Earlier in September, the Peace Corps announced it would withdraw from Turkmenistan. Few were surprised at the news, which follows the sudden suspensions of programs in Uzbekistan in 2005 (following US criticism of the Andijan massacre) and in Kazakhstan last year.
In our original coverage of the Turkmenistan announcement, we said the Peace Corps had been “kicked out” of Kazakhstan.
A State Department spokesperson disputed our characterization, calling on EurasiaNet.org to substantiate the claim. Technically, the State Department representative is right – we can’t produce conclusive evidence the program was “kicked out” of Kazakhstan. But the known circumstances surrounding the abrupt cessation of Peace Corps’ activities in Kazakhstan in November 2011 raise plenty of questions that officials don’t seem eager to answer.
When we queried the State Department representative for additional details about the Kazakhstan closure, she mentioned “operational considerations” and suggested we talk to a Peace Corps official. We duly tried, specifically asking the Peace Corps to shed light on those “operational considerations.” A representative in Washington referred us back to the vague, original press release, and declined to answer questions.
With officials not willing to talk, we sought out Peace Corps volunteers, seeking to gain an on-the-ground perspective. One volunteer who was pulled out of Kazakhstan believes Astana gave the Peace Corps a choice with only one viable option. “While the decision was ultimately the Americans', it seems the hand was forced” by Astana, the erstwhile Peace Corps volunteer said. The former volunteer likened the American withdrawal to “one of those asked-to-resign situations.”
There were good reasons to leave, to be sure: Kazakhstan had become a dangerous operating environment for volunteers. Prior to the withdrawal, Peace Corps officials had warned volunteers in the Central Asian nation that they faced the highest assault rate among program volunteers around the world, according to the former volunteer. His group calculated one sexual assault per month among the 117 volunteers in the preceding five months. There were also instances of sometimes-violent harassment of male volunteers.
By late 2011, Kazakhstani authorities were clearly not supporters of the program, and sometimes employed the country’s security services to hassle volunteers: “Volunteers had stories of KNB members sitting through classes and clubs; snooping through one volunteer's apartment in Astana; and pressuring Akmola/Ust-Kamenogorsk Oblast school officials to close off their schools to volunteers,” said the returned volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid “burning any DC bridges.”
Peace Corps officials also told volunteers they were worried about a series of bombings around the country that authorities had linked to Islamic militants. Publicly, though, the Peace Corps officials said at the time that the program was getting too expensive, offering tacit endorsement of Astana’s claim that Kazakhstan is no longer a developing nation.
We concede that, technically, we have no proof Peace Corps was “kicked out.” Sorry. Yet until the US government sheds more light on the circumstances surrounding the abrupt withdrawal from Kazakhstan, the available evidence indicates that the Peace Corps’ swift departure from Kazakhstan was something less than voluntary.