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St Petersburg University and Tashkent State University of Oriental Studies have launched a joint double-degree master’s programme ‘International Relations in the Post-Soviet Space’. Niyazi Niyazov is Doctor of History and Professor in the Department of International Relations in the Post-Soviet Area at St Petersburg University. He spoke about the reasons for its creation and the role to be assumed by its graduates in the relations between the two countries.

What inspired the initiative to create a joint programme with a university in Uzbekistan?

Tashkent State University of Oriental Studies is one of the oldest universities of Uzbekistan. It was founded in 1918. It has always been seriously engaged in the study of the Far and Middle East. In recent years, however, there has been an understanding in Uzbekistan that research on these regions alone is not enough to build an effective foreign policy. First and foremost, this can be attributed to the fact that under the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the country has begun to emerge from the political isolation that it experienced under his predecessor, the late Islam Karimov.

Given that Uzbekistan is a country in the post-Soviet space, it needs to establish and strengthen relations with higher education institutions of the former Soviet Union. For this reason, in recent years, universities have begun to develop a double-degree model of study. Besides St Petersburg University, of all post-Soviet countries, Tashkent University works only with Belarus on such a programme. At the same time, it has established links with many leading Russian universities, including Moscow State University, Kazan State University and the Ural Federal University. The reason for choosing St Petersburg University is clear — it is one of the leaders in the study of post-Soviet countries.

How will the training be organised?

During the first, second and fourth semesters, each of the parties will teach their master’s students in their own territory within their respective curricula. The third semester, on the other hand, is a joint study. Within the framework of our curricula, we will exchange master’s students. Hopefully, by then, the borders will be open and students from St Petersburg University will be travelling to Uzbekistan, while we are accepting master’s students from Tashkent. Even if the coronavirus pandemic intervenes in our plans, we have accumulated a lot of experience that will enable us to successfully implement this academic programme in any format.

Could you tell us more about the programme?

The master’s programme ‘International Relations in the Post-Soviet Space’ focuses on the domestic and foreign policies not only of the Central Asian states, but also of the South Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and, of course, Russia. Our Uzbek colleagues will find this work very useful. Due to a certain geographical remoteness, they may not always have full information on what the real political, economic and humanitarian situation is in these countries. They will also be able to obtain information on the interaction of these countries with the Russian Federation and on the activities of the leading actors in world politics — Europe, the United States, and China — in relation to them.

Our country clearly makes every effort to involve the former Soviet Union countries in various kinds of integration processes, first and foremost in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). A promising area of work in this regard is the involvement of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan in the activities of this organisation. Considerable work is being done in this direction, especially as regards Uzbekistan. In its turn, Uzbekistan is also eager to cooperate.

This programme might serve as a useful model for the interaction of post-Soviet education systems. It might eventually be adopted by other post-Soviet universities that would like their graduates to receive a degree from St Petersburg University. This is especially true since we are in the top 20 % of world universities according to the prestigious QS World University Rankings, which is a very high standing. Our degree can significantly increase the employability of graduates in the labour market and contribute to their career development.

What is the interest of St Petersburg University?

Although all of the conceptual documents on foreign policy of the Russian Federation had long established the post-Soviet space as the most important area of cooperation for our country, Russia de facto prioritised interaction with Western countries and, to some extent, with the Far East and African states. Everything we knew about our closest neighbours was at the level of Soviet perceptions. This has led to many misunderstandings and conflicts in our foreign policy. When asked about Uzbekistan, many Russians think primarily of migrants on construction sites. They have no idea how wrong this perception is, and how little they know about the dynamic development of this country after the new president came to power.

St Petersburg University under the agreements with partner universities has master’s programmes that offer the possibility of obtaining two diplomas — a Russian and a foreign one. The practice of double degree programmes is widespread throughout the world. This format of education involves studying in parallel at a partner university in similar programmes with minimal divergence in curricula.
A double-degree master’s programme is a great opportunity to receive both a foreign and Russian education and to improve intercultural communication skills. Students of joint programmes will master part of their academic programme at a partner foreign university. This will make it possible for them to: get acquainted with large foreign universities face-to-face; attend classes of top-ranked professors; and have access to all educational and research resources of a foreign university.

Uzbekistan is rich not only in human resources. It has natural resources, including hydrocarbons and a unique climate that allows the cultivation of many crops, including cotton. Incidentally, it was at one time a major contributor to the Soviet economy, but after the collapse of the USSR, it was considered too expensive and was discarded. However, the product was in demand on the world market, and Uzbekistan diverted the trade to Turkey. As a result, many Russian enterprises, left without this raw material, closed down. We still buy that same cotton from Uzbekistan, but in the form of Turkish textiles. I think that history has taught us a valuable lesson and, failing to reach an agreement in time, we have lost a lot.

My answer to your question is therefore as follows: the programme will provide our country with serious specialists with in-depth knowledge of Uzbekistan, without which it is impossible to build a competent foreign policy line.

How can students enrol in this academic programme?

The entry requirements are presented on the official website of St Petersburg University. It is as transparent as other master’s programmes we offer. Having academic publications as well as completing online courses offered by St Petersburg University will give applicants an additional advantage.

I am sure that this programme will interest people committed to the study of Uzbekistan. For example, there is every reason to believe that the programme will be of interest to representatives of the Uzbek diaspora in Russia and St Petersburg. Many of them speak both Russian and Uzbek and would like, as citizens of the Russian Federation, to contribute to the rapprochement between the two countries.

What characterises the modern system of higher education in Uzbekistan?

Unlike European countries and many countries of the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan has a population structure dominated by young people. That is why the Uzbek authorities consider youth policy to be crucial. They are trying to educate both a modern and patriotic new generation, truly devoted to their homeland. On the whole, they have been successfully working in this direction. That is true of higher education as well.

Regrettably, it took us a very long time to realise that the interaction potential of the two countries inherited from Soviet times has been gradually vanishing, along with the people who were born and raised in the USSR. The older generation might be dreaming about the Soviet Union and feeling nostalgic about it, but our common past does not pre-configure the worldview of Uzbek youth and their attitude towards their own national history. It must be understood that 30 years have passed since the Soviet Union collapsed. People born on the last day of its existence will be taking their children to school in September. A completely different generation has emerged and it is necessary to work with this generation on mutually acceptable terms. The most important thing here is mutual respect, trust in each other and openness. Without these, it is neither possible to acquire new knowledge nor to share it.

Moreover, in an effort to develop its own educational system, Uzbekistan is now actively encouraging cooperation with world leading higher education institutions. With the aim of creating an outward looking educational model, they are gradually moving away from Soviet standards. They are also trying to make the learning process more mobile, so that students could interact with their foreign peers, visit other countries, gain knowledge, return with that knowledge and use it to dynamically develop the country. Understandably, the Turkish model of education has become very attractive for Uzbekistan in recent times, due to religious and linguistic factors. The creation of a joint programme with St Petersburg University is therefore a big event. For our part, we will do everything we can to gain a foothold in the Uzbek market of educational services and develop our interaction.

How much credit is given to a foreign degree in Uzbekistan?

If we are talking about a degree from St Petersburg University, it has always been valued. The old name of our university — Leningrad State University — was remembered by many people even after 1991. As for other prestigious foreign universities, 15-20 years ago the situation was quite the opposite — their degrees were not always recognised and adequately rated. Back under the first president, Islam Karimov, priority was given to a traditional education obtained in Uzbekistan or, say, in Russia.

The times have changed, however. The Ministry of Education of Uzbekistan has compiled a list of the most prestigious foreign universities whose degrees shall be automatically recognised by the state. Of course, the list includes the leading Russian universities. It is encouraging that St Petersburg University is one of the top choices and we are there not because our countries are neighbours or because we are remembered from the Soviet past. It is all about the University’s high position in the world rankings.