Two presidential visits made for a tumultuous day at Columbia University in New York. One of the guests, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, used his appearance to promote a reformist image. The other, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, withstood a fierce political attack by the university's president, Lee Bollinger.
In what was Berdymukhamedov's debut before an American audience, he gave a policy speech September 24 that outlined his plans for educational reform in Turkmenistan. "The development of education takes precedence over other aspects of my policies," he said. "Let me tell you frankly that the atmosphere today in Turkmenistan is just incredible. Our children feel such a strong and intense yearning for knowledge that we just can't fail and let them down."
There is perhaps nowhere to go but up for Turkmenistan's educational system, which suffered from years of neglect under the country's previous ruler, the despotic Saparmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Niyazov, for example, reduced compulsory education to only nine years. After taking over after Niyazov's sudden death in late 2006, Berdymukhamedov extended compulsory education to 10 years, but it cannot be independently verified that the edict has been implemented nationwide.
During the speech, given before a select audience, Berdymukhamedov read from the text and never looked up. He also did not stray from the prepared text, and as he spoke, a power-point presentation flashed behind him, highlighting key words and featuring pictures of the capital Ashgabat and of content-looking citizens.
The Turkmen president, a doctor by training, performed rhetorical ballet, promising changes that would foster civil society, while explicitly declining to take action to dismantle Niyazov's far-reaching cult of personality.
"My reform program is comprehensive by nature and includes continued transformation and modernization of the economy and improved state institutions and public life, including the process of further democratization in society. Our main goal today is to guarantee equal rights and law enforcement," he said.
In his prepared remarks, Berdymukhamedov did not mention Niyazov by name, but during the subsequent question-and-answer period, the president offered a stout defense of his predecessor's policies. He indicated, for example, that the Ruhnama, or spiritual guide for living that was supposedly penned by Niyazov, would remain an integral part of Turkmenistan's school curriculum, and that familiarity with the Ruhnama's contents was an essential requirement for government service. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Niyazov was "an integral part of who we are, our history and culture," Berdymukhamedov said flatly. Turkmen officials would be "paying a lot of attention to the Ruhnama. It is a critical text," Berdymukhamedov added. The book will continue to be a "mandatory read in all educational institutions -- from kindergarten through college. Why? Because it contains a lot of wisdom related to our heritage."
Appearing to justify the authoritarian model of government, Berdymukhamedov emphasized that Turkmen officials provided basic commodities and services -- including natural gas, electricity, water and salt -- to citizens either free of charge, or at a heavily subsidized rates. "We have not left a single person in need without a pension or benefits in our country today," Berdymukhamedov said.
While seeming relaxed and confident in interacting with the audience, Berdymukhamedov exhibited an authoritarian streak when he declined to respond to several queries concerning topics that he evidently did not want to discuss. "When he didn't want to deal with a question he just ignored it and talked about what he wanted," said one attendee. "For example, he was asked about freedom of the press in Turkmenistan. He insisted there had never been any problems like this in Turkmenistan, and then he started talking about economic courses at Turkmen universities."
When pressed to say whether several top officials -- including former parliament speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, who disappeared from view shortly after the announcement of Niyazov's death -- were still alive, Berdymukhamedov reacted dismissively. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Regarding your inquiry whether those particular prisoners are alive, I've already told you I am still a young new president. I am not involved with these issues. I am busy with the well-being of our nation, but I am positive they are alive."
While in New York, Berdymukhamedov will give a speech September 26 to the United Nations General Assembly. He also is expected to meet with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad's appearance sparked protests outside the venue, and controversy within. Before the Iranian leader gave his speech, Bollinger assailed Ahmadinejad for his repeated denials of the Holocaust, the Iranian government's sponsorship of terrorism and the country's nuclear program. The Columbia president also attacked Ahmadinejad on a personal level, calling him a "petty and cruel dictator," and suggesting that he was either "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."
Ahmadinejad clearly looked uncomfortable during Bollinger's remarks, but his response was restrained. "In Iran, tradition requires when you invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students enough to allow them to make their own judgment, and don't think it's necessary before the speech is even given to come in with a series of complaints to provide vaccination to the students and faculty" Ahmadinejad told the Columbia president
The Iranian leader's speech itself contained little new material. He repeated oft-stated claims that Iran was not seeking to build and atomic weapon, but merely sought to develop nuclear power for civilian uses. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He also decried the "oppression" of Palestinians. At one point, the Iranian president denied the existence of homosexuals in Iran, eliciting derisive laughter from the audience.
Bollinger and the university last week came under heavy criticism for the decision to invite Ahmadinejad to speak at the university. To many in the audience, the university president's verbal ambush appeared designed more to shield himself from further attacks than to advance any civil society agenda.
"If you invite someone to engage in open dialogue, the way you begin is not by insulting him," said Caitlin Welsh, a first-year graduate student in the audience.
Some other students characterized Bollinger's comments as counter-productive in terms of trying to foster change in Iran. Instead of scoring points on behalf of democracy, Bollinger may have inadvertently handed Ahmadinejad another feather to stick in his cap.
"The biggest irony of today is that, with all the hype surrounding Ahmadinejad's visit, I expected him to be a raging polemicist screaming into the microphone," said Jacqueline Carpenter, a second-year graduate student at Columbia. "Instead, thanks to the misplaced self-righteousness of Bollinger and the university, we came out looking like the [polemicists] and Ahmadinejad [seemed] like the reasonable one."
Deidre Tynan is a freelance journalist specializing in Central Asia. David Trilling is a freelance photojournalist working in Central Asia and the Caucasus.