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

Turkmenistan: Blow for Russian-Speakers

Decision to close schools is a major setback for non-ethnic Turkmens.
By IWPR staff

The Russian-speaking community in Turkmenistan has been dealt a blow with the news that all dedicated Russian-language schools are to be closed down, and their students sent to Turkmen schools across the republic.


The authorities claim that as only two per cent of the population are classed as native speakers, there is simply no demand for Russian-medium education. They also point to a nationwide testing programme conducted by the education ministry in April, which apparently proved that more than 80 per cent of school pupils are fluent in Turkmen.


A spokesperson for the education ministry told the media, “This testing showed that knowledge [of Turkmen language] at secondary school level was well above average, so why do we need so many Russian-language schools?”


But rights activists and analysts dispute these figures, saying the move will hit Russian-speakers and is another blow for ethnic Russians. The latter were told last year that they could no longer hold dual citizenship, which many observers saw as a diminution of their rights.


From the start of the new school year, only one school per district will have a Russian-language department. And in spite of the high levels of demand for the classes, the authorities have decreed that only ethnic Russians will be given places – students of Turkmen, Kazak, Armenian or Azerbaijani nationality will not be allowed to attend, in spite of the fact that Russian is the language of choice for the majority.


As a result, many parents are now threatening to keep their children out of school next year, and instead hire tutors to teach them in whichever language they wish.


The father of one ethnic Tatar boy told IWPR that his son Ruslan would not be returning to mainstream education after the summer. “I want him to receive his education in Russian because that way I know that he will be able to go on to higher education outside Turkmenistan, and this is why I have decided to hire tutors for him,” said the man, speaking on condition of anonymity.


“When the time comes, I can buy a certificate of complete secondary education somewhere in Rostov oblast – which is far from problematic - and Ruslan can use this document to enter a Russian university.”


The father told IWPR that the latest news was a crushing blow for many Tatars living in Turkmenistan, and argued that their ethnic group makes a great effort to fit in with Turkmen traditions and culture.


“I am a Tatar, as is my son, and yet we agree to wear the Turkmen skull-cap, even though each Muslim ethnic group has its own special headdresses. And we will pray during classes if they require, but we should be allowed access to an education in Russian.”


Fears are now being raised that not even ethnic Russians will be guaranteed a place in the new departments as the number of places in classes is limited to 40 pupils at most. On average, each of the doomed schools had from 200 to 500 pupils – and there were several such schools in each district.


Seventh-grader Anatoly’s parents are upset that he will have to change schools in order to have a chance of continuing his Russian-medium education – and furious that he does not have a guaranteed place awaiting him.


“We know that in order to get into a Russian class, we will need to bribe the officials who are in charge of selecting the children, but we don’t have any connections or spare cash with which to do so,” said Anatoly’s mother.


“So we have two choices – either to send our child to a Turkmen school, or move to Russia so he can continue his education there. But why should we have to do that? We were born in Ashgabat and don’t want to leave here, and we don’t have any family in Russia. We just don’t know what to do.”


The standard of education in Turkmenistan has been criticised in recent times. One former education worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “Everyone knows that the quality of instruction in our schools is low enough already, without this happening.


“For example, the state schools do all their teaching in the Turkmen language - even though not all children are fluent in it. Meanwhile, study programmes have been slashed, some subjects are cut back and others have been eliminated altogether.


“For instance, a third of any lesson - be it chemistry, mathematics or physics - is devoted to reading the Rukhnama [ a book written by Niazov which is enforced as the ‘spiritual code’ of the Turkmen people].”


“It’s no wonder that the impression given is not of education, but rather of turning the children into zombies - removing their ability to analyse and critically evaluate the actions of the current political regime.”