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Higher education as an instrument of russia's public diplomacy in central asia

Abstract. The article considers the involvement of Russian universities in the the Russian Federation’s programs of public diplomacy in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The author analyzes the reasons for encouraging higher-education institutions from the Russian Federation to engage actively in the recruitment of applicants from these countries, and highlights the practical issues behind the interaction between the educational and diplomatic structures in the promotion of Russian interests in the other post-Soviet countries.

Despite the modest positions of the Russian system of higher education in world ratings, the universities of the Russian Federation compete successfully in the educational markets of the Central Asian countries - both with national universities and with universities (and their recruiting agencies) from the countries of Europe, North America and Asia as represented in the region. Alongside the twin practical issues of making a profit from the export of educational services and raising their rating positions, Russian universities actively participate in the promotion of Russia's foreign-policy interests in the post-Soviet countries, complementing the activities of the official institutions of public diplomacy.


Professor Joseph S. Nye of Harvard, who conceived the idea of “soft power”, wrote about the three dimensions of public diplomacy. [1] The Russian Federation now has all three in full. The first, most obvious and most well-illustrated dimension is the mobilization of a variety of media for constant daily communication with a foreign audience. The most striking example is the activity of the RT television channel and the news agency “Sputnik”. The second dimension is ambitious “mega-projects” with national branding, such as the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and the World Cup of 2018. The third dimension of Russian public diplomacy, as a rule, remains in the shadow of the first two, and does not attract much attention from researchers. This is the building of a system of long-term networking with the population of foreign countries through the channel of international cultural and educational exchanges.

Many Western authors, especially after the events in the Crimea and the east of Ukraine, tend to characterize the whole of Russian public diplomacy as an apparatus of propaganda and covert operations using the resources of “conditionally-non-governmental” (funded from the state budget) organizations of Russian citizens; and culturally-humanitarian funds and programs. [2; 3] Most of these publications focus on the analysis of Russian influence in the EU countries and the “Eastern Partnership”. Meanwhile, in the Central Asian republics, higher education plays a key role in Russian public diplomacy, along with the media and programs promoting the Russian language and culture. In relations to the states of this region, Russian programs of cultural and humanitarian cooperation are flexibly integrated into the context of Eurasian integration and development assistance. Here, manipulative methods of propaganda are used to a much lesser extent, and instruments of the "third dimension" of public diplomacy are much more widely represented, which, for a variety of reasons, cannot work effectively in Western countries.

Methodologically, this study is based on statistical data concerning the flow of international academic mobility; the analysis of Russian political texts; and experience of practical activity in the field of cooperation in international education.


During the Cold War, the superpower race for foreign students, especially from third- world countries, was as much an attribute of the global confrontation between East and West as the arms race. In 1990, more than 126,000 foreign citizens were studying in the Soviet Union, most of them in the universities of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (the future Russian Federation). [4] According to this indicator, the USSR ranked third in the world after the United States and France. After the collapse of the Union, the Russian Federation sharply curtailed large-scale assistance programs for developing countries. In only one year the number of foreign students in the Russian Federation dropped to 89,000 (1991); and by 1996 it had fallen to 59,600. [5, P. 1]

The slow restoration of the influx of foreign students began only in the mid-1990s. Mostly thanks to Russia’s Soviet heritage, Russia was gradually able to return to the top ten of the most popular destinations for study abroad. (6, P. 364) World leadership in foreign study is unassailably entrenched in the United States, where, in 2016, the number of foreign students exceeded one million. [7]

Overnight, independence for the countries of the former USSR turned every student from a former republic of the union who was studying at a Russian university into a foreigner. Neither the students themselves, nor the international services of the universities, were ready for such a radical change in status. It is notable that the only group of foreign students whose number in Russian universities grew in the early 1990s were Russian-speaking migrants from the former Soviet republics. According to some reports, the total number of ethnic Russians who resettled in the Russian Federation between 1990 and 2003 amounted to more than eight million people. More than half of this number were from the five republics of Central Asia. [8, P.1] A significant number of Russian-speaking students from Central Asian countries continue to enter Russian universities for the subsequent acquisition of Russian citizenship under a simplified scheme.

