For Turkmenistani students, one of the worst legacies of the Soviet era is their forced and uncompensated annual participation in the cotton harvest. It is not unusual for students at the secondary and higher education levels spend weeks working in fields, rather than studying in classrooms. After decades of this practice, Niyazov made a surprise announcement in May that he would put an end to the use of child labor at harvest time.
Speaking at the third congress of the Turkmen Youth Association, Niyazov said: "From now on let us not rely on schoolchildren to cultivate and pick cotton, as happened before, during the Soviet period." Given Niyazov's mercurial reputation, political analysts are unsure whether Niyazov will actually follow through on these assurances. The start of the school year offers an opportunity for Niyazov to either confirm or disavow the pledge.
The initial signals September 1 did not seem promising for students. In the Dahoguz Region, for instance, there were reports that teachers and school administrative staff would be dispatched on September 15 to pick cotton. A skeleton staff would be left behind to teach grade-schoolers in shifts, with as many as 100 students per classroom.
"I have no doubt that upper-classmen will be deployed to the cotton harvest," admitted one urban teacher in Dahoguz. "There has been no information about that yet, but the principal already told the parents of fourth-graders that after the upper-classmen are sent to the cotton fields, the fourth- and fifth-graders will study in the first shift." Other reports indicated that students in rural regions would be dispatched to the fields in mid September, and would likely not return to their classrooms until late November at the earliest.
If Niyazov opts to keep students in school, the decision could have potentially far-reaching ramifications not only for Turkmenistan but also for neighboring Central Asian countries. Other cotton-growing states, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in particular, also have traditionally mobilized students to help with the labor-intensive harvest. The abandonment of the practice by Turkmenistan could put pressure on those states in the region to follow Niyazov's example.
In addition to the child labor issue, Niyazov has signaled a desire to crack down on corruption. During a July 12 cabinet session, Niyazov railed against the corrupt practices throughout the higher education system. "I am informed about ongoing bribery at Turkmen State University," Niyazov said. "Bribery also exists in a number of other higher education institutions. It is not difficult to know about that in Turkmenistan."
Even if students no longer have to pick cotton, or have to pay bribes in order to gain opportunity, educational prospects in Turkmenistan appear to become bleaker by the year. Since 1993, the education system has been governed by a rigid program, called Bilim in Turkmen, that emphasizes political loyalty to Niyazov's regime over independent inquiry in the liberal arts and sciences.
Since 1993, the government has closed the nation's Academy of Sciences. Officials have also cut the normal length of university study from four years to two. Enrollment at higher educational institutions has plummeted from roughly 40,000 to an estimated 3,500. Conditions in primary and secondary education are not any better. Compulsory education in Turkmenistan is now limited to only nine years. According to the independent Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative, the state has fired as many as 12,000 teachers over the past two years.
A pro-government web site Turkmenistan: the Golden Age posted a commentary in May that encapsulated the country's educational philosophy. Schools should emphasize "the revival of native traditions" and promote "a return to the natural spiritual values." As a result, the educational system must abandon "several educational and scientific directions and subjects of minor importance." As a result, the teaching of algebra, physics and physical education has virtually ceased in Turkmenistan. The article added that the chief task of the educational system is "to play a key role in the national economic and social development of the state."
Niyazov continues to take steps designed to ensure that Turkmen statehood is identified with his own personal authority. Accordingly, Niyazov's spiritual guide, the Ruhnama (or Book of the Soul), serves as the chief textbook for students at all levels. The Ruhnama's influence extends far beyond the education system per se, as, for example, all Turkmen citizens seeking a driver's license must now take a 16-hour course on Niyazov's tract, the Neytralny Turkmenistan newspaper reported August 2.
Students will soon be studying a second volume of the Ruhnama, due to be distributed this month, along with a book of poetry allegedly penned by Niyazov. "I'd like to make the Ruhnama consist of two volumes.