Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Students Hit by Latest Niazov Decree

Ban on students buying foreign currency likely to stop many completing their education abroad.
By Arslan Atamanov

President Niazov has moved to stop his countrymen from travelling abroad for their education, after apparent fears that foreign universities may become a hotbed of Turkmen dissent.


A new law preventing students from buying foreign currency was passed on February 21, just two days after Niazov’s birthday, when Turkmen youth studying in Moscow attended a demonstration against his rule.


Hundreds of Turkmen students at foreign universities, mostly in Russia, fear the new decree will bring their studies to an abrupt end, and parents in Ashgabat are petitioning the president to have the ban lifted.


They are unlikely to succeed, however, as the new law appears to form part of a careful strategy to quash opposition to Niazov’s rule by isolating Turkmenistan.


The president recently made it compulsory for any citizen hoping to travel abroad to get an exit visa, while foreigners entering the country are required to register with the authorities. Another new law brought in this month practically makes any questioning of Niazov’s rule a treasonable offence.


The February 19 demonstration in Moscow is thought to have provoked Niazov into regarding all Turkmen studying abroad as potential dissenters, and the new exchange restrictions make it all but impossible for them to continue their education.


The new move was foreshadowed by the inexplicable closure of exchange bureaus for much of the winter holiday, when overseas students traditional come home and change money for the next academic term.


The only students to be exempt from the new ban will be the privileged few sent abroad by the education ministry, and those who study in countries which have inter-governmental agreements with Turkmenistan – namely Belarus, Ukraine and Turkey.


A mother whose son studies in Moscow complained that his education had already been jeopardised, “I don’t know what to do, he was not allowed to sit the exams because he didn’t pay his fees. He’ll probably have to take academic leave now.”


The number of students looking to complete their education outside Turkmenistan has ballooned in recent years, following a perceived decline in the standard of domestic education. And a 1993 decree allowing students to freely exchange manats for foreign money boosted the numbers going abroad.


Other factors that have led hundreds of Turkmen school-leavers to study overseas include the recent Niazov rulings that all teaching be conducted in the Turkmen language and that the term of higher education be reduced to just two years. Many are scathing of the so-called reforms.


“It’s impossible to get a good education in two years,” said Timur Mamedov, a recent school-leaver who was planning to study in the Russian city of Belgorod.


Olga Imamova from the city of Turkmenbashi also had plans to send her son to Russia, “My son graduated from a Russian language school and doesn’t know Turkmen well, so he can’t get a good education here anymore,” she said. “We were so happy that he could receive an education in Russia because of the free currency conversion, but now it is unlikely he will be able to.”


Reports of corruption and bribery in state-run higher education institutions have further eroded faith in the domestic system.


Amandurdy Gochev tells of how his father paid 2,000 US dollars to an official in order for him to join the faculty of Turkmen philology in Ashgabat. “I didn’t get through the entry procedures, and my father was later told that we didn’t pay enough – we should have paid them 1,000 dollars more.”


Other families have similar tales, and many report having had to sell their apartments and move to smaller dwellings in order to fund their offspring’s education.


Arslan Atamanov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat.