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4 May 2002

Central Asia Report to 2002 Worlds Council

At the 2002 Worlds Council countries were invited to submit a report to the council to let other nations know about debating in their country.  It was not compulsory but a number of nations gave reports.

Central Asia Report to 2002 Worlds Council

Although I currently represent Uzbekistan on the council, it is my dubious pleasure to write this report on behalf of the entire subcontinent (the task falls to me since nobody else involved in debating within 1500 miles can write coherent sentences in English) and to inform you all about a variety of countries that you may well have never heard of. So read this one, just for the sake of variety. It is rather extraordinary the places that debating can reach, as Nick Bibby once told me, and as ever his sage words are true.

So, to orientate the excited reader, imagine the continent of Asia. See China? Now turn left a little and you reach a bit you might never have noticed before. If you are in Russia you've gone too far up, if you are in Turkey, you've gone too far left, if you are in Afghanistan then get the fuck out of there, but welcome to Central Asia.

The countries here, other than that inimitable vacation spot, Afghanistan, were all members of the Soviet Union, and would mostly rather have remained so. Now they have been clad in the uncomfortable mantels of independence, and are slowly, but surely slipping away from their original democratic rhetoric, and the challenges of civil society are being replaced by the security of fairly mild authoritarian dictatorship.

Turkmenistan moved the furthest and fastest in that direction. Their President has a contract for life, his dead mother has become a saint, and there is a golden statue of him in the capital that always faces the sun. Foreign languages have been almost entirely removed from the school curriculum. Most international organisations have left in exasperation. In short, expect no debate teams from Turkmenistan at the next Worlds.

Mongolia can be included as a Central Asian state in certain respects. The ruling Communist party has until quite recently been on the productive side of benign. Some students speak English, many still speak Russian, and most try to avoid learning Chinese. There is a little debating, sponsored by the Soros foundation, and the possibility remains that a Mongolian team could get to an international competition if it was ever held in East Asia. But politics in Mongolia seems to be swinging to the right at the moment due in part to two terrible winters that devastated the horse and yak herds, so the chances of continued investment in something as luxurious as debating looks slim.

In the four central states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the story is rather different. The regimes are still relaxed enough to allow organisations like the Soros Foundations and others interested in supporting the creation of some sort of civil society to do their work without absolutely impossible obstacles. The reason that there have been some appearances by teams from these countries at international competitions is that international organisations, for example Rotary International, the Civic Education Project and the Soros Foundations see debate as a very important process in the creation of a solid base from which democracy could possibly flourish, or from which enough public voice could be heard to at least prevent the regimes moving in the direction that our neighbours in Turkmenistan have marched.

Debate is therefore popular. All four countries have some sort of high-school debating. Because they have only just emerged from civil war, Tajikistan is the least developed in this sense, as in most other senses, and developments over the Oxus in Afghanistan do not bode well for a relaxed future either. However, the other three countries all have vibrant debate communities, particularly at school level, in English, Russian and local languages. These are supported almost entirely through the Soros network.

Debating may be popular, but it is not necessarily what one would want to call 'good'. There is no tradition of open discussion. Samarkand, where I live, may have been more exotic before the Soviets came, but they were in many ways a liberalising influence, other than the presence of a few passing Jaddidists. So post-Soviet education, although maintaining the strong Soviet infrastructure and rhetoric in favour of the liberal arts, also maintains the fear of criticism, of improvisation and of research. In short ... of debate.

So to conclude this little offering from Central Asia, I would say that Central Asia deserves all of the extremely limited help we can give it. It offers no complexities to the World Councils. The Soviet Union knew what 'University' meant, and so does the post-Soviet dis-Union. High schools end when you are about 17, and university goes on for four or five years after that. We are as clearly ESL as it is possible to be. In fact all our debaters this year spoke English as a third or fourth language (what about an E. Fourth L. final?). There is some sort of debate programme in every city in the region, and national competitions in all, although as yet no Central Asia wide tournament. I don't have many statistics, but if anybody really wants them for some bizarre reason I could find them quite quickly. I'm guessing each of the central Central Asian states must have at least 300 high school debaters, of which maybe 100 are doing it in English. The number is lower at uni level. Perhaps 150, and 75 or so competing seriously in English. All pretty clear, and no potential for sharply worded e-mails in Cyrillic.

Debate will hopefully continue out here, but the bad news is that the Soros Foundations have a limited lifespan and many of the debate programmes are already coming to a close, and trying to stand on their own two feet in a very unsteady environment. If any of you read this far and work for rich companies, or people, who want to get rid of capital, I know ways they could spend it on debaters who need it. A more reasonable step would be to make sure that participants at events such as the Worlds can be assured of a productive, educational experience, and this is the subject of my other e-mail, wearing my other hat.

But for the moment if anybody has any questions for any reason about Central Asia, they are most welcome to write to me here. Just a thought ... this is a great place to visit when you graduate (or get bored working for P&G). There are some very interesting possibilities out here for graduates. You'll make absolutely no money, but you might get to do things like writing the only report in the history of international debating to include a serious observation about yak herds.

Colin Spurway,

Uzbekistan Delegate, World University Debating Council

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