The COVID-19 pandemic can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on education and human capital, economic and social development in Central Asian countries, where schoolchildren and students make up nearly half of the overall population, warned World Bank experts at an online briefing held today for regional media, experts, academia, and development community in the region. The crisis threatens to deprive this generation of future earnings, as it pushes a large share of Central Asian students into functional illiteracy – inability to read, write, and do math at a level necessary to be productive, World Bank estimates.
Before the pandemic, education across Central Asia was already suffering from low learning levels, as the countries struggled to eliminate learning poverty, distribute equal opportunities to poor learners, and promote inclusion. Students across the region performed 1.5 years below the average of Europe, i.e. an average student in Central Asia was a year and a half behind their peer in Europe. Many students in the region also performed significantly below functional literacy, according to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Learning inequality is of particular concern, with the gap between students from various income levels widening due to a number of factors, including differential access to distance learning for teachers and students, teaching support, access to teaching and learning materials at home, and household contribution to home schooling. According to PISA, in Kazakhstan, children from the poorest families were one year behind their peers, while in the Kyrgyz Republic poor students were 2.5 years behind.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the learning deficiencies, with school closures impacting already marginalized groups, including students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, learners with disabilities and minorities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is dealing a blow to education and learning so destructive we will feel its negative effects for decades to come, including $44 billion in economic loss in Central Asia alone, and this is not our most pessimistic scenario,” said Ayesha Vawda, Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank in Central Asia during the event. “Central Asian countries took swift action to deliver emergency learning via multiple channels and modes. Now is the time for governments to respond in a way that lays the foundation of the new education system – one that is high quality, resilient and equitable”.
During the briefing, the World Bank stressed that education needs to be at the forefront of the national recovery plans in Central Asia. The countries need to protect education budgets, improve the quality of distance learning, allow flexibility in the curricula to focus on competencies and skills instead of knowledge, empower teachers with effective remediation strategies and with diagnostic and formative assessments and increased instruction time to allow recovery of learning losses.
As teachers become more aware of the learning, and learning loss of each child, remedial education plans will need to be developed. Special attention will need to be given to those students who have suffered the most during the school closures. The countries also need to develop digital skills amongst students, youth and teachers and increase teacher-student interaction on different distance learning platforms to better respond to the needs of the continuing crises.
“The World Bank in Central Asia and globally has always put special focus on education and building human capital, understanding too well that these investments bring the highest dividends,” said Lilia Burunciuc, World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia. “Currently, we have adapted three education projects in the region to respond to COVID: in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan. Through these projects, we were able to mobilize some support for emergency and remote learning. For instance, in Kazakhstan this includes monitoring distance learning and provision of digital equipment for rural teachers”.
CICA Meeting Seeks to Update Regional Cooperation and Dialogue
The world has recently experienced sharp challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic, while hopefully receding, has caused global economic problems that may take some time to resolve.
Meanwhile the crucial and dramatic changes in Afghanistan have clearly demonstrated that multilateralism has become the only possible approach to ensuring global stability, security and peace. Neither the pandemic and its consequences, nor regional tensions and crises can be resolved without dialogue and the cooperation of states at regional and global levels.
The influence of Asian countries in global developments will continue to increase due to the rapid economic and demographic growth of the region. Asia is on track to top 50 percent of global GDP by 2040. By that point, it is expected to account for 40 percent of the world’s total consumption. The region is making not only economic progress but rapid strides in human development. As noted by international observers, the question is no longer how quickly Asia will rise; it is how Asia will lead. Despite Asia’s remarkable rise, its family of nations are sometimes kept apart by difficult geography and even more difficult history.
For this reason, it is vital to ensure that there is space for Asian states to conduct dialogue in order to unite efforts on resolving key regional and global issues. The Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, an intergovernmental forum, is the most appropriate platform in the region to consolidate the collective wisdom of all Asian nations for peace, cooperation, security and development.
CICA has come a long way since the initiative to convene it was first proposed by the First President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the 47th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in October 1992. Today, almost 30 years later, CICA brings together 27 Member States. The region covered by CICA stretches from the Pacific to the Mediterranean and from the Ural to the Indian Ocean, covering more than 50 percent of the world’s population.
The establishment of the CICA forum emerged from the firm belief that international progress can come about only through strong and effective partnerships. Since the first ministerial meeting, which took place in 1999, CICA has strived to enhance cooperation through elaborating multilateral approaches towards promoting peace, security and stability in Asia.
Yet the world has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Asia has become a key driver of global economic growth and development. Multi-polarity has become the norm of international relations. Countries are actively cooperating thanks to globalization, yet at the same time nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world. To adapt to these changes, the CICA forum must transform in order to continue to fulfil its important role.
Kazakhstan, as Chair of CICA for 2020-2022, has put forward a number of proposals aimed at making the forum more effective.
