Foreign Study Provides Escape for Turkmen Students

Foreign Study Provides Escape for Turkmen Students

Studying abroad offers an escape from the conformity of life in Turkmenistan. (Photo: IWPR)
Studying abroad offers an escape from the conformity of life in Turkmenistan. (Photo: IWPR)

Thousands of students from Turkmenistan travel overseas to study each year, but an increasing number are choosing not to return home after getting a taste of freedom abroad.

Students give a range of reasons for not returning to Turkmenistan, including widespread corruption in the country, the lack of job opportunities, and the desire to avoid harassment by the authorities.

Turkmenistan is a one-party police state with no independent media. The security service is omnipresent, tapping phones, monitoring internet traffic and preventing people regarded as suspect from leaving the country.

Two thousand Turkmen students went abroad to study on official exchange programmes during 2011 in countries including Russia, Kazakstan, Belarus and Ukraine, as well as China, the United States and Europe, according to official statistics.

An unknown number also arranged to study abroad privately, and one education ministry official put the total figure of students abroad at more than 40,000.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said students were increasingly deciding not to return.

Akmurat, 22, has stayed on in Turkey after graduating. He said he prefers life there as he does not have to worry that his behaviour could lead to him being labelled as a dissident.

“There is no future for young people in Turkmenistan,” he said.

The official news website says students overseas have an important role to play in “mastering professions that are in demand in Turkmenistan”, and reports that in the past students have been offered subsidised tickets to return from Turkey for the holidays.

Akmurat, however, wants to stay, and although Turkish police once arrested him for not having a valid visa, he managed to avoid deportation.

“Even though I am here illegally, I can support myself. I plan to settle legally,” he said.

Maksat, a student in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, has not returned home in five years because he is afraid of being put on a government blacklist and prevented from leaving Turkmenistan again, or of being accused of disloyalty by the secret police.

For a period of several months in 2009, the Turkmen authorities prevented 150 students from returning to study at the US-funded American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

The case provoked anger among Western diplomats and despair among students, who were eventually allowed to leave the country, but only to study in Bulgaria rather than Bishkek, according to RFE/RL radio.

Maksat worries that he too might be barred from leaving Turkmenistan if he returns home, and is planning instead to settle down in Ukraine.

“We do not know what to expect at home after we graduate – whether we will be able to apply our skills, or whether instead we’ll have to do whatever they tell us to do,” he said.

For other students, the greater internet access available abroad has provided a sense of freedom that they do not want to forfeit.

Ihlas, 20, studies at Taras Shevchenko University in Kiev, and said he and his friends are now used to expressing their opinions openly online.

“There will be no such possibility in Turkmenistan, which is why we do not want to return,” he said.

Many Turkmen study petrochemicals in the Russian industrial city of Ufa, as Turkmenistan is rich in oil and especially natural gas.

One student there told IWPR that he has married a Russian and thus acquired legal residency, while some of his Turkmen friends want to stay on in Russia illegally rather than go home.

Studying overseas is not the only method of leaving Turkmenistan.

According to a migration official in the capital Ashgabat, many Turkmen nationals buy short holiday packages to Russia, Europe, the United Arab Emirates or Iran, and never return.

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

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