Fellow Central Asia blog Registan recently linked to a news report about a Kazakh lawmaker who claimed, somewhat sensationally, that more than 200,000 students had been expelled from colleges and universities for failing to pay their fees.

Saginbek Tursunov accused the authorities of doing nothing to address the problem, but his charges have since been spectacularly shot down.

In video footage featured on a recent post on Prime Minister Masimov’s spanking new blog, Education Minister Zhanseit Tuimebayev dismisses the charge and puts the real figure of expelled students at a more modest 7,000. Out of those, 3,000 students were de-registered because academic performance and failure to maintain communication with their place of study. The rest are having financial difficulties, but Tuimebayev assures the prime minister that he has instructed university officials to allow the students to repay their loans in flexible payments.

In other words, absolutely nothing to fret about.

No place for you in a Kazakh university

No place for you in a Kazakh university

The whole affair stinks to high heaven and looks to all intents and purposes like a crude set-up to make the publicity-ravenous prime minister look good for the public. After all, the original source of the news _ which, in truth, one should have been more careful than to be taken in by _ was a member of the slavishly pro-presidential Nur Otan, the only political party represented in parliament. It seems inconceivable that this Tursunov character, who bears all the hallmarks of a complete toady, would have dared to make such a potentially damaging allegation without prior approval from the required corners.

With the Kazakh government coming under growing scrutiny ahead of its OSCE chairmanship next year, it is evident that its PR strategies will have to change significantly from the old Soviet-style propaganda by diktat and one-sided state reporting. This episode, along with Masimov’s foolishly skittish excitement about his own blog, may serve as a useful of example of what is to come.

By framing government policy on student welfare in the context of a palpably manufactured public debate, the authorities give the impression of openness, transparency and responsiveness. But this is surely an illusory pretension, seeing as students rights organizations are virtually non-existent on a national level, even though there is no shortage of things about which undergraduates could complain about. Corruption in institutions of higher learning is so rampant as to effectively invalidate the real value of many degrees, just to mention one point.

In adopting this sort of shadow boxing, Kazakhstan must hope to create the impression, among those that matter, of a totally free society in which problems are openly discussed. This is not exactly new; the controversial law on religion approved in parliament recently was debated in expert committees bringing together representatives from major faith groups. This charade had the useful function of allowing Muslim and Russian Orthodox Christian proponents to lobby for even stricter rules, which had the ultimate result of making the law itself seem quite reasonable. Conveniently enough, however, none of the religious groups that would actually be affected were present at any of these gatherings. The overall effect is to soften up the thinking classes resistance to controversial proposals and simultaneously give the impression legislation is being drawn up with perfect transparency. Never mind that ordinary could never get their hands on the final version of the law before it was unceremoniously approved by the Senate. Incidentally, the draft law still requires presidential approval and minority faith groups and the OSCE still remain hopeful Nazarbayev may veto it.

 Co-opting the Internet into the PR campaign, while strictly monitoring the public’s access to its more dubious areas (Livejournal still remains inaccessible to many Kazakhtelecom customers for supposedly technical reasons), merely takes gulling the people to a whole new technological level.