As US seeks closer ties with Turkmenistan, government cracks down on students

Turkmenistan has prevented dozens of students from travelling abroad to study at a US-sponsored university, and has harassed some that have come home.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The United States has in recent months sought to improve relations with Turkmenistan, the secretive former Soviet possession that is home to rich oil and gas deposits and straddles a strategically vital central Asian location, sharing borders with both Iran and Afghanistan.

But those efforts are being complicated by a government campaign against students seeking to study at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), located in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Some students have been barred from travelling abroad to the school and others have been subject to surveillance and harassment when they come home.

"What do you study, how do they teach you, and why do you study it?," are some of the routine questions that one student from Turkmenistan, who asked not to be identified to protect herself, is peppered with by Turkmen KBG officers every time she returns home from the AUCA in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

She has been fortunate enough to make it back to campus. More than 100 of her Turkmen peers enrolled at the Bishkek-based institution are still trapped in their home country, denied permission to travel abroad.

The US State Department has recently taken up these students cases, but is coming up against a wall of post-Soviet intransigence.

Problems for hundreds of Turkmen students who were studying at private universities abroad began in July. Many were ordered off their flights, by government officials, and ordered to obtain new documents. Today, only AUCA students remain banned from travel.

After weeks of quiet diplomacy by the US Embassy in Ashgabat, which helps to coordinate student scholarship programs, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue in talks with Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in New York in September.

According to embassy officials, President Berdimuhamedov agreed to allow AUCA students to transfer to the American University in Bulgaria. But on Oct. 2 a group attempting to fly to Sofia were stopped at the airport.

US dismay

"We are dismayed by the Government of Turkmenistan's continued denial of freedom of movement," the American Embassy said in a statement.

Travel restrictions have also been working in the other direction: Recently, a contingent of 47 Peace Corps volunteers were prevented from entering Turkmenistan. US officials say privately that this incident is related to American efforts to assist the students.

The Turkmen government did not respond to requests for comment.

After independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan became an authoritarian republic under the autocratic leadership of President Saparmurat Niyazov.

When President Berdimuhamedov came to power in 2007 he promised to embark on a program of reform, including improvements to the education system.

Yet Turkmen higher education still suffers from acute corruption and limited size. Some 75,000 high school graduates a year are left fighting, sometimes with bribes, for one of fewer than 5,000 domestic university spots.

Young Turkmens have traditionally been free to study abroad, including at nearby AUCA. Though it has been substantially funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and George Soros' Open Society Institute, the university is independently governed. In a region of academic mediocrity, it offers quality liberal arts degrees.

But observers say that the Ashgabat regime has become wary of US educational outreach, seeing it as an effort to slip US-style democracy through the back door as politically engaged students return home.

The high-level talks between Clinton and Berdimuhamedov reflected a genuine US effort to lift the ban, but Farid Tukhbatullin of the Turkmen Human Rights Initiative says Washington has underplayed his country's repressive tendencies.

"If you take the fact that a State department official recently said human rights in Turkmenistan wasn't as bad as in other countries of Central Asia, it indicates they either have very little information or are playing to the Turkmen authorities."

Turkmenistan's major hydrocarbon reserves and its agreement to assist with NATO's Afghan northern supply route have helped mute US criticism of the regime, though American officials say they will continue to raise human rights concerns.

In Bishkek, a number of students who were already abroad when the Turkmen authorities imposed the travel ban fear their families could become targets. Punitive steps have already been taken. Some parents have lost their government jobs while AUCA alumni say they have been denied employment opportunities.

In a Bishkek coffee house, one student spoke of his ambitions for the future. "I want to go back and change things, but not in the revolutionary sense. I just want to start my own business. But anyone with an original idea faces either corruption or imprisonment."

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