The first attempts at popularising higher education in the Russian Federation for the countries of Central Asia did indeed have the aim of facilitating citizenship in this way. At the official level, this was reflected in Article 17 of the Federal Law, “On State Policy of the Russian Federation with Respect to Citizens Abroad”, adopted in May 1999. [9] In this case, the wording of Article 3 allowed for the granting of citizenship of the Russian Federation to any citizens of the former USSR, regardless of their ethnicity. In other words, a citizen for Russia is “any citizen of the disintegrated empire, even if neither he nor his ancestors lived in the RSFSR” [10]. Foreigners who claim their status as a citizen are entitled to have access to education on a par with Russians.

The reintegration of the educational space of the former USSR also contributed to the restoration of the inflow of students from postSoviet countries to Russian universities. The process began with the signing of the relevant agreements between the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1998. [11] In 2004, eleven CIS countries (with the exception of Turkmenistan) concluded an agreement in Astana on mutual recognition and the equivalence of educational documents at all levels of pre-university education. [12] In terms of coverage in the media or scientific publications, these phenomena did not equal the Bologna process; but at the level of the Commonwealth they were of great importance. Bureaucratic barriers were eliminated at the stage of admission requirements for applicants, which greatly facilitated cross-border academic mobility. Currently, the Russian Federation has bilateral agreements on mutual recognition of educational documents, academic degrees and qualifications with virtually all the other CIS countries - with the exception of Uzbekistan.[2]

The foreign-policy imperatives behind educational cooperation

Russia's active return to the information, cultural and educational space of the "near- abroad" in the mid-2000s was associated with the reorientation of the vector of foreign- policy efforts regarding the CIS countries. In a message to the Federal Assembly on April 25, 2005, President V.V. Putin stressed, along with a statement supporting the rights of Russian citizens, the need to continue the “civilizing mission of the Russian nation on the Eurasian continent”. [13] The concept of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, adopted in 2008, mentions for the first time public diplomacy as a means of achieving “an objective perception in the world and influence, through information, on public opinion abroad”. [14] During this period, most of the existing institutions of public diplomacy were being created - the Russkiy Mir Foundation (2007); Rossotrudnichestvo (2008)[3]; the A.M. Gorchakov Fund for Support of Public Diplomacy (2010); the Russian Council on International Affairs (2011); and others.

Gradually, the Russian political class realized the importance of education exchanges for the implementation of foreign-policy objectives. By the mid-2000s, the weakening of Russia's cultural influence and the decline of interest in the Russian language and Russian education in the post-Soviet countries began to be perceived in the context of Russia's national-security challenges. For instance, the de-Russification of Central Asia and especially the penetration of the region by educational organizations from the USA, the EU countries, China, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia was called a direct threat to Russian interests. [15] Over time, despite the obvious successes in promoting education in the Russian language in the countries of the former USSR, the alarmism of the Russian elites regarding competition in the cultural and educational environment of neighboring countries has only increased. In many respects, this happened under the influence of the events of 2014 in Ukraine, where the outcome of the "battle for the minds and hearts" of the population was clearly decided not in Russia’s favor.

In the 1990's, indeed, new actors entered the market for educational services in Central Asia. Foreign-scholarship programs became available; and numerous joint universities and branches were established with the participation of Turkey, the United States, Great Britain, Germany and other countries, focusing on the educational standards of the sponsoring countries. China - which is carrying out active economic expansion through the Belt and Road Initiative - created a network of 10 Institutes and 12 Confucius classes in Central Asia, in which about 23,000 students and schoolchildren are studying. [16, P. 163] The new direction of student mobility from the countries of the region in the post-Soviet period was towards the Muslim states of the Middle East and South-East Asia: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. South Korea is actively promoting its scholarship programs (see Table 3).