Firstly, we believe that it is time to gradually transform it into a fully-fledged international organisation that will be better equipped to cope with the fast-changing security environment and help to pursue developmental goals in our continent. CICA’s transformation into such an organisation will expand its capabilities to strengthen cooperation between the member states, cover the entire Asia with a system of deep mutual trust and mutual assistance, as well as increase its status and influence in the international arena.
Secondly, given the dramatic changes that impacted the world in the last two years, it is necessary to update the activities and areas of cooperation within CICA. Due to the threat of the current pandemic, as well as potential future health crises, it is necessary to consider the development of cooperation in the field of epidemiological security, public health and pharmaceuticals. In addition, digitalisation is an important field as the world moves further towards the use of digital technologies. We must also not forget about issues that have been of persistent importance over the last few years, including mitigating climate change, empowering women and youth.
Finally, given the global nature of current challenges, CICA and its member states must also focus on building partnership with other regional and global organisations, particularly the Eurasian Economic Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and others.
The overarching ambition of CICA is clear – to reduce global geopolitical tensions and threat of conflicts, and instead focus on collaboration and development, especially in Asia, where we share common values and aspirations. Ahead of the upcoming CICA Meeting of Foreign Ministers on 11-12 October in Kazakhstan, we must embrace the idea that CICA should be playing one of the key roles along with other international organisations in the region in achieving these common objectives. This will encourage Asian countries to build bridges among each other and shape a prosperous future in Asia.
Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan: Marching Confidently Towards a Brighter Future
As Uzbekistan celebrates 30 years of independence from former USSR, it is also the time that the nation is completing five years of rule by incumbent president Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Mirziyoyev took power in September 2016, when the country’s first president – Islam Karimov, having ruled since 1991 – passed away, what was seen as a big shock for the entire nation. Since then, Mirziyoyev – elected formally to the presidency later that year – not only steered his nation out of that shock but also put the country on the road to globally-acknowledged reforms, uplift and progress.
Past five years have been a period of extraordinary reform, development and international prestige for this most populous nation of Central Asia. The new leader laid the foundation of a ‘New Uzbekistan’ with broad-based, comprehensive, inclusive and all-encompassing reforms in economic, political and social spheres.
Economic reforms were aimed primarily at liberalization of economy, moving towards free-market systems and regulations. These have born fruits significantly, with country’s economy growing at a healthy average rate, over past years. Output augmented – both in agriculture, and industrial sectors – and per capita incomes increased notably. Confidence of local and foreign investors in Uzbek economy deepened and international institutions started looking towards the country as a new bright spot for regional growth. Welfare of the people, especially the working class, has been put at the centre stage in these sets of reforms.
The democratic reforms, also seen as a model for the region by international observers, revolve around decentralization of power, political inclusiveness and transparency of the electoral processes. This transparency and fairness of electoral processes is noted with appreciation by all those observing the country’s political transformation. At the heart of this scheme of political reform lies the awareness and greater participation of masses, country’s people from all backgrounds and regions, in the political processes. All the segments of society feel the benefits of this process of political reform pouring down in the form of political empowerments at grassroots.
The country has emerged as one of the most attractive tourist destinations not only in the region but in the whole world. Much of it owes to focused development of tourism of ziaraats, as the country boats a rich cultural and religious heritage – making it a magnet for a large number of people from around the Muslim world, especially from countries such as Pakistan. Uzbekistan Airways, the national flag-carrier, is now one of the most important airlines connecting a sizeable number of countries and regions.
At international stage, country’s prestige has continuously been enhancing during past half a decade. Mirziyoyev played a vital role in bringing the leaders of other four Central Asian republic to table, for re-start of the negotiations for the region’s integration. Uzbekistan’s efforts in this period for Afghanistan’s peace and stability and providing the Afghan people with an unattached opening towards Central Asia are noteworthy.
Uzbek president in recent couple of years has played a leading role for the whole wider region by promoting re-initiation and strengthening longstanding bonds and connectivity between Central and South Asia. The July 2021 conference held in Tashkent turned out to be the largest such initiative by Uzbek leadership under Mirziyoyev. Not only Pakistani PM and the then Afghan president were present but ministerial level leaders from some 30 countries and heads of several major international organizations also participated in the mega forum. I have no hesitation in saying that 2021 conference in Tashkent aimed at Central and South Asia connectivity has already started a journey that would not be stopped now; no matter how the things shape in the region. Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan railway would be the flagship imove of this journey.
As mentioned above, the reforms’ being all-encompassing may be witnessed from the special focus and attention on development of mass media, arts, sports and cultural activities – including the preservation and development of cultures of all the ethnic groups of the nation.
In the nutshell, Uzbekistan of today has assumed a much more vital position in the affairs of the region. The country’s people are now living peaceful, prosperous, content and confidence-filled lives, also basking in increasing international glory of their nation. The journey is all set to continue towards greater achievements and a brighter future.
