They threaten to become a new class of refuseniks. They are students in Turkmenistan seeking to study at foreign universities and technical schools who are not being allowed to leave by Turkmen authorities.
According to one estimate, the number of young scholars now caught in educational limbo is approaching 1,500. The problem surfaced in late July. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Since then, despite quiet US diplomatic intervention, Turkmen authorities have refused to relent. At the same time, authorities have declined to state reasons for their actions, or establish clear guidelines that students can follow in order to obtain required permission to leave the country.
Thousands of Turkmen citizens are enrolled in higher education institutions throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union. A significant number have been allowed to leave. It appears that mainly those who are registered at private universities in former Soviet states are being prevented from departing Turkmenistan.
The chief source of confusion is a recently adopted government requirement that requires students to obtain permission from several state agencies in order to study abroad. Many students have yet to hear whether they will receive the stamps needed to leave. However, several dozen students slated to attend American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek and the Kazakhstan Institute for Management, Economics and Strategic Research in Almaty have received outright refusals. Some students who attempted to get on flights at Ashgabat airport were barred from doing so by border personnel.
While it seems that AUCA is on a Turkmen blacklist, officials in Ashgabat are granting the necessary permissions to students intending to study at American University in Bulgaria. A handful of Turkmen students who hold Russian passports have also managed to get out.
In another indicator of the capriciousness of Turkmen officials, students hoping to attend state-run universities in Kyrgyzstan were denied permissions in late July, but now apparently are receiving stamps.
Farid Tukhbatullin, a Turkmen civil society activist who lives in exile in Austria, estimated that between 1,300 and 1,500 study-abroad students are presently getting the bureaucratic run-around.
Tukhbatullin, who now heads the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, indicated that the muddled policy in Ashgabat may be connected with a lack of preparedness on the part of officials. When President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov expressed a desire back in 2007 to promote educational reforms, Tukhbatullin explained, authorities were unprepared for the surge of young people interested in finding new educational possibilities.
Given the severe decay of Turkmenistan's own educational infrastructure due to years of neglect under former Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, "many young people . . . explored opportunities to get a good education abroad," Tukhbatullin said. The exodus is making authorities feel uncomfortable, in part because it means surrendering a high degree of control over what students learn.
Tukhbatullin also suggested corruption may be a factor. He said that in recent years, limited educational opportunities in Turkmenistan meant that the families of some aspiring students would pay as much as $15,000 to $20,000 in bribes to secure a scarce spot at a Turkmen university. The rapid rise in the number of students going abroad to study may be negatively impacting existing arrangements. "For a lot less, it's possible to get an education abroad," Tukhbatullin noted.
"One of the reasons [for the current trouble] is related to corruption," he said. "It is also a matter of government control."