An anonymous source at the Foreign Ministry confirms that worrying reports and rumors on the topic are circulating among Turkmen citizens. Adding to the anxiety, government officials have been paying unexpected visits to Turkmen families who have loved ones abroad; the visitors inquire about the "missing" students, requesting detailed information about their location, employment status, and finances.
A Turkmen national living in Turkey told Chaikhana that his family members were told by visiting officials that if he does not return to the country within a specific period -- which they said would be disclosed later -- he might "never be allowed to return to Turkmenistan."
In a country without independent media or civil society, it's hard to get news and even harder to gauge the intentions of Turkmen leaders. Remaining tight-lipped about its designs, the government leaves Turkmen citizens to form their own judgments and plan accordingly. If prior experience is any indication, Turkmen students abroad ought to think twice before returning home during the upcoming summer vacation.
A similar travel ban occurred in August 2009, when Turkmen officials suddenly denied exit to about 150 Turkmen students headed back to the Bishkek-based American University of Central Asia (AUCA). Officials provided no initial explanation for the detentions. Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's initial intervention efforts fell short; it eventually took the intense pressure of the international community to allow Turkmen officials to permit students to return to their studies -- and even then, it was to the American University of Bulgaria rather than in Bishkek. Why the students were dispatched to Bulgaria remains a mystery.
Unofficial sources in Turkmenistan suggest that officials there issued the 2009 travel ban because of suspicions that liberal-minded NGOs mentor Turkmen students seeking greater domestic freedoms or could help bring about a "color revolution" similar to Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution.
Farit Tuhbatulin, director of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), says he is concerned about the recent threat. "This intense speculation started while massive uprisings were taking place across the Middle East," Tuhbatulin says. "Official registration efforts of citizens abroad are another worrying sign, because they will allow the government to monitor [what they believe to be] potentially dangerous students who can import revolutions into the country."
Tuhbatulin says Turkmen government concern over uprisings in nearby Arab countries and its efforts to register citizens abroad are at the heart of public worries.
One thing is certain: So long as the Turkmen government remains silent, students abroad face the dilemma of risking their education to travel home to see loved ones, or waiting until there is more clarity on the situation.
-- Muhammad Tahir