Atai Moldobaev: “Hizmet” in Kyrgyzstan as a “Litmus Test” for Turkish Diplomacy
“In this case, the closure of Hizmet schools could meet the needs of the EaEU, Turkey, and Kyrgyzstan. Therefore it would be wise to wait for any updates to the “Foreign Agents” bill in the country as well as increased lobbying for this bill from abroad.” – Political scientist Atai Moldobaev lays out his predictions in this CABAR.asia exclusive.
As most are aware, on the night of 16 July 2016 there was an attempted coup in Turkey by several high-ranking Turkish Army generals. A massive wave of arrests and political purges is currently underway in the country. The country’s leadership has suspended the European Convention on Human Rights, and the separation of powers has de-facto ceased to function allowing the Turkish authorities to closely investigate the coup’s causes and participants unhindered. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric that has lived in United States since fleeing in the late 1990s, of aiding and abetting the coup plotters, and, as such, Erdoğan has demanded that Washington extradite the “criminal” to Turkey. Gülen’s large network of followers, the Fethullahçılar, adheres to his separate, slightly modified interpretation of the teachings of Said Nursi. Gülen also leads the Hizmet movement that focuses on educational and humanitarian work.
Meanwhile, in light of the heightened political struggle from 2010 to 2013 and the information war waged between former allies Gülen and Erdoğan, the Turkish Government began to officially block the Hizmet initiatives. Erdoğan has been waging a campaign aimed at discrediting Gülen and has official requested that the governments of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Gabon, Kosovo, Congo, Somalia, and Japan close Hizmet’s Turkish lyceums. The activities of Hizmet are relevant for Kyrgyzstan due to the fact that Gülen’s organization maintains a very significant position within the country’s educational sector. As such, the Kyrgyzstani government’s position vis-à-vis Gülen and his organization (as well as their activities in the country) is one of the most determining factors in Kyrgyz-Turkish cooperation today.
Sebat’s Activities in Kyrgyzstan
Today the Sebat network operates 22 educational institutions in Kyrgyzstan of which there are 9 male lyceums, 5 female lyceums, and 6 that offer classes for primary school students. There are plans to open kindergartens. Additionally, the Silk Road International School and Ataturk–Ala-Too International University function as part of this network. As of 2010, according to the director of Sebat, these Turks have invested more than $90 million in Kyrgyzstan through Sebat educational projects. According to Sebat employees, the Kyrgyzstani Ministry of Education approves the subjects and disciplines taught in Hizmet schools and educational institutions. However, the hours spent by students on the required reading of authors including Said Nursi and Fethullah Gülen could be viewed as a form of proselytization from a certain point of view.
With regards to the Silk Road School and Ataturk–Ala-Too University, these two institutions complement each other in many ways. They were opened at roughly the same time: the university in 1997 and the school in 1999. Analysis has shown that studying in a well appointed and equipped modern school motivates students and their parents to pursue further education in Hizmet institutions. For this reason, more than half of all graduates from the school enter Ataturk–Ala-Too University, which also has a well-developed infrastructure for its students. Built on the edge of Bishkek, it is a city unto itself that, through its journalism department and the efforts of students, broadcasts its own radio and television stations as well as publishes its own newspaper.
The students of Hizmet institutions themselves demonstrate a high level of academic and scientific achievement. Ch. Tilebaldiev, a student from the Sebat lyceum in Naryn, earned a bronze medal in the XII International Youth Scientific Olympiad that was held entirely in English. At the World Scholar’s Cup in Turkey, the Kyrgyzstani delegation won 5 gold medals and 6 bronze medals. Sebat students won 5 gold medals at the 2016 International Olympiad for Young Inventors, as well as bronze medals at the 50th International Mendeleev Olympiad in Chemistry in Moscow, the XLVII International Physics Olympiad in Switzerland and the International Biology Olympiad in Vietnam. As such, it is obvious that Hizmet students are presented with opportunities to not only receive a good education but also to participate in international scientific events.
