Baku, March 26 – A group of 56 leading Tatar scholars, and journalists last week denounced what it said were Moscow’s efforts to close seven Turkish lycees in their republic as a manifestation of “the imperial policy of restricting the rights of national minorities” and said they will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
This week, however, the Tatarstan education ministry said that “practically all” the claims of this open letter to President Vladimir Putin and incoming president Dmitry Medvedev were untrue and that the media firestorm about the existence of a Moscow directive to Kazan to close down these schools was “a tempest in a teapot.”
Because Moscow has worked hard and successfully to close the elite English-language lycees organized by Turkish government in other parts of the Russian Federation, the claims of the open letter are plausible. Indeed, they do not go beyond complaints that have appeared in the Tatar press over the last year.
As the Islamtat.ru pointed out yesterday, official efforts to close these schools in Tatarstan on the basis of charges that they were spreading the ideas of Turkish theologian Said Nursi or that their instructors lacked the necessary certification have been widely reported in Moscow as well (http://www.islamtat.ru/news/2008-03-24-540).
But the ministry statement contradicting both these reports and the letter is so unqualified that, unless officials are being totally disingenuous, either Moscow has decided to change course, Tatarstan has succeeded in winning an exemption, or this policy is being carried out not by the education establishment but by the security organs.
Regardless of which of these is the case, both the open letter and the ministry’s denial represent an important new chapter in this story, and consequently the contents of each merits careful consideration, regardless of who is in fact telling the absolute truth about what has been happening with these schools.
The open letter, signed by a Tatar academician, the director of the Institute of Oreintal Studies of Kazan State University, the pro-rector of that institution, the editors of six major papers, and 18 university instructors, among others appeared in “Zvezda Povolzhya” last Friday (http://www.islamtat.ru/news/2008-03-24-539).
The letter points out that “law enforcement organs in Tatarstan” have recently initiated “a new series of checks” of the activities of the Turkish lycees, looking for “forbidden books” and checking certifications. Consequently, it says, “efforts to close the system of Tatar-Turkish lycees in Tatarstan are continuing.”
And this is happening, the letter says, “despite the fact that officials have not been able to find anything” incriminating. Indeed, it continues, all of this suggests that these “Moscow ‘checkers’ have become to act using methods which have little in common with a civilized approach.”
The Russian officials involved, the letter continues, have even demanded that these schools stop teaching natural science course in English and have claimed that “the diplomas of the instructors working in these schools” do not meet Russian Federation standards.
Indeed, both the nature of these demands and the fact that the Russian officials involved frequently shift from one to another as they fail to find the evidence they want strongly suggests, the letter says, that Moscow’s goal is to close these schools regardless of whether or not they are in violation of any regulation or law.
And the letter concludes: “We consider that the policy of persecution in relation to the Tatar-Turkish lycees is a direct continuation of the policy of limiting the rights of the national minorities in Russia.” If it continues, “the intelligentsia of Tatarstan will turn to the OSCE and the Hague court for the defense of these schools.”
Not surprisingly, this letter itself sparked widespread discussion in the media across the Middle Volga, a discussion so intense that on Monday the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Tatarstan felt compelled to issue a statement to the press (http://tatar-inform.ru/news/2008/03/24/104421/ ).
According to the ministry, “practically all the information in [both the open letter and] these publications does not correspond to reality. There was no letter from Moscow ordering the Kazan ministry to close these schools. And Kazan has no interest in getting rid of the highly trained Turkish teachers because it lacks homegrown replacements.
At present, the ministry said, there are seven Tatar-Turkish lycees in the republic, with seven to ten Turkish teachers each. Of these 13 have already completed their university education and have Russian diplomas, so there can be no question about their qualification.
Moreover, the ministry said, it is well-known that instruction in Turkish and other subjects in these schools is at a very high level. Many of their graduates have won national and even international prizes and gone on to “prestigious” universities in Kazan, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The ministry acknowledged that it has inspected these schools – but only in the same way it examines all other schools, on a schedule and to ensure that they meet official standards, officials told Tatar-inform. But it did not find any violations and the Turkish instructors were not found wanting in any way or told to leave.
The ministry did point out that there had been a decline in the number of students in these schools during 2007, but it said that was because many parents had withdrawn their children from them because the standards in these schools were too difficult, not for any other reason.
Thus, the officials said, the various letters and articles in the media are “nothing other than ‘a tempest in a teapot,’” and should be ignored. But if reports of investigations of these schools continue to surface, it seems unlikely that any of those who signed the letter are prepared to do that.