The decline in interest in the study of the Russian language and its deliberate ousting from the socio-political sphere on the wave of the construction of new nation-states occurred in parallel with the growing popularity of English. The Kazakh leadership stated that up to 20% of the country's population should master English by 2020. [17, P.1098-1099]

The emergence of new actors in the market of educational services in Central Asia put an end to the monopoly of national educational systems retaining many features of the Soviet university model; and which were therefore associated with the Russian academic tradition - with all its advantages and disadvantages. The promotion of Russian higher education in this region in the 2000s therefore took place in the face of tough international rivalry; and not always with the approval of local elites as far as Russian public-diplomacy initiatives were concerned.

Institutes and mechanisms for expanding the Russian educational presence

Following the worldwide practice of the organization of scholarship programs, relying on the experience of the era of the Soviet-Union and creating an alternative to foreign mobility programs, the RF government gradually increased the quota for admission of foreign citizens to free education in Russian universities. This quota was determined as three thousand budget places in 1995; and then increased to seven thousand in 2003. [18] In August 2008, it was increased to ten thousand people per year [19]; and in October 2013 to 15,000 [20]. At the same time, most new vacancies were redistributed in favor of entrants from the CIS, primarily Central Asia. Thus, in the 2015/2016 academic year, applicants from the Commonwealth countries received 36.9% of the budgeted places allocated under the quota (see Table 1).

Outside of Russia, activity on recruitment of foreign applicants has gradually been concentrated in the Russian Centers of Science and Culture (RCSC). The first director of Rossotrudnichestvo, Farit Mukhametshin (formerly the Ambassador of Russia in Uzbekistan), announced his intention to create a worldwide network of one hundred or more Russian centers and the desire to make the name of Rossotrudnichestvo an internationally recognizable brand, along with the British Council, the Spanish Cervantes Institute, the German Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française and the Chinese Confucius Institute. [21]

Thanks to the measures which have been taken, the share of students in Russian universities from the CIS countries, including the Central Asian Republics, is steadily increasing (see Table 2). In the 2015/2016 academic year, 79% of all foreign students in Russian universities were citizens of post-Soviet states. [22, P. 4] For comparison, their share in 2008 was 36%.

The CIS countries and particularly Central Asia have become the main “suppliers” of foreign entrants to Russian universities, ahead of China, India and Vietnam.

Chart 1. The share of state scholarships (quotas) for the education of foreign citizens and citizens from various groups of countries and regions of the world in higher educational institutions of the Ministry of Education and Science of Russia funded by the Federal Budget in the 2015/2016 academic year (according to the plan of admission) [23, P. 286].

The name of the
























































Total CA








Total CIS countries








Total world








The education of the citizens of the post-Soviet countries has some features that are not common to those coming from Russia’s so-called “far abroad”. Thus, the proportion of persons from post-Soviet countries enrolled in extramural study is relatively large (44% in the 2015/2016 academic year). As for intramural study, it is largely subsidized by the Russian state: 46% of all full-time students are enrolled at the expense of the RF budget, and 82% of their number come from the republics of the former USSR. [22, P. 4] Considering the long common border and long-term stable channels of academic mobility, many students from Kazakhstan choose the geographically close Russian regions for study - often the neighboring regions.

Table 3. The main countries of origin (top 10) for study abroad for the countries

of Central Asia (2016). [24]








Russia (59,295)

Russian Federation (4,430)

Russian Federation (10,825)

Russian Federation (16,990)

Russian Federation (16,162)


Kyrgyzstan (4,828)

Turkey (1,819)

Kyrgyzstan (1,423)

Ukraine (10,893)

Kazakhstan (3,607)


USA (2,006)

Kazakhstan (1,101)

Turkey (624)

Turkey (9,092)

Ukraine (2,061)


Turkey (1,799)

Germany (486)

Kazakhstan (498)

Belarus (8,634)

Germany (727)


United Kingdom (1,596)

Saudi Arabia (348)

Saudi Arabia (392)

Kazakhstan (998)

South Korea (700)


Czech Republic (1,446)

Tajikistan (307)

Ukraine (344)

Uzbekistan (296)

Latvia (625)


Malaysia (1,252)

United States (212)

United States (263)

Tajikistan (263)

Kyrgyzstan (620)


Germany (738)

South Korea (147)

Belarus (258)

Azerbaijan (236)

Turkey (556)


Poland (519)

Malaysia (122)

Egypt (210)

United States (218)

United States (481)


United Arab Emirates (455)

Egypt (104)

Germany (164)

Kyrgyzstan (129)

Malaysia (469)

Thus, the countries of Central Asia have become the main foreign market for the educational services of Russian universities, largely due to geographical proximity; the economic, historical and cultural and political ties of the region with Russia; the widespread use of the Russian language; and the similarity of educational systems.

