Berdymukhammedov led an interactive presentation where pupils in supposedly regular middle schools in Turkmenistan were shown typing on sleek, late-model computer laptops, girls dressed in traditional costumes were dancing in a sparkling city park, and a provincial bazaar abounded in fruits and vegetables.
They were scenes of a Turkmenistan, where, as the president said, not natural gas, but people, are its "greatest asset.”
Turkmenistan is not known for its respect for its people or for human rights. Hundreds of people are imprisoned in Turkmenistan for their political beliefs.
New Prisoner Amnesty Announced
Asked about the state of political freedoms in the country and in particular about the fate of two former members of the previous cabinet whose whereabouts are unknown, Berdymukhammedov chose that moment to announce that there will now be amnesties for prisoners during each of the country's official holidays instead of an amnesty once a year, as has been customary in the past.
“This year for the national holiday, we will give amnesty to 9,000 prisoners," he said. "The commission [for amnesty] which I created, this commission is working on it. Regarding your inquiry whether those particular prisoners are alive, I’ve already told you -- I am still a [new] president. I am not involved with these issues. I am busy with the well-being of our nation, but I am positive that they are alive.”
During the tenure of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December, the mandatory reading for all students in Turkmenistan was a book called “Rukhnama,” a mixture of revisionist history and moral guidelines written by Niyazov.
Berdymukhammedov told the audience that “Rukhnama” is a cultural asset of Turkmenistan and there are no plans to retire it. “The book ‘Rukhnama’ -- and I want to emphasize this -- the book will be mandatory reading in all educational institutions, from kindergarten through college. Why? Because it contains a lot of wisdom related to our heritage,” he said.
Asked why Western NGOs are not allowed to operate in Turkmenistan, he said the question is moot.
“Please, this is not an issue. There are no restrictions," he said. "By the way, let me tell you that just before our departure to the U.S. we were approached by some young [Turkmen] people who were studying here in America. They presented their program regarding some environmental issues. We were pleased to accommodate them. [We] sent their application to the Ministry of Justice for registration. I think by our return they will receive a license. The same procedures apply for [U.S.] NGOs."
Denials Follow Tough Questions
Some of the students participating in the question-and-answer session wanted to know more about freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Turkmenistan. In the last decade, Freedom House, the U.S. NGO that measures freedom around the word, has given Turkmenistan its lowest score for both freedom of the press and human rights.
At Columbia, Berdymukhammedov denied that either is a problem in Turkmenistan.
“There was never in Turkmenistan any pressure on the press. In general, I would like to say to the youth that in Turkmenistan there is a big newspaper for youth. ...
"And to find solutions to such problems [as freedom of the press]," he continued, "I appointed as editor in chief a student, a student from a Turkmen university. If it is not sufficient, well, thank you. By the way, if I’m not mistaken, the student is a sophomore, right? No, he’s a senior -- editor in chief of the newspaper for youth, a member of the government already.”
At the conclusion of his presentation at Columbia, Berdymukhammedov urged all who are interested to know more about Turkmenistan, its economy, and other issues to approach and talk to the members of his delegation, which included several ministers and two deputy prime ministers.
Efforts by RFE/RL to speak with delegation members were unsuccessful.