Un-American Activities in Turkmenistan

The closure of an American-funded English teaching programme in Turkmenistan has blocked up another window onto the outside world.

The Hello America! course had run for the past five years, supported by the US embassy in Ashgabat, but it did not resume when the academic year started in September. The émigré news site Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that it was closed on the government’s orders.

In August, the American embassy announced the end of Peace Corps programmes in the country, after 20 years of work. In March, six Peace Corps volunteers had to leave the country after the authorities refused to extend their visas.

The authorities clearly view any presence of foreigners as subversive, even if they are just teaching people English.

“All volunteers from overseas are potential spies who might upset the life of calm led by people in Turkmenistan,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Elena Myatieva, a journalist from Turkmenistan now living in The Netherlands, recalled how students were prevented from leaving the country in 2009 to resume classes at the American University in Central Asia, based in Kyrgyzstan. This too, she says, was intended to shield young people from “destructive foreign influences”.

“By obstructing American educational programmes, the authorities are trying to prevent social, civic, public and political activism,” she added.

One US educational programme that still continues, called FLEX, offers high school pupils a chance to live and study in America for a year.

Educationalists in Turkmenistan say the authorities have done their best to deter applicants, from banning publicity about it in the state-controlled media to pressuring those who do take part.

As a result, a teacher in the eastern city of Turkmenabat said, “We used to get 500 or more pupils taking part in the first round of the competition [for FLEX places], but this year only 120 turned up.”

Commenting on the programme, a Turkmen education ministry said pupils came back from the US “so independent, free-thinking and aware of their rights that it’s no longer possible to control them”.

This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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