I had a conversation in the campus hallways yesterday afternoon with a transfer student, originally from Talas in northwestern Kyrgyzstan, who spent a year as an exchange student in Washington state. He was transferring from one of the Turkish universities in Bishkek, where he claimed there is a significant level of anti-American sentiment among the faculty. I have heard that comment before.
An American colleague from AUCA, who, like me, is back for a second year, said he senses more anti-American sentiment this year than last. I think the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Bishkek contributed to his feelings. The SCO has several purposes, but clearly one of them is to counter American economic and military influence in the region. That is mentioned in virtually all the English language news coverage I have read, even though the anti-U.S. rhetoric at the summit was pretty limited, and less than what some observers had expected. Western press coverage of the summit was apparently next to nothing.
My understanding of public sentiment toward the U.S. is largely limited to the students and faculty of AUCA, which is hardly a representative sampling of Kyrgyz public opinion. Generally speaking, the Kyrgyz students are more affluent than the general public, plus AUCA has a sizable percentage of students from other nations in the region, particularly Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. There is also a significant percentage of AUCA students who have studied in the United States, most often high schools, through State Department-sponsored exchange programs. And the faculty members I am closest to are those who speak English.
My experience has been that AUCA students appreciate the individual freedom of expression, tolerance and diversity of the United States. It is difficult to underscore how new and rare freedom of expression is in Central Asia. With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, the other former Soviet Republics of Central Asia—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan—are authoritarian one-party states that do not tolerate dissent. As I have stated on early occasions, the national demonstrations last year in the Kyrgyz Republic would have been bloodily crushed, without hesitation, had they been attempted in the other four former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.
Central Asians appreciate the widespread material abundance of the United States, not simply the affluence that allows one to buy the latest electronic toys, but the more fundamental comforts of housing, heat, electricity, clean water, sewage, clothing and, of course, employment. Many very talented and qualified students spend their summers idle or doing volunteer internships because there are simply no jobs other than the most menial ones. Many students also know that, upon graduation, there are very few employment opportunities in their areas of expertise.
So, yes, many young, educated Central Asians look to the United States with a sense that it represents broader possibilities and more chances for the good life for themselves and their loved ones. But don’t confuse that admiration with an endorsement of everything American, including for example, U.S. foreign policies, race relations and the objectification of women in popular culture. The students here, for the most part, are more sophisticated than that.