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'Distancing' Grounds Russian Learning In Turkmen Schools, Despite Parental Pushback

Russian-language instruction is highly regarded in many quarters of Turkmenistan.

Just days left before the end of this year's enrollment season in Turkmenistan, a handful of schools in the capital and other cities sharply curbed their offerings in Russian.

The move, blamed on anti-coronavirus measures, created more than a few meters of distancing for many of the affected students.

Parents with the time and resources -- and whose children wanted or needed instruction in Russian, which is no longer an official language in Turkmenistan -- had about 48 hours to find other options.

But many others were left behind.

Two months later, some parents have complained that many of the Russian-speaking children who were forced by circumstances into Turkmen-language education are struggling to adjust to the shock change in learning.

The authorities' response in some of those places has looked a lot like the adult equivalent of schoolyard bullying.

A resident of Turkmenabat who is familiar with the situation told RFE/RL earlier this month that several ethnic Russian parents in the surrounding Lebap Province had complained, only to be summoned by the police and security services.

"The parents were threatened that if they didn't stop complaining, they would be accused of alcoholism and sent away to a rehabilitation facility for a month," the man told RFE/RL.

Limited Options, Now And Forever?

Officials in this tightly controlled Central Asian country of around 6 million residents haven't reported a single infection since the coronavirus pandemic that has now infected nearly 41 million people worldwide began early this year.

Still, they said, it was impossible to ensure physical distancing in packed Russian-language classes where up to 50 students were crowded into a room.

They called it a necessary step to safeguard health and sanitary standards amid the COVID-19 threat, particularly after a new Education Ministry requirement limited each classroom to 15 students at a time.

Education officials declined to say whether they had considered providing additional classrooms instead of closing the classes. They also wouldn't say whether they planned to reopen those same lessons in the future.

Many parents see it as an opportunity for their children to better compete for education at home or at universities in Russia or other former Soviet countries, and maybe eventually get jobs abroad.
Many parents see it as an opportunity for their children to better compete for education at home or at universities in Russia or other former Soviet countries, and maybe eventually get jobs abroad.

Reliable education figures are difficult to obtain in Turkmenistan.

But the "distancing" decision affected children entering school for the first time, as well as others who had been receiving education in Russian for years.

Meanwhile, an order for ethnic Turkmen employees of law enforcement agencies to transfer their children to Turkmen-language schools has contributed to a further downsizing of classes being offered in Russian.

Popular Choice

Although Turkmenistan's ethnic Russian population has dwindled significantly since the early 1990s, Russian remains a popular choice for school education for many people, including ethnic Turkmen.

Many parents see it as an opportunity for their children to better compete for education at home or at universities in Russia or other former Soviet countries, and maybe eventually get jobs abroad.

Poverty, unemployment, and corruption are rampant in Turkmenistan, exacerbating already limited access to many of the most desirable schools or careers.

Russian-language instruction is highly regarded in many quarters.

Ashgabat residents with knowledge of such cases have told RFE/RL of instances in which police employees quit their jobs to avoid having to put their children into Turkmen schools to comply with the recent order.

Other parents working in the police force registered grandparents as legal guardians of their children, others said.

Russian schools and classes are particularly common in major cities, where ethnic Russians and other Russian-speakers were concentrated during Soviet times.

In Ashgabat, the decision to suspend Russian-language classes affected School No. 64, which had about 1,500 students being educated in Russian. They included many children from the city's outskirts who were ordered by the authorities to study at Turkmen-language schools in their own neighborhoods.
In the northeast Lebap Province, the authorities suspended all classes in Russian amid fears that they may never reopen.

In the southeastern city of Mary, parents told RFE/RL that they were presented with the choice of either transferring their children to Turkmen schools or sending them to the remaining Russian-language classes in different parts of the city.

One parent said the potential cost of "traveling back and forth to school in minibuses or taxis every day" forced them to opt for Turkmen schools in their own neighborhoods.

Russian Reaction

The initial announcement on August 30 led to a rare protest at Ashgabat's School No. 64, where angry parents demanded that the authorities keep the Russian-language classes open.

Furious at just 48 hours' notice to find other schools for their children, many parents tried to break into the school administration's office, eyewitnesses said at the time. The gathering was broken up by the police.

In September, the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat asked the Turkmen government for "clarification."

Russia's Foreign Ministry said it had sent a note to Ashgabat "with a request to clarify the situation in order to restore Russian-speaking classes." The ministry also cited unspecified "appeals" to Russian authorities and "public concerns about the situation."

Russian media, meanwhile, have been quick to condemn Ashgabat's move with headlines warning that Turkmenistan was "getting rid of Russian language" or waging a "war against the Russian language" that threatened to return Turkmenistan to "the Middle Ages."

The Turkmen Education Ministry, however, suggested that the reports about the closures were overblown. The ministry said there was "no reason to worry," as Turkmenistan had no intention of squeezing out Russian-language education.

Turkmen state media claimed that "most of the native people in Turkmenistan are fluent in Russian," calling it "the language of interethnic communication in the vast post-Soviet space, including Turkmenistan."

In the early 2000s, the ethnic Russian population in Turkmenistan numbered nearly 300,000, or around 4 percent of the population. That number is now estimated at under 100,000, most of whom live in Ashgabat.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat, Mary, and Turkmenabat
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.