Guilt by Association Abroad? The University of Wisconsin in Kazakhstan

The good professor Howard Schweber's recent criticism (Innocents Abroad? The University of Wisconsin in Kazakhstan) of Jim Sleeper's piece on the questionable international dealings of a number of our major universities demands some response. Especially since he, Mr. Schweber, returned not long ago from two years at Kazakhstan's recently launched Nazarbayev University (NU).

Schweber actually avoided the central question of the ethics and propriety of such "partnering relationships" by our universities, all self-proclaimed bastions of the "liberal tradition," with outright authoritarian, anything-but-democratic regimes. He did so by finessing the University of Wisconsin's involvement at NU, named for Kazakhstan's "Leader of the Nation" and "President for Life," the ex-Soviet boss, Nursultan Nazarbyev.

Pointing out that the University of Wisconsin-Madison in its involvement at the NU School of Humanities and Social Sciences is but one of ten major universities engaged at Astana, he stated that each of the partners "offer advice, consultation, and services in the form of specified deliverables based on contracts with limited terms." He did not mention that unlike Duke, with its "brand" closely associated with the NU Graduate School of Business, or the National University of Singapore with its long-term "strategic partnership" with the NU Graduate School of Public Policy, Wisconsin as a public institution had to forge a different "fee-for-service" relationship with the Nazarbayev state, the developer of the NU.

All the fine points aside, Prof Schweber clearly is a believer in America's liberal "democratizing" gospel and the accompanying mission of his home university's "Wisconsin Idea." And certainly, it must be granted that some NU students, busy on their way to becoming the next generation's professional-managerial and technical elite, might indeed imbibe some of those "Western values" along the way.

But the evidence strongly suggests that Kazakhstan, with its well-ensconced and fortified kleptocracy, its state-run development plans, and its current trajectory as a rising star in the constellation of energy-rich capitalist dictatorships, is not about to become the center of some Central Asian version of the "Arab Spring."

Eager to defend Wisconsin's presence at the NU School of Humanities and Social Science and apparently convinced that it will help plant the seeds of some future liberal democratic reform, Prof. Schweber avoided discussion of the actual repressive anti-democratic and illiberal nature of the Nazarbayev regime.

Every major international monitor of human rights, political freedoms and corruption has consisterntly criticized Kazakhstan as a major serial abuser. Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Transparency International, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, etc., and the US State Department have long chronicled the repressive and intolerant character of the Nazarbayev dictatorship. In their recent reports, they all have documented the fact that the record of abuses has actually gotten worse in the aftermath of the December, 2011 massacre of striking oil workers in the Caspian town, Zhanaozen. Occasional news stories from independent journalists confirm that reality on a regular basis.

We're basically talking about a one party-state based on rigged elections where all authentic political opposition is systematically stifled and repressed. We're talking about a society where the dominant media system is owned directly by Nazarbayev family members or close cronies; where any critical opposition papers and websites have been closed down, their editors and reporters beaten, jailed and fined under the nation's all encompassing anti-defamation laws. (Laws that basically make it illegal to say anything critical of Nazarbayev or his family, or the ruling party, etc..)

We're talking about a country where judges are hand picked by those in power; one where the broader legal system is honeycombed with corruption, and bribery is a fact of life. It's a country in which police regularly act with impunity and those taken into custody or imprisoned are routinely subjected to physical abuse and torture.

We're speaking of a state that has recently stepped up its persecution and prosecution of those congregations practicing their religious faith without first registering with the proper authorities. (Such regulations, ostensibly stepped up to stem the growth of "Islamist extremism," recently have been used to shut down Baptist congregations!)

Prof. Schweber did not mention that the major university involvement in the creation of NU came about through the coordination of the World Bank, currently branding itself as the "Knowledge Bank". WB "education reform" specialists, intent on coordinating the restructuring the Kazakh education system to bring it in line and integrate it with those in the West, shepherded Kazakh Ministry of Education types on a round-the-world tour of potential "partnering institutions" in 2009.