Meanwhile, if we look away from their educational activities, it becomes apparent that Fethullah Gülen’s movement also has strategic political, economic, and religious objectives. One of the main objectives of Hizmet in Central Asia, and Kyrgyzstan in particular, is spreading a religious worldview from a Turkish perspective. This worldview is based on transmitting the ideas of Pan-Turkism and Turkocentrism to the younger population, through which they can create a particular mechanism for cooperation based on the religious principles of “the obedience and respect of students for their teacher.”
It should be noted that Hizmet’s modus operandi is predicated on the gradual promotion of its own cultural and religious interests by “adapting its strategy to the traditions, needs, and expectations of host countries, rarely referring to religion and ‘Turkishness’ on the basis of local sensitivities, social and ideological conditions, and the level of societal openness…”
As such, the mechanisms of influencing a foreign society have transformed Hizmet into the ideal instrument for promoting Pan-Turkism and the Turkish model of Islam. This dialogue between cultures, upon which the activities of Hizmet places a paramount focus, means smoothing the negative perceptions of an indigenous population to outside ideas. Kyrgyzstan presents the most favorable conditions for the development of Hizmet. The never-ending political and socio-economic crises (in tandem with a crisis in education stemming from low quality, corruption, and a lack of modern equipment) are an excellent backdrop for demonstrating Hizmet’s positive aspects and results. It is further helped by the fact that everything is done in the name of helping children and future generations. As a result, a large number of Sebat graduates support a pro-Turkish form of Kyrgyzstani development, view Turkey as a center of gravity, and adopt a Turkish way of life. Moreover, there is a tendency of, in the context of the explosion of religious ideas in Kyrgyzstan, some students to consider themselves followers of Gülen – true Fethullahçı – and want to receive religious education. The schools make every effort to keep in touch with their students and graduates while supporting the formation of their ideology and promoting the interests of Hizmet in their future careers.
Turkish Investment in Kyrgyzstan
There is also an economic factor. As is well know, Turkish businesses are widely active in Kyrgyzstan with its many freedoms. According to the statement of Turkish migrants in Kyrgyzstan, “All you need to open a business in Kyrgyzstan is $5000. In Turkey you cannot open a business on that kind of money.” The reasons behind this boom are readily obvious. Meanwhile, the economic aspect of cooperation between the two countries is prioritized and reflected in the significantly wide representation of Turkish business in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstani trade with Turkey in 2014 reached $312.2 million and over 400 Turkish companies operate in Kyrgyzstan. Turkish business interests are engaged in a wide range of economic activities – from banking to the service sector. The trade relationship between the two countries is expressed in a marked balance of trade in Turkey’s favor, as Kyrgyzstan imports significantly more from Turkey than it exports. To develop trade relations between the two countries, Turkey attempts a variety of approaches to promote the export of their products.
Meanwhile, small and medium enterprises predominate among the Turkish investors successfully developing businesses in Kyrgyzstan. In this way, the prime differentiating factor of Turkish influence in the country in comparison to that of other geopolitical actors is a cultural and religious factor that is further strengthened by Turkish capital. According to Turkish expert Bayram Balcı, Gülenists and Nursists are represented in the official Association of Kyrgyz-Turkish Businessmen KYTIAD as well as in similar structures in the other Central Asian countries. Utilizing a model of religiosity in which religion answers to the state, Turkey supports religious charitable organizations and civil societies that function at a low level and solve the everyday problems of ordinary people. Building mosques, supporting the poor, calls for unity as a multinational Ummah, and painstaking and useful social work undertaken by Pro-Turkish religious foundations gives them an advantage relative to their competition in promoting influence in Kyrgyzstan.
Another interesting piece of information is the fact that both Gülen and Erdoğan were members of the same religious brotherhood, the Nashqabandi. This brotherhood has clearly defined rules of behavior and an internal hierarchical subordination in which Erdoğan does not hold the leading position.
