Turkmenistan's leader Saparmurat Niyazov recently proclaimed that his nation enjoyed "good relations" with neighboring Uzbekistan, less than six months after the Uzbek ambassador to Ashgabat was implicated in an assassination attempt against the president. However, for ethnic Turkmen in Uzbekistan, conditions continue to deteriorate. The "Uzbekization" of schools has dramatically reduced higher educational opportunities for Turkmen in Uzbekistan.
Turkmen-Uzbek ties, never especially cordial in the post-Soviet era, reached their tensest point in late 2002, in the aftermath of the failed plot to kill Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Niyazov later accused Uzbekistan's envoy in Ashgabat, Abdurashid Kadyrov, of assisting a leader of the alleged conspiracy, Boris Shikhmuradov. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In subsequent months, Turkmen authorities forcibly relocated ethnic Uzbeks living near the country's long border with Uzbekistan.
During at a ceremony marking the opening of a gas-production facility, Niyazov signaled that his hostility toward Uzbekistan had abated. "We have good relations with our neighbors: Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran," Niyazov said in comments broadcast by Turkmen television on May 13.
Despite the thaw on an official level, ethnic minorities in both countries, especially in the educational sphere, continue to face difficulties. Such problems predate the recent Turkmen-Uzbek tension. However, current negative trends appear to be accelerating in both countries, hastened by both a funding crunch and government policy.
Meanwhile, the estimated 800,000 ethnic Turkmen in Uzbekistan have experienced similar hardships. Conditions for Turkmen in the village of Chandir, in the Uzbek province of Qashkadarya, help illustrate the problems. Turkmen comprise an overall majority in Chandir, but have long had problems obtaining Turkmen-language instruction.
During the early years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmen-language schools in Uzbekistan experienced a shortage of supplies, especially textbooks, which were produced in Turkmenistan. Difficulties grew worse over time, as Turkmenistan stopped delivering educational materials in the late 1990s. Eventually, an Uzbek government decree ordered the conversion of all Turkmen-language schools to Uzbek-language. Now ethnic Turkmen students receive one hour of Turkmen-language instruction per week. At the same time, the low quality of instruction in many schools attended by ethnic Turkmen leaves them with only limited Uzbek-language abilities.
An official at the state Ukituvchi Publishing House, which specializes in the publication of school books, asserted that it produced 23 foreign-language texts in 2002, but added that most were in Tajik and Kazakh. The official explained the publishing house was reluctant to publish more foreign-language titles because of both high production costs and the low rate of return. In addition, he indicated that the Ministry of Education had input in to "what is, and is not published."
The supply shortages and government decisions have left ethnic Turkmen pupils with poor command of their titular language, Chandir residents say. "What I can witness nowadays is that our children are forgetting their language and their customs," one distraught ethnic Turkmen parent said.
To a certain extent, the Soviet collapse and the consequent economic chaos meant that an educational crisis was unavoidable. But Turkmen-Uzbekistan tension has exacerbated the problems. For example, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have stopped recognizing each other's diplomas. This virtually eliminates the ability of ethic Turkmen in Uzbekistan from studying at a higher educational institution in Turkmenistan, and vice versa. As a result, ethnic Turkmen in Uzbekistan stand little chance of receiving a higher education, as many lack sufficient command of Uzbek and/or Russian to gain admission to Uzbek universities.
The few Turkmen who have gained admission to higher educational institutions in Uzbekistan say surmounting the language barrier was the most difficult aspect of the admissions process. "Entering the Qarshi University was quite a job," says Sherzod Tuymuradov, second year student. "I had to pay a private Uzbek language instructor for a year because I had finished a Turkmen-language school."
A few activists are striving to protect the Turkmen language and culture. In Qashkadarya, there have been several attempts to establish a Turkmen cultural center in the province, but local authorities have rebuffed each effort.
Kamol Kholmuradov is a freelance journalist based in Uzbekistan.