While stopping off at Cambridge and University College of London in the UK, and crossing the Atlantic for campus visits in Boston and elsewhere, the group also stopped off in authoritarian Singapore for a visit and meetings at the National University of Singapore. Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev and the Singapore city state's emeritus autocrat, Lee Kuan Yew have had a long association. Lee actually encouraged the Kazakh kingpin to make English the main instructional language at NU.

The delegation then proceeded on to Qatar, lorded over by the petrodollar drenched Bin Khalifa autocracy. There, they visited the Qatar Science and Technology Park at "Education City" outside Doha, the home of a cluster of joint projects with US-based universities including Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and Carnegie Mellon created through World Bank assistance. It was a model in some sense of things to come in Astana.

Importantly, a number of former World Bank operatives came to occupy key positions at Naz U. Most notable has been Shigeo Katsu, currently the NU Rector. Aslan Sarinzhipov, just recently appointed by Nazarbayev to head the Kazakh Ministry of Education and Science, previously worked as the Bank's in-country liaison before becoming a key figure in the NU's administration.

Another long-time World Bank hand, Dennis DeTray, was the former head of its operations in Indonesia during the latter years of the Suharto dictatorship. He subsequently became an apologist for that regime before taking a post as an adviser to Nazarbayev on the NU project. (When a high-level Kazakh delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister and former Nazarbayev aide Yerbol Orynbayev came to Madison in March, 2010 to finalize the first of a series of partnering contracts with Wisconsin's then-Chancellor Biddy Martin, DeTray was there.)

Wisconsin's Schweber not very long after took his two year sabbatical to go forth on Wisconsin's mission. In his response to Jim Sleeper, he spoke of the new laws, granted by a parliament dominated by Narabyev's Nur Otan party, which have granted NU its own "autonomy" thereby granting students and faculty "academic freedom" and freedom of expression. He failed to mention that numerous legal protections and guarantees, already on the books, are systematically and regularly violated and abused in practice across the country.

Does this professor of political science imagine that an authentic opposition movement encouraged by the teachings of the good missionaries from Wisconsin will be tolerated? What does he expect will happen to those who take seriously those "Western values" that he and others lecture on at NU?

Schweber wrote of his ability to speak of liberal values and the need for democracy openly and candidly at various fora sponsored by the national Parliament, Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party, the Ministry of Education and Science, and other Kazahkstani universities. As an American, he was afforded that luxury, clearly an example of "repressive tolerance" in extremis.

After all, the regime certainly would not want to generate some cause celeb and international press by possibly manhandling and bouncing out some well-intentioned Mid Western academic who happened to speak a bit too much truth to power.

Nazarbayev & Co. at this point in time certainly is not about to alienate the US, now seen as a strategic counterweight to Kazakhstan's Russian and Chinese neighbors and an important and growing source of direct foreign investment. (While keeping a tight lid on things at home, Nazarbayev has gotten what he wants from each of the major powers by skillfully playing his "multi-vectored" foreign policy.)

Overarching all, the real "partnering relationship," not to be tampered with, is the strategic one between the energy rich, strategically located regime at Astana and those in Washington who have already defined the country as vital to short and long term US "national interest."

In the same period that reps from various American universities were busy setting up shop and designing "liberal" curricula and "best practice" governance at Naz. U, US military personnel were busily coordinating military-to-military programs, providing equipment (some of which was used against the strikers at Zhanaozen in 2011); and carrying out joint maneuvers.

In much the same way that the US, in the name of "national security," can turn a blind eye to the abuses of university-sponsoring dictatorships in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, Uncle Sam is not about to push for meaningful reform, democratic rights and protections in Kazakhstan.

In the meantime, those traveling from Madison intent on globalizing the gospel of some distorted "Wisconsin Idea" can say what they want at home or while "stylin'" in Astana. In the meantime, the US strategic dalliance with the corrupt and repressive Nazarbayev regime will take continue to take precedence.