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

Turkmenbashi Drives His Lessons Home

Concerns voiced at new plan to make learner drivers sit exam on president’s writings.
By the.iwpr

Turkmenistan’s learner drivers are going to have to brush up on the president’s thoughts and views if they are to have any hope of passing their tests following the latest controversial decree from the eccentric leader.

Now, as well as 20 hours of driving tuition and lessons on traffic laws and basic mechanics, the government wants driving students will have to take a 16-hour course on the “sacred Rukhnama”, a book written by President Saparamurat Niazov - who likes to be called Turkmenbashi or “Father of all Turkmen” - outlining his personal philosophy.

They will be required to pass exams on driving and the Rukhnama in order to get a license.

One transport ministry employee, who did not want to be named, quipped to IWPR, “In one chapter of the Rukhnama, [the president] claims that Turkmens invented the wheel. Perhaps this is what moved some high-ranking officials to try to win favour with [him] by introducing his book to driving schools.”

The decision to change the syllabus at state driving schools to include Turkmenbashi’s book has caused much disquiet, with analysts asking what possible practical use it can be to learner drivers.

However, backers of the new study programme argue that it will “educate future drivers in the spirit of the high moral principles of Turkmen society” and “raise traffic safety to an entirely new level”.

Niazov has already made the Rukhnama an inescapable part of the republic’s academic and civic life.

The book, described by officials as a “moral codex”, is part autobiography and part history. It’s already a set text in kindergartens, schools and colleges, and the Turkmen state university even contains a faculty for training Rukhnama specialists.

But there are concerns that Turkmenbashi is going too far by imposing his vision on his people.

State officials are regularly tested on their knowledge of it, and risk losing their posts if they don’t come up to scratch – no matter how highly-qualified they may be.

Lessons on the president’s writings are held at all state institutions – schools, hospitals, ministries and others – every Saturday and attendance is compulsory, whether or not the employee was scheduled to be at work that day or not.

Guljemal, a hospital nurse, complained, “I have two small children and they can’t wait for the weekend, when my husband and I can be together at home with them.

“But instead I have to be at work at 9am for my Rukhnama lesson, and if I’m late I will be reprimanded or have my bonus taken away from me. So I have no choice but to spend time away from my children and deprive them of attention.”

In addition to the weekend lessons, all state employees – including doctors, lawyers and teachers - have to sit an exam on the Rukhnama.

One doctor said bluntly, “If I don’t pass the test, I’ll be fired. It doesn’t matter how good I am at my job or how well-qualified and trained I am. Knowledge of the Rukhnama is the only thing that matters.”

In schools, a third of every lesson is devoted to studying the thoughts of Turkmenbashi. At the end of the academic year, students can choose to sit three exams in the subjects of their choice – and one compulsory test on the Rukhnama.

To claim a place at a Turkmen university, or higher school as they are known in the republic, a student must pass another test on the president’s book.

“I’m not afraid of this test,” said higher school hopeful Aigul. “I sat an exam on the Rukhnama in my last year at school, and during every lesson we had chapters read to us and discussed how to interpret various statements by our great president.

“Sometimes we didn’t have any time left over for the actual subject,” he added cheerfully.

Some students are so appalled by the president’s intervention in their education that they’ve chosen to study abroad.

Murad, who left his Ashgabat home for a Russian university, told IWPR, “This emphasis on the study of the Rukhnama is simply forced ideology, and it is fooling our people, especially the young.

“If this continues, in a few years an entire generation will have left school with very limited knowledge [of the world] and will be practically illiterate, because there is no fundamental education in Turkmenistan anymore – only the Rukhnama everywhere you look.”