Turkmenistan Blocks Students Attending Foreign Universities

Turkmenistan Blocks Students Attending Foreign Universities

Friday, 30 October, 2009
Ahead of the academic year which starts in September, the Turkmen authorities have imposed new controls to prevent young people going abroad to study.

NBCentralAsia has been told of numerous cases where students have been prevented from leaving the country, placed on travel blacklists, under a new set of rules placing numerous obstacles in the way of foreign study.

The move represents a complete reversal of the policy President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov announced at the time of his inauguration in early 2007, when he said students would be encouraged to go abroad to study. At the time, his remarks were welcomed as a sign he was rolling back some of the worse policies of his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov, who did his best to stop students continuing their studies abroad, which in Turkmenistan’s case often means in Russia or another former Soviet state.

Reports of the new controls emerged late last month, after new instructions requiring students to obtain special permits for foreign study came into force on July 20.

According to a source in government, the rules entail a lengthy bureaucratic process in which the education ministry has to be furnished with documents including a letter of invitation from the foreign university; a copy of its license to operate as a state university; the student’s tuition contract; and a passport. Once the paperwork has been submitted, the student is referred to the Migration Service to be issued with an exit permit.

Students arriving at passport control at Ashgabat airport and overland on the border with Uzbekistan were unaware of the new regulations and were told they could not leave without an exit permit. Many were half-way through a course abroad and had only returned home for the summer.

"Students were unaware of the changes, and those who were prevented from leaving lost their air tickets," said a local media-watcher.

One young man studying at a private university in Kazakstan was told by border guards that he was now on a travel blacklist. The regulations make no explicit provision for those attending private institutes.

He was told there was no chance of him being allowed to travel.

Some students did apply for the exit permits, without success.

One young man said he travelled to the capital Ashgabat especially to get the document, but was refused. Staff at the education ministry accused him of having an "unpatriotic attitude".

"The official started abusing me and just about accused me of betraying Turkmenistan,” he recalled. “He said I hadn’t even tried to get into a university in Turkmenistan."

NBCentralAsia observers offer a number of explanations for the crackdown on foreign travel.

Some believe the authorities do not want liberal educational values and standards from outside undermining the status quo.

"They authorities are upset that our young people are learning how to think critically, and how to compare and analyse things,” said a resident of Mary region in southeastern Turkmenistan. “This [learning] makes them look at Turkmenistan and the policies pursued here differently.”

This woman’s daughter has been attending the American University in Central Asia, based in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, for some years now. When she returned for the summer holidays she is questioned by the security services, who want to find out more about her studies. The university currently has around 200 students from Turkmenistan, on scholarships funded by the United States government and other donors.

A local observer says the authorities may have instituted the clampdown because so few students are applying for places in higher education in Turkmenistan itself.

At a recent cabinet meeting, President Berdymuhammov blamed ministers for a situation where postgraduates prefer to study abroad. His comments may have spurred officials into curbing the exodus the only way they know how, through repressive rules.

"There are instructions in place not to allow young people over the age of 14 out of the country, and to conduct a thorough check on their motivation for studying abroad,” said the observer.

According to NBCentralAsia;s sources, the education ministry conducted a survey this spring which revealed that only one in four planned to enter higher education in Turkmenistan itself.

Independent estimates suggest that over 12,000 students from Turkmenistan are attending institutes abroad – in Russia, Turkey, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. Many graduates do not return for fear of suffering for their choice, and instead seek jobs abroad.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists