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Compulsory Fun in Kazakstan

Schoolchildren and students complain they are being forced to take part in staged official festivities.
By Karim Tanaev

The Kazak capital Astana is gearing up to celebrate City Day on June 10, an annual event marked with colourful processions, music and dancing in the streets, students waving placards and schoolchildren in fancy dress.


This year is set to be particularly spectacular, with plans for a choir of 7,000 schoolchildren in addition to the traditional carnival.


But many children won’t be looking forward to the festival, seeing it as just another official ritual for which they will be conscripted in the role of cheering participants.


School pupils and university students complain that they are forced to take part both in festivities and in the time-consuming rehearsals that precede them, and are threatened with serious consequences if they try to avoid doing so.


“Last year, our whole class wanted to refuse to take part in the carnival,” 15-year old Bakhyt told IWPR. “We even went to the headmistress. But she told us that she would give the entire class D-grades and we wouldn’t pass the exams. We had to go and rehearse, and we studied for the exams at night.”


Except for the youngest pupils and occasional special cases, most of the 60,000 schoolchildren in Astana will be required to take part in City Day, as will the 32,000 students at college and university.


Thirteen-year old Ruslan told IWPR that staff at his school threatened to expel him from school if he failed to attend rehearsals for this year’s mass choir.


“I didn’t go to choir practice so that I could revise for my geography test,” he said. “Our class teacher sent me to the school’s director and I had to write an explanation of why I didn’t go to the practice. They said if I missed it again they’d return my documents to me [meaning expulsion].”


Natasha, 15, may escape being recruited because she is in her final-year. “This time they decided we didn’t have to take part, saying the graduating class didn’t have to go. But last year they insisted we go to rehearsals. Once I didn’t go and they made such a fuss. Our director of studies said it didn’t matter what I was doing, I had to go to rehearsals without question.”


Many parents are critical of the arrangement. Bayan, who has two sons at school in Astana, told IWPR she is firmly opposed to her children taking part in the June festivities.


“Every May, these rehearsals begin,” she said. “The boys are at school for half the day, then they rush home, drop off their schoolbags and run to the rehearsal. They stay there until late in the evening. They don’t get time to have a meal, and they do their homework late at night.”


Bayan says that two years ago her eldest son got pneumonia after being kept standing outside in a heavy downpour for several hours while he waited for the carnival to begin at midnight, and then walking through the streets for more than an hour in the rain.


For students in higher education, City Day is just one of many public celebrations for which attendance is compulsory.


They are also forced to turn out for welcoming ceremonies – with much waving of flags and placards – when important figures visit at other times of the year. When the visitor is someone as prominent as first lady Sara Nazarbaeva, who often visits the Eurasian University in Astana, the event is often preceded by early-morning rehearsals.


Aliya, a third-year student on the journalism faculty of the Eurasian University, told IWPR how an attempt to miss one such event was met with an especially harsh threat.“We once tried to refuse to take part in a welcoming ceremony and we were immediately threatened with expulsion from the university,” she said.


Human rights organisations are highly critical of the forced participation of children and students in official celebrations. Lawyer Anara Ibraeva, director of the Astana and Akmola branch of the Kazak Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told IWPR that such coercion is illegal under local and international law, since it amounts to compulsory labour.


The head of the human rights group, Evgeny Zhovtis, agreed that the practice went against human rights, saying “No one should force children to attend official events….The akimat [mayor’s office] and school headmasters are acting illegally because this is coercion.”


Zhovtis sees the whole idea of forcing people to stage public expressions of happiness as a legacy of Kazakstan’s Soviet past, “The worst thing is that the authorities think that if they don’t force people to take part, then no one will turn up. What respect can the authorities themselves have for the celebration, then?”


Psychologist Raushan Kabilova, who teaches at Kazakstan National University, warned that the practice was counterproductive, as it was more likely to breed resentment than patriotism. “People not only get physically tired,” she said, “they also become mentally alienated from celebrations, which become a problem rather than a pleasure for them.”


A member of staff at Astana’s education department, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted to IWPR that coercing children into taking part in state celebrations is wrong, but said it is the only way to meet attendance quotas set by officials higher up.


“Of course, children should not be forced to take part in all these events. But we cannot influence the situation,” he said. “Every year, before City Day, we receive an order from the akimat to ensure that certain number of children participate in the celebration. And as children don’t want to take part voluntarily, teachers have to force them to.”


The education official denied that a student could ever be threatened with expulsion for non-attendance. “The case you mentioned, where students were forced to take part under threat of expulsion, is not possible. We have not had any previous cases of this kind,” he said.


As the celebrations draw closer, children are concerned about the effects on their education.


“We are forced to take part in this dreadful carnival every year. And this year, despite the upcoming exams, they have already started forcing us to rehearse the carnival every day,” 16-year old Asel told IWPR.


“We get taken out of classes all the time. How will we pass the exams? We are supposed to be enrolling in higher education this year.”


Karim Tanaev is a pseudonym for an IWPR contributor in Astana.


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