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Turkmenistan Squeezes Students Abroad, Pressuring Them To Return Home


People wait outside a Western Union branch in Turkmenistan. Money transfers abroad in the Central Asian country of some 5.8 million are primarily carried out by Western Union shops located inside official bank premises, which operate under strict government control. (file photo)

DASHOGUZ, Turkmenistan -- A crowd of people lining up at the foreign-transfer desk is a familiar scene at Dashoguz’s state-run Senagat Bank, one of the few places locals can use to send money to their relatives abroad.

"The bank is making it increasingly difficult for us to send money to our children studying abroad," says a woman waiting in line. "It deliberately delays the process using all kinds of pretexts, sending us back to provide more and more documents."

The woman -- who asks to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from state officials -- says it takes several trips to banks to finally meet the endless new requirements and transfer money to her daughter, who is studying in Russia.

The documents required for a bank transfer include a “confirmation-of-study” letter from the foreign university and proof of an "adequate" income from the parents’ place(s) of employment.

The families are not allowed to send their children more than $200 a month, a limit introduced by the authoritarian government in Turkmenistan, which strictly controls all aspects of people's lives.

Money transfers abroad in the Central Asian country of some 5.8 million are primarily carried out by Western Union shops located inside official bank premises, which operate under strict government control.

Hundreds of Turkmen, including students and those who have gone abroad for medical treatment, have been stranded in foreign countries as international flights were canceled and the borders closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Amid the pandemic, the government raised the money-transfer limit to $500 for those citizens who are stuck abroad. But the increase doesn’t apply to students, except for a few unspecified “exceptions,” according to state media.

The closure of many businesses across the world due to the pandemic caused the majority of Turkmen students abroad to lose the jobs many of them had to pay their rent, food, and other bills, along with – in many cases -- the money they got from home. Most of the jobs used to earn extra cash included waiting tables, cleaning, or babysitting.

“Our children are stuck in Russia with no money even for the most basic things, because there are so many artificial obstacles preventing us from sending them enough money in time,” says a man waiting in line at the Senagat Bank.

Clients say heated arguments often break out between bank workers and clients frustrated over "endless requirement and delays."

Several clients told RFE/RL correspondents that similar problems exist at the Turkmenbashi Bank in Dashoguz, a city of some 200,000 people.

Some people noted that the situation was much better in the city’s branch of the Turkmen-Turkish commercial bank, which doesn’t ask for any additional documents beyond the existing list of required papers.

RFE/RL has tried to contact Senagat Bank, Turkmenbashi Bank, and government officials in Dashoguz and the capital, Ashgabat, but was unable to get a comment from anyone. (file photo)
RFE/RL has tried to contact Senagat Bank, Turkmenbashi Bank, and government officials in Dashoguz and the capital, Ashgabat, but was unable to get a comment from anyone. (file photo)

RFE/RL tried to contact Senagat Bank, Turkmenbashi Bank, and government officials in Dashoguz and the capital, Ashgabat, but has been unable to get a comment from anyone.

Correspondents have reported similar issues existing for people trying to transfer money in other parts of the country as well.

Double-Edged Sword

In Ashgabat, some parents were told that their children studying abroad can write a letter to Turkmen embassies and ask for financial help.

That, however, would effectively end their studies abroad once the students return home for a holiday, the authorities have warned.

“A letter I got [from the Foreign Ministry] said the students should write to the embassy saying they need financial assistance, but at the same time the letter warned that anyone who applies for such assistance won’t be allowed to go back to the foreign country once they come home for a holiday,” an Ashgabat resident told RFE/RL.

The man said he was among many people who asked the Foreign Ministry and State Migration Agency to allow them to transfer $500 via Western Union to their children abroad after the pandemic began.

“The officials say, 'If the parents don’t have enough money, then why did they send their children to study abroad?” the man told RFE/RL.

The Ashgabat resident said he was extremely angered by the situation: unable to send the money he has, which is adequate to support his son, while at the same time being accused of not being able to afford his son’s studies.

RFE/RL has contacted several Turkmen embassies for comment but did not receive any responses.

It remains unclear if the restrictions and the alleged “deliberate” delays and impediments on sending money to Turkmen students abroad is aimed at pressuring students to return home or is caused by the country’s ongoing financial crisis -- or if it's a case of both.

No Money, Not Even 'For Bread'

Turkmen students abroad can also use debit cards from Turkmen banks, but a strict limit has also been put on their cards.

Several students told RFE/RL that even if they have enough money in their bank accounts in Turkmenistan, the cards “freeze” after they withdraw a small amount of cash from ATMs or use the cards to purchase something while abroad.

RFE/RL has received comments from Turkmen students struggling with financial hardship in Russia, Kazakhstan, and other Central Asian countries, where there are many thousands of students studying.

“I don’t have any money left to pay the rent or even to just buy bread,” one Turkmen student in Kazakhstan said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"My parents -- in Turkmenistan’s Mary Province -- go to different banks every day, stand in lines trying to send me money," the student says. "I’ve sent them all the documents and letters the banks required, but the banks still refuse to transfer the money."

Meanwhile, several Ashgabat residents claim there is not a $200 limit for the wealthy and the well-connected, such as government officials who want to send money to their relatives abroad.

RFE/RL cannot independently confirm the claim, but corruption and nepotism are widespread in Turkmenistan, which has been under the despotic rule of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov since 2006.

In Freedom House's 2019 Global Freedom rankings, Turkmenistan was ranked 207 out of 210 countries and territories that were graded.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents
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