The sustained assault by the government of Tajikistan on the operations of a charitable organization funded by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the country’s Ismaili minority, has taken a new turn with an effort to confiscate the site of a university.
Privately owned news agency Asia-Plus reported on August 7 that the economic court of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, also known as GBAO, has ruled in favor of a regional prosecutor’s request to seize the land on which University of Central Asia, or UCA, is built. The campus is located in Khorog, the capital of GBAO, the Pamiri mountain region in which most of Tajikistan’s Ismaili community live.
In filing their petition, prosecutors claimed that the university was built in violation of land code regulations. Given that multiple other entities funded by Aga Khan organizations have been singled out for similar treatment, there are strong reasons to believe the explanations being provided by officials are pretextual.
Speaking to reporters, the chair of the High Economic Court of Tajikistan, Rustam Mirzozoda, claimed that the issue with the Khorog university was to do with the duration of the lease for the land on which the buildings stand.
Under land code rules, plots may be provided to foreign nationals or legal entities for periods of up to 50 years. Mirzozoda said that this particular rule was violated as no specific timeframe was attached to the lease deal.
UCA representatives have filed an appeal that will be considered by the Supreme Economic Court, but its chances of overturning the initial ruling look remote against the backdrop of the campaign against Aga Khan-related entities.
As the point of reference for the Tajik community of Ismaili, an offshoot of Shia Islam whose faith lies at odds with the Sunni majority, the current Aga Khan, Shah Karim al-Husayni, a multimillionaire based in Europe, has played an outsized role in Tajik public life since the 1990s. When the war broke out following independence, the Aga Khan was hailed by Pamiris for his efforts to provide humanitarian aid. His visit to the GBAO in 1995 continues to be recalled to this day as a landmark event.
Since then, the Aga Khan has continued to provide support to Pamiris though his development organizations.
It is quietly whispered that the authorities are resentful of the standing that Aga Khan enjoys among his Ismaili followers – an implicit snub to President Emomali Rahmon, who is the object of a personality cult.
Few undertakings have been so big and eye-catching as UCA. The university is built on a large ledge of land overlooking Khorog and cost around $100 million to complete. It is part of a broader regional network of similar educational institutions – the other campuses are in Naryn in Kyrgyzstan and Tekeli in Kazakhstan.
An agreement endorsing the creation of this multinational university was signed by the presidents of the three countries and the Aga Khan in the early 2000s. The president of each country, including Rahmon, are designated patrons of UCA.
One of the ambiguities underlying the status of UCA in Tajikistan, however, has to do with who will take ownership of the university in the event of the land being reverted to government control.
There are unmistakable signs that the pressure being applied to the UCA is part of a pattern. In June, the authorities revoked the license of the Aga Khan Lycée in Khorog. The last day of that month was the final day on which the secondary school was to operate under the aegis of the Aga Khan Foundation. From the next academic year, the school will be converted into a Lyceum for Gifted Children run by the Education and Science Ministry.
Aga Khan Lycée was notable both for offering what was considered a high standard of education and also teaching in English. This latter detail appears to have irked Tajik officials.
In a press conference on August 1, Deputy Education and Science Minister Ziyodullo Abdulzoda said that the reason for stripping the Aga Khan Lycée of its license was that it failed to meet the standards of Tajikistan’s educational system.
“Unfortunately, this educational institution pays more attention to the study of other subjects, so it can be said that in most cases graduates of this lyceum do not speak the state language,” Abdulzoda said.
As to the general standard of Tajik state education, though, there is general agreement that it is low – the result of poor funding and outmoded pedagogical methods.
A UNICEF assessment on education that focused most heavily on the needs of young children was damning. What is more, the UN agency found that educational authorities have little way to understand how children are faring in class.
“Tajikistan lacks a learning assessment system, and learning outcomes are not measured systematically. This means that education reforms are not informed by evidence, and recent evaluations have resulted in low reading ability and comprehension in early grades,” UNICEF found.
It is not just Aga Khan schools that have been placed in the crosswires. Other assets that have got the nationalization treatment include the upmarket Serena Hotel and the Culture and Leisure Central Park in Khorog.
Prosecutors in GBAO are now going through the courts to pursue nationalization of the Aga Khan Medical Center in Khorog, which was built at a cost of $24 million and started operating in 2018.
The Aga Khan Foundation has refrained from public commentary on the situation.