As a young Turkmen woman who was deeply influenced by interaction with Peace Corps volunteers in the 1990s, I was filled with a wide spectrum of emotions upon hearing about the Peace Corps’ departure from Turkmenistan.
Everyone who followed developments in the country suspected that the Peace Corps’ days there were numbered. To some, it was strange that the government of Turkmenistan dragged it out for so long. Even so, the late August announcement was sobering.
Reflecting on the Peace Corps’ legacy in Turkmenistan, some questions popped into my head: How effective was it in promoting democratization? How great a loss is its departure for the Turkmen people? How much did and could it achieve in the country where no decisions can be made without the government’s approval? And I’d really like to know how the US Embassy would substantiate its claim, as stated on its web announcement, that the Peace Corps’ programs “have been extraordinarily successful in terms of achieving its development and cultural exchange goals.”
I can’t say I have answers to these questions, but I do have impressions: my Peace Corp volunteer friends always encouraged me to think critically and question cultural assumptions.
The last time I visited the Peace Corps office in Ashgabat was in 2010, and I was shocked to find that the way it operated had changed. It was not the office I remembered and was fond of. It was an office with half of the volunteers gone, surrounded by a big security wall, where I had to declare my name and intentions before I could enter.
The atmosphere in the office was not welcoming, and the diverse staff of the '90s was long gone. Just a few staff remained, and those that I met with were neither confident nor able to make any decisions independently. The observed changes did not help foster the organizational mission of “helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” When I described my visit to others, many thought the Peace Corps had left Turkmenistan long ago.
My ambivalence about today’s Peace Corps presence in Turkmenistan will surely anger many former volunteers, including my friends. But if lessons about the closure are to be learned, it’s worth trying to pinpoint when the Peace Corps stopped being a welcoming office with efficient programs that made a difference in the community? When did it start stagnating?
On a personal level, there may be a lot of young people who can talk about their wonderful Peace Corps friends and encounters with friendly and charming Americans. Yet, on a programmatic level, it would seem that the Peace Corps’ decline was not sudden. In the 2000s, there was already much talk among locals that the quality of volunteers was deteriorating—meaning that their educational level, behavior and cultural sensitivity were not appropriate for the country.
My disappointment cannot override my wonderful memories. I will always cherish my friendships with volunteers I got to know. I will always remember the office where I could simply stop by—no security check needed—and hang out with volunteers, discussing the latest political developments, debating cultural issues, borrowing dangerous books like “The Catcher in the Rye,” and learning what Big Brother means. I will always remember an honest, dynamic and vibrant Peace Corps in Turkmenistan before it internalized the stagnant culture of the host country, became inefficient, and worst of all, turned a blind eye to oppressive practices it encountered day in and day out.
The last hours of the Peace Corps and its negotiations with the government will remain a mystery for most of us, probably forever -- or at least until Wikileaks provides us with diplomatic cables on the topic. I just wish that the Peace Corps had “died” with more dignity, speaking out against the stifling realities in the country, rather than going quietly to its grave.
Guljemal is a pseudonym for the writer, a Turkmen citizen.