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Turkmenistan: Russian Students Targeted

Discriminatory practices are limiting ethnic Russians higher education prospects.
By Murad Novruzov

Some of Turkmenistan’s brightest young people are being denied a university education just because they are Russian-speakers.

An IWPR source in the Turkmen education ministry has admitted that, under the terms of an unwritten order “handed to us from above”, universities have been encouraged to reject applicants with non-Turkmen surnames – especially ethnic Russians, considered some of most talented students in the country.

Turkmen universities have been receiving applications since the beginning of this month, but the ongoing prejudice against the ethnic Russian population has led many observers to speculate that the education ministry’s enrolment target – of just under 4,000 students – will be almost impossible to meet.

In a typical case, the Turkmenistan Institute of World Languages’ admissions committee allegedly refused to accept applications from three young women – two Russian and one Armenian – on the grounds that the course was not taught in Russian.

“We weren’t even asked if we spoke Turkmen - we were simply refused without any further explanation,” said Karina, a recent school leaver. “I think that the main reason is that I don’t have a Turkmen surname.”

When the would-be students tried to explain that they were fluent in Turkmen, they claim that they were told, “That doesn’t matter girls, don’t even try.”

One education ministry employee, who gave her name only as Ogulsoltan, expressed her regret at the practice, saying, “In the past, we, admission committee members have seen how intelligent, knowledgeable young people did not pass the first round of exams simply because they were representatives of other nationalities.

“This year they aren’t even being allowed to take the entrance exams.”

While thousands of Russians left the country when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Turkmenistan gained its independence, a large number stayed. The 150,000-strong Russian-speaking community includes other minorities, such as the Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks and Kazaks.

In Soviet times, these smaller ethnic groups were able to send their children to Russian-language universities of a relatively high standard, but like the ethnic Russians they now have little prospect of higher education.

Some analysts believe that the authorities’ harsh attitude has been prompted by the recent cancellation of a bilateral agreement with Moscow that granted dual citizenship to those in Turkmenistan who wished it.

In the run up to the June 22 deadline, Russians living in Turkmenistan faced a stark choice – renounce Moscow, or get out of the country. Those who did not decide in time were stripped of their Turkmen passports.

But it’s not just Russian-speakers that are facing discrimination. A decree issued last month by President Saparmurat Niazov rules that only those have done two years’ work experience after leaving school are allowed to go on to higher education.

The rule has angered many, who now fear for their children’s future in the former Soviet republic, which has severe economic problems and high levels of unemployment. “This decree doesn’t make any sense,” said the mother of a recent school leaver, who did not want to give her name.

“Schoolchildren finish at 16. At that age, they don’t even have the right to work, according to the Turkmen labour code.”

Even those eligible for employment will struggle to find work in the present economic climate. Aili, who graduated from the Turkmen state university five years ago, said, “I was lucky. I got a good education and didn’t end up on this roundabout of reduced opportunities and new enrolment rules.”

And there’s little to be gained from leaving the country to study abroad, as foreign qualifications are not recognised in Turkmenistan, irrespective of the academic excellence of the university at which they were acquired – even first class degrees from Oxford are invalid.

Murad Novruzov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat

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