inclined to let it continue for long unless the Tajik scholar engages in self-censorship and/or agrees to inform on foreign and local colleagues to the security services.

An October 2017 conference at the University of Exeter placed the issue of repression of academics in Central Asia in historical perspective and comparative context with the Middle East. One Tajik participant noted that a growing number of Tajik academics choose to leave because of the “rehabilitation of a Soviet-type system of knowledge production,” under which scholars must adhere to state narratives, and conduct research that supports and/or justifies official policies.

This Tajik conference participant discussed in detail the appointment of SCNS loyalists to senior positions in state academic institutions, the plagiarizing of kandidat and doktorat degrees by these individuals, the systems of surveillance, as well as reporting and the rebuttal of independent scholars via a “factory of replies” (fabrika otvetov).

While such a system has existed in some form since 1991 in Tajikistan, according to the participant, its scope has significantly expanded in recent years. The state in effect has engineered a divide between patriotic and non-patriotic scholars, the participant asserted.

The closure of academic space is part of a broader trend involving the erosion of individual liberty in Tajikistan. As the Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) database held at Exeter shows, Tajikistan has driven many political opponents from the country and continues to target them in exile via transnational repression mechanisms. Academic exiles also face continued harassment from the SCNS.

Today, Tajikistan looks like Uzbekistan in 2005, when the geopolitical aftershock from the Andijan massacre caused scores of partnerships to be shuttered, forced foreigners to leave the country and tarred local scholars who had worked with them as foreign agents.

How might the international academic community respond to such developments in Tajikistan? Beyond supporting fellowships for at-risk academics and organizing crowdfunding and other practical assistance to those who have felt compelled to flee, colleagues will inevitably have different views.

Based on our limited experience and considerations, we see three principal options. Some may be more relevant for funding bodies while others may be more relevant to field researchers. But our view is that things have gotten so bad that doing nothing is no longer advisable.

A first, and most radical, option would be to categorically refuse any cooperation with Tajik state institutions and colleagues employed by those institutions. This could fall short of a full academic boycott of the country, but it would preclude engaging in research on topics in the social sciences and humanities that are likely to put local colleagues under pressure. Such topics would include not just obviously “political” research on armed conflict and opposition movements that the government has effectively made impossible by its action. They may also include security matters and areas less obviously political (history, religion, minority languages) where the government increasingly imposes a party line on its intellectuals.

A comprehensive boycott admittedly would be considered an extreme option by many colleagues and would probably not be widely adopted. It would also be difficult to insulate the small number of private and non-governmental institutions and independent scholars who continue, somehow, to undertake credible scholarship at the margins of the state academic system. In effect, a boycott would run the risk of effectively ending the production of globally-recognized research in social science and the humanities in Tajikistan, much as most fieldwork and academic collaboration with Uzbekistan has been problematic since 2005.

A second option would be the adoption of a more selective prohibition, in effect a “blacklist.” Whereas the boycott (option one) would be applied to all state institutions, a blacklist would only target institutions with a clearly documented track record of repression.

This approach is similar to that adopted by the Turkish group Academics for Peace following the crackdown in Turkey that began in 2016. The group could not reach consensus on a full boycott and so opted for a blacklist. However, because repression in Turkey was deemed to be so widespread, around 98 percent of academic institutions were placed on the blacklist. Similarly in Tajikistan, a blacklist could end up looking a lot like a comprehensive boycott.

The third option would involve “critical engagement.” Under such a strategy, the international academic community would exercise caution in entering partnerships and would raise awareness about the persecution of academics and the closure of academic space. This has begun to occur across the post-Soviet region. The Central Eurasian Study Society (CESS) fieldwork taskforce of 2016 was an important landmark, as it highlighted many wider issues of international academic cooperation. Subsequent conferences of CESS and the European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS) have included greater discussion of pressing issues.

But “critical engagement” is currently partial and often limited to individual events and a few outspoken academics. Funding bodies and major universities continue to provide resources to Tajik academic institutions and to enter into partnerships in which academic freedom is either strictly limited or, where exercised, puts academics at risk of repression.

The first and second options outlined above are most appropriately considered by funding agencies and universities that enter into collaborative research or institutional-level educational partnerships; the third is perhaps a vocational requirement for researchers. But part of the point of the third approach is to apply pressure from the academic community to make institutions consider the first and second options as a matter of policy. Here, tenured or established academics (who have both status and job security) may be particularly influential.

At present, this influence is rarely exercised. These days, independent-minded Tajik researchers are well aware of the difficult positions that they and their colleagues are often placed in by institutional collaborations. Senior academics have a role in making the voices of these Tajik academics heard by major institutions.

To some colleagues, campaigning on these issues is reckless and irresponsible, purportedly doing more to endanger Tajik scholars than protect them. Some respondents to the CESS survey on fieldwork risk in 2015 felt that it was politically and socially liberal Western scholars — such as ourselves — who were most responsible for stirring up trouble for local partners. These colleagues are correct to note that there is obvious tension between the co-production of knowledge with locally based colleagues and criticism of the political authorities of their state. However, we argue that the implication of this ‘realist’ argument is not to silence criticism but to suspend or reduce cooperation.

Current approaches in the academic world of Central Asian Studies vary widely from those undertaking personal boycotts, either voluntarily or as a result of being declared persona non grata, to those willing to collaborate with authorities wherever necessary. But the costs of a realist approach to research in authoritarian contexts may no longer be acceptable in Tajikistan. This is most obvious to national scholars who have most to lose. One Tajik colleague who read this article in draft form offered the following comment:

Authoritarian regimes are in need of “intellectuals” — people able to draft policy, outline strategy, to construct an ideological foundation for the ruling elites. They need people with knowledge and skills but without moral limitations. Such intellectuals — journalists, scholars by name, but in reality ideological propagandists — should be boycotted.

In light of the deepening authoritarianism in Tajikistan, it is difficult to see how most partnerships in the social sciences and humanities with official bodies can either be academically valuable or ethically permissible.

John Heathershaw is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Exeter and director of the Central Asian Political Exiles (CAPE) project. In 2015-16, he chaired the Central Eurasian Studies Society Taskforce on fieldwork safety. Edward Schatz is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a former President of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS).

The post was first published in Eurasianet on the 19th of January 2018.