Motivation of universities

The reasons that prompted many Russian universities to create a presence in the countries of Central Asia were often far removed from “big” politics. One of the most important factors was the demographic one: a sharp decline in the birth-rate in Russia in the 1990s led to a reduction in the number of graduates of secondary schools and thus of future students, which meant that the problem of economic survival became an urgent one for state universities which were faced also with inevitable cuts in state funding and the closure of unclaimed or unprofitable educational programs. With these conditions, admission campaigns became a fierce competition for each applicant. At the same time, most Central Asian countries with their high natural population growth have been unable to cope with the increasing pressure on their national higher-education systems. This has inevitably led to the movement of young people abroad. Over the ten years from 2003 to 2012, according to UNESCO, the number of citizens from five Central Asian republics traveling to study abroad has more than doubled, from 67,000 to 156,000 people. [25] In this respect, educational movement from the region to Russia has a lot in common with the movements of labor migration.

To understand the reasons behind the activity of the Russian universities, it is important to understand the current transformations in the higher-education system of the Russian Federation. The creation in 2008 of nine powerful federal universities (through the merger of regional universities) and the allocation of a special category of national-research university forced “ordinary” universities to pay increased attention to maintaining the positive dynamics of development, including through strengthening the international reputation and export of education. The introduction of a system of annual monitoring of the effectiveness of universities' activity since 2013 has become another tool for the internationalization of universities “from above”, since the percentage of foreign students became the main indicator of international activity.[26]

Finally, profit is one of the main motivations. In addition to state subsidy of “budget” foreign students, universities are interested in the recruitment of applicants for paid programs. In 2016, 69% of foreign students in Russia were educated on a fee basis. [22, P. 4] According to some estimates, the income from the study of foreign citizens within the country's economy increased seven times over the 10 years from 2007 to 2016. In 2015, for example, it amounted to 73 billion rubles. [23, P. 25]

Under these conditions, the recruitment of students (most of whom speak Russian) from the countries of the former Soviet Union seemed to be the only affordable response to demographic, economic and domestic political challenges. It opened up opportunities to use the resources of Rossotrudnichestvo; to make a fairly free interpretation of the legislation on citizens; and, finally, to exploit the willingness of foreign clients to interact with Russian universities, even small ones, operating successfully in the countries of Central Asia.

An important competitive advantage of Russian universities is the Russian language. Despite the negative dynamics of its prevalence in the countries of Central Asia, many local universities actively use Russian as the main language of learning; or as a language complementary to the main state language. Education programs in the Russian language account for more than half of the content in universities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. [27] Teaching tutorials in Russian are actively used, including by students, studying in the national languages. [17, P. 1085] Typical of approaches throughout the region is the fact that universities from Ukraine and Belarus, recruiting students across Central Asia, offer their educational programs in Russian (in Belarus, Russian is one of the state languages; and in Ukraine it is the language of learning “by choice”). [28]

Universities as subjects of public diplomacy

Russian universities have developed several basic ways of working with the Russian Centre of Science and Culture (RCSC) in the CIS countries to promote their education programs and recruit foreign students.

First, the RCSCs represent their own working areas, with personnel and the technical means for organising information events and enrolment campaigns. Many universities hold extra-mural examinations and Olympiads through the RCSC. RCSCs play the role of resource centers, where universities send their advertising information for distribution to the target audience. Since 2012, Rosstrudnichestvo has concluded bilateral agreements on cooperation with individual universities, including plans for joint work on specific countries.

Second, the regional offices of Rossotrudnichestvo organize collective expositions of Russian universities as part of commercial educational exhibitions (“International Education”, “Education and Career”, etc.), held in the capital cities or major regional centers. This is especially advantageous and convenient for the poorer regional universities, for which participation in such events along with the stronger players is organizationally, financially and logistically difficult.

