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Vetting, Turkmen-Style

Employment policy in Turkmenistan accused of being racist and discriminatory.
By IWPR staff
Jobseekers in Turkmenistan - especially ethnic minorities - say they are being squeezed out of the public sector by ever more impossible requirements.

As well as having the right sort of education - meaning qualifications gained inside the country rather than abroad - they have to fill in a form used to weed out applicants who have the wrong ethnicity or problematic relatives. From December, they will also need to have a complete command of the Ruhnama, the handbook to Turkmen life and culture penned by President Saparmurat Niazov, better known as Turkmenbashi.

Critics say the rules amount to a clear policy of discrimination designed to ensure that only the most loyal - and pliable - citizens get to join government institutions.

The most insidious method is the “maglumat” or personal information form, on which job applicants must note details of relatives including their spouse and children, siblings, parents and even grandparents, as well as their own curriculum vitae.

Many of those who have gone through the process say the form is being used to implement a policy of ethnic discrimination, with well-qualified people refused work simply because they are not of Turkmen ethnic origin.

An experienced doctor recounted how this happened to her when she applied for a post at a new neurology centre, even though she was born in Turkmenistan, had qualified there rather than abroad, and had 12 years of service behind her.

“The director happily agreed to employ me because there was a vacant position. He asked me to submit all my papers to the personnel department, which I did, and I filled out a maglumat,” she said.

“When they hadn’t called me back after two weeks, I rang them myself. They referred me to the health ministry, where I was told I couldn’t be employed because my maglumat did not pass - I am an ethnic Ossetian, and I’d need to have been pure-blooded Turkmen.”

Even being partly Turkmen is not enough. One woman in Ashgabat, who has a Turkmen mother and Russian father, said, “I look like a Turkmen, I married a Turkmen and I’ve got a Turkmen surname.

“When I tried to get a job as a nanny at a kindergarten, I had to fill out a maglumat at the personnel department of the city education department. The staff member there very surprised to see I was down as a Russian in my passport, and she advised me that I’d have very little chance of getting a job.

“As it turned out, I did not get the kindergarten job.”

In August, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination voiced concern about reports from Turkmenistan that “ethnic minorities face severe restrictions on their participation in the labour force, in particular in public sector employment…. [and] about reports relating to the removal of many non-ethnic Turkmen from state employment and to ‘third generation tests’ imposed on persons wishing to access higher education and public sector employment”.

The Turkmen delegation countered simply that there was no ethnic discrimination in the country.

The maglumat form is supposed to help check up on the criminal record not only of individuals applying for jobs, but also of their family members.

However, this provision catches out many people who have relatives in government. Turkmenbashi’s current appointment strategy for cabinet and other senior posts resembles a merry-go-round in which large number of officials are promoted, then sacked and charged with some offence. Even when these officials are not put on trial, their dismissal comes with the proviso, “no right to employment in another job”.

A personnel manager at a state-run enterprise explained how the rules work, “All the documents submitted for employment go through me, and if I see from the maglumat that there’s been a conviction, or that relatives have been convicted for economic crimes, I immediately refuse to employ this person. My superiors have given me clear directives and instructions on employing citizens of Turkmenistan.”

Non-government, private sector and foreign companies are not officially covered by the vetting requirements, but the government officials who oversee their compliance with the law are reportedly asking them to abide by them.

According to the personnel manager at one foreign company, “The state agencies to which we are accountable have ordered us not to employ former state officials who were dismissed with a negative reference, or the relatives of convicted officials and politicians. Although we are a foreign company, we’ve decided not to go against national legislation.”

This manager admitted, “An acquaintance of mine was dismissed with such a [negative reference] note in his work-book and he’s even prepared to work without registering formally. However, he gets refused employment in any circumstances.”

The maglumat adds to a series of other stringent and somewhat unusual conditions of employment. Last year, orders were issued not to employ people who gained their qualifications at foreign universities, and to sack those already employed. The rules, which apply to doctors, lawyers and teachers, say that diplomas gained outside the republic since 1993 – which often means Russia - are invalid.

It is believed that the bar has been quietly extended to include those who qualified in the Soviet period, when top students from all over the Soviet Union sought places at prestigious Moscow universities.

The authorities are now using annual job fairs to help identify unsuitable candidates early on in the process.

“I was delegated by my organisation to attend a job fair last year, and all the participants were instructed to examine the documents submitted from people seeking work, and to pay attention to their education and where they studied,” said a municipal services official. “ If they had a diploma from outside Turkmenistan, say Russia or Kazakstan, then they should not be employed.”

Further criteria for employment include the applicant’s knowledge of the Ruhnama and fluency in the Turkmen language, as opposed to Russian which is the lingua franca used by minority groups.

Every three months, state-owned institutions, factories, hospitals, universities and schools test existing staff on the Ruhnama, and if they fall down on their knowledge their future is in doubt, regardless of how good they are at their job.

Earlier this year, IWPR quoted a doctor who was asked to sit an oral test on his specialist area of medicine and found to his surprise that “no one asked me about my medical skills or questioned me on my field - they just asked questions about the Ruhnama and the policies of our president”.

From December 1, the examination becomes official, with the education ministry charged with testing public-sector staff, in conjunction with the professional “Ruhnamist” who is now a fixture at every state institution.

Apart from quoting from president’s book, staff will have to be able to recite the national oath of allegiance and sing the national anthem.

“We’ve had instructions from above to sack staff who don’t get through the Ruhnama examination,” said a personnel department staff member. “We haven’t invented it ourselves and we’re not just being mean to our staff, as many of them believe, when we make them sing [the anthem] or recite excerpts from the Ruhnama. It’s a plan that’s been approved; if you like, it’s an official policy which we can’t raise objections to.”

A personnel manager at the oil and gas ministry summed up the list of desirable attributes in future employees, “Preference is given to young people who graduated from institutes in the post-Soviet period, who have studied the Ruhnama in detail, and lined up every morning to recite an oath to the homeland, the people and the president. They will have a thorough knowledge of the new Turkmen alphabet [Latin, replacing Cyrillic]. They will speak only one language fluently – Turkmen. Their work record will not contain entries which will have a negative impact on their maglumat.”

This manager also said anyone with a beard or gold teeth would be ruled out - two characteristics which Turkmenbashi criticised in informal remarks but which seem to have been turned into hard-and-fast rules by over-enthusiastic officials.

Thrusting young people who fit the bill are, in some cases, pleased that vetting allows them to get ahead.

“Only worthy people should occupy responsible positions in our nation,” said a marketing manager at the national commodity exchange. “I fully agree with the new rules on checking family trees when hiring employees, because we are building a young, new nation, and we should know who can be entrusted with this serious task.

“If there are dishonourable people in the family, thieves who have spent time in jail, then the whole family is considered to be disgraced.

“I passed all the checks the first time, and I am proud that there were no doubts about me.”

(The names of people quoted in this article have been withheld out of concern for their personal security.)

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