Sexual Harassment in Kyrgyzstan: Should UNESCO Weigh In?

While UNESCO clearly stands against sexual harassment, the institution may need to pay attention to abuses where it has lent the credibility of its name.

October 9, 2019

Sexual harassment is a global problem that includes higher education. While universities throughout the world experience sexual harassment, not every university addresses the problem on its campus. Even if addressed, there may be no prompt or proper response to the problem. While UNESCO as an organization would clearly stand against sexual harassment, the institution may also need to pay attention to abuses where it has lent the credibility of its name.

At Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, a sex scandal erupted when screenshots of correspondence sent by a theology scholar, Denis Brusilovsky, to female students surfaced. More than 10 screenshots of his posts on WhatsApp reflected interest in female student views on particular sexual indulgences. His texts solicited intimate photos, offered massages and described his various sexual fetishes. The correspondence subtly suggested that responding to his erotic fantasies would benefit a student’s grades. He explained, “I have to risk giving points for the test, etc., risking my career and job for you.”

The scandal could not be ignored by the university administration because of the resulting media attention. The media, in best journalistic tradition, used catchy headlines such as “Lecturer offered me threesome sex: The story of a former KRSU student”; “The police will check on the ‘intimate’ scandal around KRSU lecturer”; “Police received a complaint on KRSU lecturer Brusilovsky from a 19-year-old girl”; “A student of the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University posted correspondence with a lecturer who sexually harassed her.”

Yuri Podkuiko, head of the Department for the Study of World Cultures and Religions, confirmed that some of the screenshots were genuine. The initial scandal took place in January 2019, and the disciplinary commission issued the reprimand to Brusilovsky, signed by the university rector. After the screenshots were circulated online and in public, the vice rector for public relations, Leonid Sumarokov, said that the administration would look into the issue again and decide whether Brusilovsky would continue to teach at the university.

Brusilovsky teaches Response to Religious Extremism and the Construction of Tolerance; Religious Tourism; and Philosophy. He insisted that he this is being slandered by those who object to his scholarship, supported by fake correspondence that has been skillfully edited; he is now considering whether to issue a formal complaint with law enforcement. While he did not agree with the reprimand, he decided not to contest it because of the risk of even greater damage to his reputation. Brusilovsky asserted that he “doesn’t need these students,” since he “has a girlfriend.” He called the publication of screenshots in the media the provocation of ill wishers and linked to political agendas: “We in the KRSU are a kind of a political bridge between Kyrgyzstan and Russia and perhaps someone is interested in this provocation.” Brusilovsky considers allegations of sexual harassment against him an assault on the reputation of the university and an attempt to undermine the good relations between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. He also sees this as some kind of personal vendetta resulting from his role as the chair of the council of young scholars and students.

One female student agreed to talk to the media on condition of anonymity. She said that the professor suggested that she engage in a group sex. At the same time, she claims that it was not harassment, but the product of a trusting relationship she had established with him and her other classmates. When the professor began to pursue sexual topics too persistently, the student stopped communicating with him. She does not consider what happened reason to file a complaint against the professor, but at the same time indicated that she was not the only one with whom he had communicated on the topic of sex.

Thus far, this is the only incident of sexual harassment at a higher education institution in Kyrgyzstan that has gotten national attention, but it is likely that there are other incidents that have not received as much notice. Nevertheless, there are signs of greater public discussion of the issue in the country. A Kyrgyz lawmaker in Bishkek says that she was sexually harassed by a male government employee in the building of the national parliament. Elvira Surabaldieva wrote on Twitter on Nov. 19, 2018, that the man started flirting with her in the elevator and then started groping her. Slowly, the Me Too movement is arriving in Kyrgyzstan. A group of female lawmakers, including Surabaldieva, plan to introduce a bill to outlaw sexual harassment in the country.

Major international organizations are also combating sexual harassment and gender-based violence in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan. Human Rights Watch has pointed out the failure of the government of Kyrgyzstan to prevent and punish violence against women and girls. While the country adopted a strengthened family violence law in 2017, weak enforcement of laws leaves women and girls at risk. The World Bank awarded funding for the project, “Combatting Sexual Violence in the Kyrgyz Republic through Innovative Education and Information Technology,” to a team at American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek.

The Criminal Code of Kyrgyz Republic has a special article under the title “Coercion to actions of a sexual nature.” Based on this article, the court may impose a penalty of “correctional labor” of up to two and a half years, a fine of 220,000 to 300,000 Kyrgyzstani soms ($3,150-4,300), or imprisonment for up to two and a half years. However, to launch an investigation, victims must file a complaint with the police. Furthermore, it is necessary to prove in court that the victims were in some way vulnerable to power that could be exercised over them by the alleged perpetrator. Coercion can be interpreted as the mental or psychological influence over the victim in order to achieve consent to sexual activities.

In the best Soviet tradition, reinforced by Central Asian traditionalism, the university administration is most interested in pushing this type of scandal under the rug. A reprimand actually does not mean much, and it is unlikely that there will be any consequences for Brusilovsky. Surprisingly, the university has a Code of Ethics and Professional Behavior for Staff and Students. Although the code does not use the term “sexual harassment” explicitly, it addresses relations and conduct between faculty, staff and students. The code is a very detailed and comprehensive document and was approved in 2016, well before the scandal erupted.

One may ask what this scandal has to do with UNESCO. The department where Brusilovsky is an associate professor is the UNESCO Department for the Study of World Cultures and Religions at Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University. The UNESCO project was established in 1999 to promote international intellectual cooperation and increase knowledge in the field of the study of culture and religions. In November 2018, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted its first comprehensive resolution on sexual harassment, urging countries to recognize the seriousness of violence against women and girls and to take action. UNESCO’s affiliation with the department where this scandal took place might beg the institution to react to this case and others where it has lent its name.

Ararat L. Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev Visiting Professor and Scholar at Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, fellow of the Institute of International Education and fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium.


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