The Effectiveness of Confucius Institutes in Promoting Chinese Soft Power in Kazakhstan
In February 2016, Dariga Nazerbayeva, the then-deputy prime minister of Kazakhstan, declared that Kazakh children should learn Chinese in addition to Kazakh, Russian and English. She further claimed, “China is our friend, our trading partner and the biggest investor in the economy of our country… in the near future, we will all need to know Chinese.”  Her statement not only emphasized the economic relationship between China and Kazakhstan, but also appealed to the promotion of stronger cultural bonds between the two countries—namely, through the medium of language learning.
Modern Sino-Kazakh relations are primarily based on the two countries’ strong trade ties with one another. China, as a rising global power, needs to secure substantial natural resource reserves to fuel its ever-growing consumption needs. Given that Kazakhstan is a geographic neighbor with vast amounts of oil, gas, and other extractive resources, China considers it as an enticing candidate for supplying its energy demands. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, recognizes the capacity of Chinese investment to bolster its economic growth, as well as to fund new infrastructure and industries.
The economic partnership between the two countries took on an additional level of significance after China launched the New Silk Road Economic Belt (part of the Belt and Road Initiative) in 2013. Chinese policymakers viewed Kazakhstan as an integral component of carrying out this infrastructural investment project due to its natural resources and its geographic positioning as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Therefore, they sought out Kazakhstan’s full commitment towards supporting the enterprise.
Despite the massive economic gains promised by the New Silk Road Economic Belt, Kazakh society at large held reservations about becoming too closely linked to China. Many groups in Kazakhstan feared that China intended to exploit Kazakhstan’s resources and reap the benefits for itself. Allegations of the Chinese government’s mistreatment towards the Uyghurs, an ethnic group that shares Turkic Muslim roots with Kazakhs, raised negative perceptions of China in Kazakhstan. These factors, coupled with fears that an overdependence on China could grant Beijing the opportunity to impede on Kazakh sovereignty, contributed to a general atmosphere of wariness towards cozying up too closely to China.
The climate of opinion in Kazakhstan signaled to China that the economic and material dimensions of the Sino-Kazakh relationship were not enough to buy Kazakhstan’s loyalty. Officials in Beijing realized that in order to ensure Kazakhstan’s support for the New Silk Road Economic Belt, China needed to present itself as an ally that would collaborate with Kazakhstan to achieve mutual interests. From Beijing’s perspective, China needed to “win the hearts and minds” of the Kazakh people, and thus the government commenced an ongoing soft power campaign to fulfill that mission. A core component of the Chinese soft power campaign in Kazakhstan have been the Confucius Institutes, organizations that offer Mandarin Chinese language courses. Although the Confucius Institutes have helped boost Mandarin Chinese language study throughout Kazakhstan, increased enrollment rates at these centers do not mean they have reshaped perceptions of China in Kazakh society. In spite of China’s attempt to utilize Confucius Institutes to promote Mandarin Chinese language learning and increase China’s cultural appeal in Kazakhstan, the success of the organizations has been limited. The Confucius Institutes’ effectiveness has been hindered by Kazakh students’ general lack of interest in comprehensive culture and language classes, suspicion stemming from the Chinese government’s direct control over the Confucius Institutes, and damage to China’s reputation following the mass detainment of its Uyghur population into “re-education camps.”
Soft Power Initiatives in China: The Role of the Confucius Institutes
The prominent American political scientist Joseph Nye defined soft power as a country’s ability to influence other countries to “do it what wants” because they admire and legitimize the image and values of the soft power holder.  Nye claimed that soft power was generated from intangible factors, including culture, ideology, and institutions. He believed that soft power creation was a bottom-up process and stated that the involvement of civil society and non-governmental institutions, rather than the state, made soft power effective. In turn, high levels of soft power allowed countries to build alliances with other countries and secure their objectives on the world stage. Given how China is increasingly pursuing its great power ambitions via the New Silk Road Economic Belt/ Belt and Road Initiative, it has recognized the critical role that soft power can play in achieving its goals. Chinese officials have therefore attempted to portray the rise of China as a peaceful one that will seek out harmonious and cooperative ties with other countries.
One of the main tools that China has used to spread its soft power are the Confucius Institutes (CIs), which are educational organizations that offer Chinese language-learning programs to students from all over the world. The Chinese Ministry of Education founded the CIs in 2004 to “provide Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide… and contribute to the development of multiculturalism and the building of a harmonious world.”  CIs are established when they partner up with universities in host countries and provide Mandarin Chinese language classes, exchange programs, and cultural activities. Since the foundation of the first CI in 2004, the number has climbed to approximately 540 CIs throughout 161 countries as of 2020. Given the sheer scale and scope of the CIs’ activities, they serve as China’s most prominent resource in promoting its soft power agenda.
