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Central Asia: Students Flock To Turkey

  • Jolyon Naegele

Ankara, 11 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In the nearly seven years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Turkey has become a Mecca not only for Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian traders. Less visibly but potentially just as significant, Turkey has attracted many thousands of students from the post-Soviet Turkic republics. They include Azerbaijanis, Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, as well as Tatars, Bashkirs and Altai-Turks from Russia, Gagauzi from Moldova and Crimean Tatars from Ukraine.

All these students, whose mother tongues are related to Turkish, have encountered a wide range of new experiences and frustrations. They live in a society that was never communist, in a NATO member-state that culturally is neither European nor Asian, in a country undergoing an economic boom that can be felt at all levels of society.

Turkey's State Minister for Relations with Turkic Peoples, Ahat Andican (pronounced Andidzhan), told RFE/RL recently that some 10,000 Turkic students are currently studying in his country. In addition to hosting Turkic students in Turkey, Andican adds, Ankara has founded large universities in Kazakhstan and in Kyrgyzstan.

Some Turkic students seeking to develop contacts and gain experience are engaged in private enterprise as well. A few say they have also experienced lower academic standards than they were used to back home.

A group of Turkic journalism students at Ankara University is running a publishing house on a $20,000 annual budget. It is funded both through advertising revenue and sponsorship by a Turkish businessman with trade ties to Turkmenistan and the Balkans.

The publishing house is named after the 18th-century Turkmen poet Mahtum Kulu and publishes a bimonthly, Mahtum Kulu Divan, in an edition of 5,000 copies. It also publishes a business periodical in Turkish and Russian, a Turkmen grammar for Turks, novels by Central Asian authors, calendars, a full-color trilingual business guide to Turkmenistan and a short English-language "History of United Turkmenistan." The slim book is largely devoted to Iran's northeastern border region, which Russia ceded to Iran in 1881.

The Turkmen student president of the publishing house, Recep Annageldiyev, says the editors try to keep out of politics.

"Why don't we write about politics? Because we are still students. To write about politics it is necessary to be involved in politics. Politics cannot just be given a glance, politics, its subtleties, have to be observed."

By avoiding politics, the students appear also to have avoided annoying the authorities back home. They currently boast good relations with the Central Asian embassies and consulates in Ankara, which help look after their needs.

The publishing house's chief sponsor, Ankara businessman Selhattin Baysal, chairs the six-year-old Turkey-Turkmen friendship association. He says the aim of his association is unofficial --that is, non-governmental-- cooperation among the peoples of the two countries, including introducing Turkish culture and business to the thousands of Turkic students in Turkey.

Baysal describes Turkey as a "kind of gate for the peoples of Central Asia to Europe and the rest of the western world." He says:

"We try to do many things. But first of all, you know that during 70 years...Turkmen, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis... Central Asian people couldn't have any initiative. Instead of their future, Moscow planned, Moscow did everything. Now we are teaching the students that they have to do something for their future themselves."

Baysal also says one of the goals of his association is to teach Central Asian students to be Muslims, as he puts it, "of the Turkish type of Islam, living in a democracy."

But there has been some disappointment. For example, Vadim Faizov complains that some academic standards are lower in Turkey than in his native Bashkortostan. Faizov is a business-management student studying at a Turkish university as part of an educational exchange agreement that enables 130 Bashkirs to study in Turkey each year. He also says that mandatory English language courses at Black Sea Technical University in Trabzon are for beginners and well below the level taught in secondary schools back home in Ufa.