Friday, June 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Foreign Policy Interests May Save Tatarstan’s Turkish Lycees

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 13 – The embattled Turkish lycees of Tatarstan, accused by many Russian security officials as seedbeds of Islamist radicalism but defended by many Tatars as seedbeds of educational excellence, may be saved by Moscow’s interests in continuing to expand its relationship with Ankara.
For more than a year, Russian officials have been trying to force out the Turkic citizens teaching in the seven lycees in Tatarstan ostensibly because these border schools do not have government permission to employ such foreigners, because their degrees do not match Russian standards, and because they teach many subjects in English rather than Russian.
Most commentators who have followed Moscow’s approach to these schools, however, are convinced that this effort is rooted in politics rather than in law and reflects Moscow’s fears that these schools are either spreading the Islamist ideas of Fethullah Gulen and Turkish divine Said Nursi or alternatively promoting pan-Turkist ideas among the Tatars.
But precisely because politics appears to be more important in determining what Moscow has been doing and thus is likely to do, the Russian government’s interest in promoting improved relations with Turkey may trump these other concerns and allow these schools to remain in operation, according to one commentator.
In an article that originally appeared on and that has now been posted on a variety of news portals, Yana Amelina not only describes this conflict between Russian law, which appears to have been used in an ad hoc way, and Russian politics but explains why these schools have been so popular in Tatarstan (
The boarding schools, opened 15 years ago on the basis of a bilateral agreement between Tatarstan and Turkey, are “among the most prestigious educational institutions” in that republic, Amelina notes. Instruction is free and admission is on the basis of test scores alone, a situation in which the role of corruption is excluded.
Educational standards in these schools are far higher than in any other schools in Tatarstan, and their graduates are not only proficient in Russian, Tatar, English and Turkish but have gone on to study at leading institutions in Russia, Turkey and Europe before returning and beginning their careers in Tatarstan itself.
For these reasons as well as many others – one of which is that almost all the instructors are men rather than women, something that reportedly pleases many parents there – these lycees have been extremely popular. And consequently, when Russian prosecutors launched their campaign against them, parents, students and Tatarstan officials were furious.
To the first prosecutorial complaint that the lycees were not licensed properly, the directors of the schools said they would pay any fines and meet any new requirements equal to those levied on other private schools. To the second, that the instructors lacked Russian certification, they provided letters from Russian government officials showing otherwise.
And to the third, that the lycees were violating Russian law by teaching physics, chemistry, biology and other subjects in English, school officials showed the text of Russian legislation that allows for schools to do precisely that if the students and their parents want it, which in this case, both groups do.
Indeed, it quickly became apparent that the Russian objections to the schools centered on the presence of Turkish citizens as teachers who were assumed to be promoting either radical Islamist or pan-Turkic ideas, something that school administrators, teachers, and parents all have denied.
But “the logic of the clever people in the Kremlin” in this regard, one Tatar blogger cited by Amelina said, is “completely understandable.” Moscow, the blogger continued, clearly wants “to exclude any Turkish influence on the young people of Tatarstan.” But the center’s approach works against its own interests and goals.
On the one hand, it is highly offensive to Turkey, a country which Russia hopes to develop ever closer relations. And on the other, as the blogger says, the more pressure Moscow puts on the Tatars with regard to their connections to Turkey, the more likely the Tatars are to be interested in developing precisely those ties.

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