Third, the RCSCs help universities establish contact with public associations of Russian citizens. In some cases, work on the recruitments of applicants is possible only through contact with Russian societies, clubs and associations.

Fourth, Russian universities, along with foreign colleagues, establish their branches in the countries of the region. In 2016, there were 19 branches of Russian universities operating in Central Asia (with the exception of Turkmenistan). Most of them have duplicate licenses, issued by the Ministry of Educationand Science of the Russian Federation and the national education authorities in the country where they are located (see Table 4).

A relatively new phenomenon during the last decade has been the intensification of a network of interuniversity cooperation programs, implemented under the auspices of regional international organizations. The countries of Central Asia are represented in a project of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization University, which, in fact, is an attempt to borrow the best practices of the well-proven European program “Erasmus”, which is designed to fund students studying abroad. Joint education programs are planned on the basis of 77 participating universities (24 in China, 20 in Russia, 14 in Kazakhstan, 10 in Tajikistan, 8 in Kyrgyzstan and 1 in Belarus) [29]. In April 2016, a group of Russian universities (the Tomsk State University, the Moscow State University and the St. Petersburg State Economic University) initiated the creation of a network of Eurasian universities for the EAEU member states. [30]

The trend in recent years has been the creation of organizations of graduates of Russian universities. In addition, there are many similar communities of an informal nature (including social networks on the internet).

The degree of involvement of universities in public programs of public diplomacy is very high. Every day, work on the organization of the education of foreign applicants makes it necessary to coordinate the activities of the international services of the universities with Russian diplomatic missions abroad. The Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (PFUR) annually holds an all-Russian seminar on international education, which has become the main expert forum for discussing issues of foreign students learning in Russia. Representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry and Rossotrudnichestvo usually take part in its work. [23, P. 22]


The educational expansion of Russia in the post-Soviet countries is thus characterized by a combination of market and political motives. This expansion shows a tendency to growth, which is constrained by external factors. In 2015, therefore, a draft government resolution was discussed to increase the quota of budget places for foreigners in Russian universities from 15 thousand to 20 thousand, which was supposed to allocate 206 million rubles in 2016. The goal of the quota expansion was “to increase the effectiveness of Russian ‘soft power’”; and “the formation of pro-Russian national elites”, which should "more effectively promote Russian interests in their homeland including those which are long-term". However the crisis in the economy, largely caused by Western sanctions, forced the Russian leadership to abandon these plans. [31]

The political class of the Russian Federation still perceives competitiveness in the markets of international education as a manifestation of geopolitical rivalry. This vision was reflected in the “Strategy of National Security of the Russian Federation”, signed by President V.V. Putin on the eve of 2016. Among the priority tasks it sets out are: "increasing the export of quality educational services, first of all to the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States; increasing the attractiveness of education in the Russian language in the world market of educational services." The document also records the status of the Russian language as one of the foundations for the development of integration processes in the post-Soviet space ("a means of satisfying the linguistic and cultural needs of citizens abroad"); and as a tool for accelerating the processes of Eurasian integration. [33]

While Rossotrudnichestvo and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mobilize the educational resources of public diplomacy, guided by the goals of promoting Russian influence in a strategically important region, universities use the capabilities of the RCSCs and citizens' organizations to market their educational programs and gain direct access to foreign audiences. This pragmatism is quite understandable, since the number and diversity of countries of origin of foreign students directly affect the income from educational activities and the ratings of universities, and, consequently, the amount of state subsidies.

Thus, the participation of Russian higher education in the implementation of foreign policy tasks in Central Asia is an example of the symbiosis of diplomatic and educational structures. The opportunities for higher education, provided by Russia, as well as the establishment of direct partnership with national universities, including in the context of schemes for students to study abroad, form the basis for Russia's long-term presence in the cultural and humanitarian space of the region and make a significant contribution to its economic and socio-cultural development.



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Разделы знаний

International relations

International relations



Philology is the study of language in oral and written historical sources; it is the intersection between textual criticism, literary criticism, history, and linguistics.[

Technical science

Technical science