Russian energy giant Gazprom has rung in the school year in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – two of Moscow’s poorest allies – as the Kremlin gets serious about exporting education.
Two private schools affiliated with Gazprom threw open their doors on September 1 and 2 in Yerevan and Bishkek, respectively.
The event to mark the opening of the school in Bishkek dominated coverage of First Bell festivities in Kyrgyzstan, with President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a former school teacher, and Mayor Aziz Surakmatov joining Gazprom representatives in attendance.
The Yerevan school’s opening was more low-key. A larger ceremonial event involving Gazprom and Armenian officials is expected in the near future, a spokeswoman for the school told Eurasianet
(Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan marked First Bell, as the inaugural day of the academic year is known, at a school near the country’s fraught border with Azerbaijan.)
The two institutions, which boast lavish classroom and sporting facilities, cater for students from elementary level through to secondary school.
The Bishkek college charges fees of 22,000 soms (just over $300) per month, according to a report by Sputnik’s Kyrgyz service. The Armenian version charges $3,150 per year, a spokeswoman for the school told Eurasianet.
Average monthly income in Kyrgyzstan hovers around $200. In Armenia, it is around $300.
The Yerevan school’s fee-paying status has caused irritation in the neighborhood where it was built, with some residents seemingly under the impression that it was a philanthropic project.
They lobbied unsuccessfully for scholarships for neighborhood children.
In Kyrgyzstan, at least, Gazprom has been at pains to point out that the schools are not run at a profit and that all fees will be put back into maintaining and developing the school, which has annual operating costs of just under $2.5 million.
Around 20 percent of the school’s 960 places are set aside free of charge for disabled children. A further 5 percent is reserved for gifted children from poor backgrounds, the school’s director was quoted as saying by independent outlet Kaktus Media.
The soft power component of Russian influence projection among the one-time Soviet republics has traditionally run on inertia, relying on now-fading linguistic affinities and perceptions of a shared history. The Kremlin has always looked more comfortable resorting to the carrot-and-stick – namely, through the sale (or non-sale) of cheap gas, providing funding and technical expertise in the construction of power plants, military alliances and creating conditions for labor migration.
Although Russian universities remain relatively attractive and affordable destinations for students from the Caucasus and Central Asia, other players have come to dominate the domestic education markets in those countries.
In both Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, U.S.-style private universities have attained more prestige than their Russian-affiliated analogues.
Private schools inspired by the teachings of controversial Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen have often represented the best school-level education for middle class families in parts of Central Asia and Azerbaijan. But Gulen’s fallout with Turkey’s leadership moved some, like Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, to close the schools down amid strong encouragement from Ankara.
In recent years, education has come to play a much more prominent role in Russian diplomacy.
President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Kyrgyzstan in March featured a meeting of rectors from the two countries that saw seven Kyrgyz universities sign strategic agreements with their Russian counterparts. In neighboring Tajikistan, Russia has been placing teachers in local schools since 2017, covering around 90 percent of their salaries. The ostensible aim is to raise the profile of the Russian language.
Kyrgyzstan would be grateful for similar benevolence. In his September 2 speech Jeenbekov combined lavish praise of Russia with a general plea to produce more schools of similar quality in his nation’s poverty-ridden regions.
Responding to that call would require a lot more charity from Moscow.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.