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Is Ashgabat Suspicious Of U.S. Education Programs?

  • Farangis Najibullah

Are Turkmen students simply being kept in line?

Are Turkmen students simply being kept in line?

Turkmenistan appears to be in a state of denial when it comes to U.S. organizations involved in education.

Last month, some 50 Turkmen students were refused permission to travel abroad to continue their studies at the American University of Central Asia, which offers a U.S.-style liberal-arts education.

Their enrollment was subsequently transferred to a similar institution, the American University of Bulgaria. But earlier this month, those students were not allowed to board planes to Bulgaria, leading the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat to issue a statement on October 5 expressing its dismay over "Turkmenistan's continued denial of freedom of movement for...Turkmen students."

Since then, Ashgabat has denied entry to nearly 50 volunteers for the U.S.-government run Peace Corps, whose work in Turkmenistan primarily involves health care and English-language education.

The government has provided no official explanation for the moves, and the Education Ministry declined to respond to RFE/RL questions regarding the university students.

Wary Of The West?

But some observers regard the developments as a sign that authorities in the reclusive country remain wary of Western-style education, and say they raise questions about President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's commitment to open up to the outside world after years of isolation under his predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niyazov.

"The current leadership of Turkmenistan [are] rather like their predecessors, very hesitant about allowing their people direct and unfettered access to a different worldview, in this case allowing their students to become too acquainted with the American and Western approach to education," Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, tells RFE/RL.

The Peace Corps has been active in Turkmenistan since 1993, with a focus on education and health-care projects in rural areas. Its website, in describing its work in Turkmenistan, says "the first American a Turkmen will meet is often a Peace Corps volunteer."

Peace Corps Press Director Josh Field says more than 70 of the organization's volunteers are already working in Turkmenistan.

"In this instance, much of the work we do is in education -- sometimes training teachers on how to be better teachers, sometimes actually going into schools teaching the students," Field says. "So there are two ways that we often contribute in the education front."

The status of the volunteers currently in Turkmenistan is unaffected by Ashgabat's refusal to allow 47 new volunteers to enter the country, but the Peace Corps' overall numbers stand to be halved with many volunteers completing their terms of service by year's end.

Field says that Turkmen authorities have told the Peace Corps they will not accept its new group of volunteers until September 2010. Representatives of the Peace Corps in Ashgabat expect to meet with Turkmen authorities later this week to discuss the issue.

Will To Reform

Since taking over as acting president in December 2006 following Niyazov's death and winning presidential elections in February 2007, Berdymukhammedov has embarked on numerous reforms intended to turn back years of isolation. Internet cafes have been set up, libraries closed down at Niyazov's orders were reopened, and Turkmen students were given more opportunities to study abroad.

Many official barriers that had stood in the way of students studying abroad were removed, including requirements that prospective students register at the Defense Ministry and the State Migration Office, as well as the requirement that they obtain exit visas to leave the country.

It is still compulsory for students to register at the Education Ministry before leaving to study abroad.

But this year an estimated 2,700 students enrolled to study at universities in Russia, Europe, and the United States, as well as in East Asian countries under a government-funded education project.

The late "president-for-life," Niyazov, had imposed a number of steps to diminish the role of education before his death of heart failure in 2006, including shortening the minimum school requirement from 10 to nine years and cutting terms for university education from five to two years.

Both those decisions were reversed after his death.

An official from Turkmenistan's Education Ministry tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service on condition of anonymity that influential people within the government continue to view the current administration's planned education reforms with suspicion.

During his rule, Niyazov also made his own philosophical book "Rukhnama" (Guide to the Soul) an essential part of the curriculum of all Turkmen schools and universities.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

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