Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Brain Drain

The ongoing economic crisis is driving many talented and highly qualified young people abroad.
By Larisa Tegay

Kyrgyzstan's brightest are graduating from its showcase university with excellent qualifications - and promptly leaving the country in search of a better life.

The dismal economic situation in the former Soviet republic has left few prospects for skilled graduates, and most are choosing to work in their chosen profession overseas - often in Russia - rather than make do with a menial, low-paid work at home.

The situation is now causing concern at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University in Bishkek, which was set up a decade ago by the governments of both countries, and is regarded as one of the most prestigious in Kyrgyzstan.

"We give our students an excellent education, the government invests big money in them - and then they abandon our country," Salavat Usmanov, dean of the university's international department, told IWPR.

"Certainly, the state can also be blamed here - it cannot provide everyone with good, well-paid jobs so the graduates have to find work abroad."

While scholarships are available to certain outstanding students, most pay fees of around 600-800 US dollars a year. This compares favourably to the English-language American University in the Kyrgyz capital, which charges more than double that amount.

As the university is monitored and controlled by the Russian education ministry, its standards are as high as any in Russia, and it attracts some of the finest lecturers and professors in the republic.

As a result, many young people choose to study at the Slavonic, where graduates receive a diploma accepted in Russia. And they now see the university as a springboard to a more prosperous career abroad.

A survey conducted by IWPR suggests that a large number of its students have already decided to pursue careers outside Kyrgyzstan. Half of those questioned said that they were ready to leave the republic at the first opportunity.

"What else can we do - wait tables for the rest of our lives? We didn't study hard for that!" said international department student Irina Golina. "Kyrgyzstan's factories are not working efficiently, there is very little production, and one can only get a job with the help of relatives and contacts. So many people have to leave."

Ivan Naturin, another student, admits that he entered the Slavonic with one clear goal in mind - to move to Moscow.

Kyrgyz undergraduates are allowed to transfer to a Russian university if they so choose, after they have completed certain supplementary courses.

Naturin is now in his fourth year at the State University's Higher School of Economy in Moscow.

However, Russia is not the only destination favoured by the university's ambitious students. Many have taken advantage of the Slavonic's exchange programme with colleges in Germany, China and Sweden.

"Our young people study abroad for one year, and then they are expected to come back and complete their work here. But not one has ever returned - they all find jobs there and stay," complained Usmanov.

Bishkek employment agency Imperia Kadrov has dealt with many Slavonic graduates who are eager to move away from Kyrgyzstan.

"They do not want to be sales agents and waiters - they want to work in their area of expertise. While we do our best to help them, we very rarely find them suitable jobs in Kyrgyzstan and instead get them work elsewhere," said the agency's senior manager Natalia Elanskaja.

Imperia Kadrov now works closely with large companies in the Russian city of Novosibirsk.

"Our primary concern is finding employment for young people," said Elanskaja. "Yes, there is a brain drain but that is a regional problem - and not ours to solve."

The human rights organisation Open Viewpoint believes that the exodus is set to continue for some time. "Patriotic appeals for students to stay in their country will not work," said its president Dmitry Kabak.

"Slavonic University will continue to prepare workers for other countries until Kyrgyzstan pulls itself out of this deep economic crisis."

According to the editor of the Tribuna newspaper Yrysbek Omurzakov, the departure of so many bright people means that the country is then deprived of the very people who could contribute to its revival.

Larisa Tegai is a student at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University's journalism department.

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