Possible Risks and Consequences
As such, Kyrgyzstan is faced today with a serious dilemma. The Turkish government is demanding that Bishkek close the “Gülen schools,” overshadowing the friendly relations between Ankara and Bishkek, as well as warning of the Turkish scenario playing out in Bishkek. It is known that Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambayev has economic interests in Turkey, and it would appear that this is also playing into the dialogue between the two countries. However, faced with the reality and conditions for Kyrgyzstan to attract foreign investment, Bishkek cannot take this step. As in the case of Iranian investors, these steps have mixed implications for foreign businesses. According to the “Long-term Program for Developing Economic and Trade Cooperation” between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, the priority areas for Turkish businesses are the construction of small hydropower plants; the development of gold, aluminum, and tungsten mines; the production of cleaning products; and the creation of enterprises for the processing of agricultural products. Based on the assumption that Hizmet people are present in joint Turkish-Kyrgyz business associations as well as within the government, it is logical to expect a reaction from Gülen’s organization. While it would be inappropriate to speak of any sort of large-scale protests, it is not unreasonable to expect consolidated sabotage through the preexisting leverage of some sort of joint project. It cannot be ignored that, if the Hizmet schools are closed, then the resources that would have been used to develop the educational institutes could be spent on destructive activities. Kyrgyzstani society’s limited knowledge of religious nuance promotes a rise in radical religious sentiments within the country, which provides the perfect environment for these types of experiments. On the other hand, the weakness of the Kyrgyzstani state allows for Hizmet to spread its influence and the ideas of Gülen as well as increase the number of followers of their ideology throughout the country.
Meanwhile, all of these processes have led to a new round of foreign meddling in Kyrgyzstan. The country is becoming a matter of concern for various interest groups in Turkey, which means that they may begin meddling in internal Kyrgyzstani politics in the near-to-mid term. How would Ankara act in Kyrgyzstan if it lost its instruments of influence such as Hizmet while also undergoing a cooling of relations with the United States? Turkey will apparently not be undertaking a total rethinking of its strategy in Kyrgyzstan, but Kyrgyzstan’s further actions with regards to Hizmet will act, in its own way, as a litmus test for Turkish diplomacy. Recently, the Kyrgyzstani Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on educational institutions in Kyrgyzstan stressing that they are “exclusively an internal affair” of the Kyrgyz Republic. Nevertheless, it is logical to assume that the works of Gülen and Nursi and the activities linked to their organizations could soon be banned in Kyrgyzstan after having already been banned in Russia. This would reinforce Bishkek’s Eurasian course and the adaptation of some aspects of Eurasian legislation to Kyrgyzstani conditions. In this case, the closure of Hizmet schools could meet the needs of the EaEU, Turkey, and Kyrgyzstan. Therefore it would be wise to wait for any updates to the “Foreign Agents” bill in the country as well as increased lobbying for this bill from abroad.
Taking all of this into consideration, Kyrgyzstan requires a sober analysis of the risks and consequences of closing Hizmet’s activities in Kyrgyzstan that takes into account the domestic political, geopolitical, foreign policy, legal, financial and economic aspects. Additionally, Kyrgyzstan must undertake constant monitoring and consultations with Turkish officials in Kyrgyzstan, who would be aware of the actual statistics regarding Turkish businesses, individual representatives and their ideological orientation, as well as the methods and instruments of any possible provocation. In exchange for its demands to close organizations linked with Gülen and Nursi in Kyrgyzstan, Turkey must recognize that it needs to be ready to provide alternatives and compensate for the closure of organizations with Turkish capital, businessmen and professionals that are not anathema to Ankara. This is how parity between the interests of both sides could be reached. As for the rest, it would seem that the announcements and furor around the activities of Hizmet in Kyrgyzstan and abroad are nothing but a large political game, and the solution will only be found within the framework of Turkey’s own domestic politics.
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Author: Atai Moldobaev, Head of the Analytical Department, Prudent Solutions (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
The views of the author may not coincide with the position of CABAR.asia