A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Many young people enter universities with the hope that one day their education will help them stand out from the crowd. But in Kazakhstan, it seems you have to stand in the crowd first.
Some university students in Kazakhstan complain they are being forced by university staff to attend events sponsored by officials.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, has been reporting about the so-called "massovka," the people who are ordered to attend events where local or national politicians will be present. The word derives from a Russian term referring to movie extras and crowd scenes.
Marlen (a pseudonym) is a student from the Al-Farabi University in Almaty. "We don't have a choice," he said. "They [university officials] tell us to go and we are obligated to go."
Marlen said he had spent a good deal of his "free" time -- up to six hours in a television studio or 12 hours at a stadium -- waiting for the president to speak or watch bicycle races.
"If you don't go, you get put on the blacklist, they could take away your room at the dormitory, or maybe next year you won't get a dorm room. Sometimes we're threatened with receiving bad grades," Marlen told Azattyq.
Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, from Abai University, also in Almaty, said university officials often bus students to conferences and forums to be part of the audience.
"We go to events at the mayor's office, scientific conferences, events organized by the Writers' Union, jubilees for poets and writers. The leadership at the university demands we take part," the student said. "If we don't go, they will be very picky at exam time," he added.
A student at the Eurasian National University in Astana who gave her name as Balnurzhan said, "We hold small flags and applaud at all the events where the president, Astana, or ministers are present.'
Balnurzhan explained, "If students ignore these events, they could mark you as having missed classes," and such students will not graduate.
Azattyq spoke with Gul Bayandina, a spokeswoman at Kazakhstan's National University, who admitted the university did encourage students to attend political and sporting events sponsored by the authorities, "but students attend of their own volition, we do not force anyone [to go]."
Arman Ukeev, a representative of the Kazakh National Pedagogical University, said the university did receive requests from the local administration to have "30 people at some event, or maybe 50," but he added, "We try not to send students."
The Almaty mayor's office said accusations students were forced to attend such events were "groundless."
Azattyq contacted Fatima Abzapieva, a professor with some 30 years of experience, who said the habit of ordering students to attend public events, political or sports, "is left over from Soviet times." She said organizations such as the young pioneers, the Komsomoltsy, or later Communist Party were examples of groups that demanded their members attend certain public functions so that pictures or footage of the events would show large crowds.
"In the directives concrete numbers of students, needed for events were indicated," she said.
A university professor in Almaty, Askar Shamgaliev, said he did not see any harm in coaxing students to attend events sponsored by the authorities. "Participation in such events develops the perceptions and thinking of students, he said.
Audio recordings of Azattyq's conversations, in Kazakh, with some of these people are available here.
Azattyq director Torokul Doorov contributed to this report.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Bruce Pannier studied at Tashkent State University in summer 1990, lived in villages in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 1992-1993, and has been covering Central Asia as a journalist since 1995.