- Al-Farabi National Kazakh University (Almaty)
- K. Zhubanov Aktobe Regional State University (Aktobe)
- Karaganda State Technical University (Karaganda)
- Kazakh Ablai Khan University of International Relations and World Languages (Almaty) 
Nur-Sultan is the capital of Kazakhstan, while Almaty is the country’s most populous city; thus, the choice to establish CIs in these cities is not surprising. Aktobe and Karaganda house large oil and coal reserves, respectively, and several Chinese businesses operate in those cities. The Kazakh students who study at these universities have more direct business incentives to study Mandarin Chinese, as the companies frequently hire graduates with strong language skills. In statistical terms, the CIs have expanded Mandarin Chinese language study within Kazakhstan. As of 2020, an estimated 14,000 Kazakh students are studying Mandarin Chinese at the country’s five Confucius Institutes, while 12,000 Kazakh students study in China every year. That being said, quantity does not always translate into quality, as evaluative assessments of the CIs suggest they have not been very successful in altering China’s image in Kazakhstan.
The Effectiveness of the Confucius Institutes in Kazakhstan
Evidence suggests that the CIs have been relatively ineffective in terms of reshaping popular perceptions of China in Kazakhstan. Firstly, most Kazakh students study Mandarin Chinese to obtain a practical skill for their future career interests, as opposed to cultivating a genuine interest in China. Gaukhar Nursha, a researcher affiliated with Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, conducted a survey across all of the CIs in Kazakhstan to assess why students decided to take part in these programs. According to her data, enrollment in non-language CI courses was low, which suggested that most students were not very interested in learning about Chinese culture and history. As for language classes, many students tended to drop out after a few weeks of classes or after they receive certain certifications for their language levels. Given that the majority of Kazakh students with Mandarin language skills end up working for companies in Kazakhstan, they do not see the urgency of gaining in-depth cultural knowledge of China. Nursha’s study demonstrates that language study does not necessarily correlate with an interest in culture.
Secondly, Beijing’s direct involvement in the institutes limits their efficacy as a soft power tool. The CIs have faced criticism for their alleged state censorship, as they tend to paint an idealized portrait of China while limiting discussions on political issues. Furthermore, Beijing has constrained non-government affiliated efforts to promote Chinese language and culture to foreign audiences. These actions go against Nye’s theory of soft power acquisition, as he argues that civil society and non-state institutions—rather than the government—play an instrumental role in bolstering soft power.  Non-state soft power initiatives appear more open and genuine in their motivations, whereas state-dominated soft-power efforts can risk coming across as overly politicized propaganda. The role that the Chinese government plays in the operation of the CIs undermines the organization’s sincerity and instead portrays it as a Trojan horse of Beijing’s political agenda.
Lastly, China’s image as a “peaceful” power contradicts its actual behavior, especially with regard to Beijing’s recent policies towards the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. In 2017, China began a mass campaign that has placed over one million Uyghurs in detention camps. Beijing has stated that the facilities are actually “re-education camps” that have dissuaded Uyghurs from joining radical Islamist groups and have provided them with vocational skills. However, former detainees have claimed that the camps are prison-like environments where Uyghurs are coerced into giving up their cultural identities and adopt to hegemonic Han Chinese cultural expectations. Ethnic Kazakhs living in Xinjiang have also been targeted in this campaign. The Xinjiang detainment camps issue have sparked a series of anti-Chinese protests throughout Kazakhstan, and this blow to China’s image may discourage future Kazakh students from studying Mandarin Chinese at the CIs. In short, despite the rising popularity of studying Mandarin Chinese in Kazakhstan, the CIs have not influenced Kazakh students to view China in a more positive light: in other words, they have won over the “minds”, but not the “hearts”, of people in Kazakhstan.
 Bhavna Dave. “Chapter 10. Silk Road Economic Belt: Effects of China’s Soft Power Diplomacy in Kazakhstan,” in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact in Central Asia, ed.Marlene Laruelle (Washington D.C.: The George Washington University, Central Asia Program, 2018), 106.
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 Joseph S. Nye. Understanding International Conflicts: An Introduction to Theory and History (5th Edition). (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005), 61.
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 Diana Chariyevna Gurbanmyradova, “The Sources of China’s Soft Power in Central Asia: Cultural Diplomacy,” (Master’s thesis, Central European University, 2015), 14, 15. http://scholar.google.hu/scholar_url?url=http://www.etd.ceu.hu/2015/gurbanmyradova_diana.pdf&hl=en&sa=X&ei=frekYJTGD8vhmQHWwoTYDg&scisig=AAGBfm3sx-X0BrEpXZA28IANM5nLZ5Y2kA&nossl=1&oi=scholarr.
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 Paradise, “China and International Harmony,” 649.
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