Soon after assuming power in late 2006, Turkmenistan's leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov sent signals that education would be one of his top policy priorities. But over the past few days, Berdymukhamedov's status as Turkmenistan's "education president" has taken a hit, as authorities in Ashgabat have been hindering students from departing the country to begin their studies at foreign universities.
Many of the young scholars not being permitted to leave appear to be participants in study-abroad programs in Central Asia. The students encountering the most difficulty are those bound for private institutions of higher learning, including American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and the Kazakhstan Institute for Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP) in Almaty.
The trouble reportedly started in mid-July when the Turkmen Ministry of Education announced that students wishing to study abroad needed special permission to depart. The new departure requirement was supposed to go into effect on August 1. But some foreign education experts who are monitoring developments say AUCA-bound students have already been prevented from getting on planes in Ashgabat, due to a lack of required documentation.
Turkmen education officials in recent days have issued repeated clarifications concerning who needs special permission to study abroad. Originally it appeared that only students headed for Kyrgyzstan would be impacted by the change. But subsequently Ashgabat announced that any student going abroad would need special permission.
Dozens of aspiring scholars now find themselves caught in a bureaucratic maze as they scramble to get out of Turkmenistan before the academic year begins. Students are reportedly being required to obtain two stamps -- one from the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the other from the State Migration Service -- before they can depart. In a classic bit of Soviet-style chicanery, Migration Service officials supposedly are telling students that they first need to get the stamp from the NIE. NIE bureaucrats, meanwhile, are telling students that only those going to study at state-funded universities, not private institutions, are eligible for a stamp. Some students are being told that the Ministry of Education can provide a needed stamp, but no one has yet secured one from the ministry.
Students headed abroad under two specific programs -- the US Central Asia Education Foundation (CAEF) and the Turkmenistan AUCA Scholars Program (TASP) -- have been especially hard hit by the new Turkmen government requirements. Both CAEF and TASP are administered by the American Councils for International Education. CAEF is supported by a variety of American government agencies, including the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. It provides support to qualifying Central Asian students for four years of study in business administration at either AUCA or TIMEP. The TASP Program offers scholarships for Turkmen students to attend AUCA.
Over the past decade, Turkmenistan has a troubling track record when it comes to education. Educational standards in Turkmenistan plummeted during the tenure of the country's deceased former dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. During his first visit to the United States as Turkmenistan's leader in September, 2007, Berdymukhamedov took steps to repair the damage done by his predecessor. Most notably, he expressed a desire to cooperate with Columbia University in New York on working out ways to lift his country's educational standards. Periodic contacts between Turkmen officials and Columbia University representatives have occurred since then, the most recent coming in January of this year. However, educational reform has been slow in developing. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The study-abroad flap suggests that Berdymukhamedov may be souring on the idea of opening up Turkmenistan's education system. Whether or not the US State Department complains -- and how much -- will be closely watched by regional political experts. Ashgabat has sent signals in recent weeks that it is increasingly interested in joining a pipeline network that would circumvent Russia, and thus dramatically reduce the Kremlin's influence in the Caspian Basin energy development game. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. American officials may be reluctant to do or say anything that might annoy Ashgabat, and therefore diminish the desire of Turkmen leaders to develop an energy partnership with the United States and European Union.