Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

Kyrgzystan: Turkmen student-visa controversy creates void at one Bishkek university

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 16 September 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Kyrgzystan: Turkmen student-visa controversy creates void at one Bishkek university, 16 September 2009, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
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Azat Jenish: 9/16/09

The academic year is getting underway at American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, but only about one-third of the expected contingent of Turkmen students is in position to begin classes. That's because the Turkmen government is continuing to prevent dozens, if not hundreds, of students from going abroad for their higher education.

The absence of about 100 Turkmen students – who are enrolled at AUCA, but unable to travel to Kyrgyzstan – has created a void on the AUCA campus, Dean of Students Nikolai Shulgin said. "Turkmen students constitute the second largest ethnic group, after the titular nation [of Kyrgyzstan]," he told EurasiaNet.

The Turkmen government disrupted the travel plans of as many as 1,500 aspiring study-abroad scholars during the late summer with the introduction of new regulations, according to the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. After enduring bureaucratic hassles, and suffering through an apparently arbitrary decision-making process, many of the students who initially were prevented from leaving, have now made it out of the country.

The AUCA students still stuck in Turkmenistan constitute a glaring exception. The bulk of unresolved study-abroad refusenik cases seem to involve either current AUCA enrollees, or AUCA graduates who are seeking an advanced degree at another foreign institution. This is prompting many observers to believe that the Turkmen government has blacklisted AUCA.

On September 15, some AUCA students held a pep rally to show their support for the Turkmen scholars who are not being allowed to resume their studies this fall. While the university is interested in calling attention to the fact that Turkmen students occupy an important position in AUCA's educational environment, administrators do not want to do anything that makes life for the young Turkmen refuseniks more difficult. The pep rally was "nothing more than an attempt to say that we remember our fellow students who were not allowed to leave Turkmenistan," Shulgin emphasized.

According to the university newspaper's coordinator, Lazarina Kuchmenova, the university canceled one earlier event out of concern that it might complicate the situation for AUCA students stuck in Turkmenistan.

AUCA's alumni association coordinator, Evgeniya Romanovskaya told EurasiaNet that negotiations on the refusenik matter are ongoing. AUCA officials say they have provided the Turkmen Ministry of Education with requested data, including copies of student invitations and information concerning the university's accreditation. Turkmen officials, however, still have not acted on an AUCA request to explain their study-abroad decisions.

The uncertainty surrounding the situation is such a source of worry that Turkmen graduates of AUCA who are now living in other Central Asian states and in Europe are afraid to visit home, fearing that they will not be able to leave again.

A Turkmen student who, like all interviewed for this article, wished to remain anonymous, cautioned a EurasiaNet correspondent that highlighting the issue in the media could be counterproductive for Turkmen students, including those who are presently studying at AUCA. "It should be understood that they [Turkmen students] are worried about their families [in Turkmenistan]. The more this issue appears in the mass media, the worse the situation will get for students. [Turkmen security] services will only react with harsher means," he stressed.

One AUCA student familiar with the plight of Turkmen scholars in Bishkek said most seemed preoccupied with fear and uncertainty. "The Turkmen students will not speak their minds publicly because they are simply waiting for the situation to change," the student said. "Maybe it will change next semester. I heard that some of the [Turkmen] students received calls asking personal questions." The phone calls, the student added, appeared to come from members of the Turkmen Security Services, who seemed to hint that relatives back in Turkmenistan could suffer consequences if the students contacted did not supply desired information, or otherwise comply with the callers' wishes.

Corruption could be one reason that Turkmen authorities wish to keep students inside the country, the student explained. "No matter how hard you study, you will not be able to enter universities in Turkmenistan without a bribe. The sum ranges from $1,000 to $30,000."

Rights advocates argue Ashgabat's actions in the study-abroad controversy confirm that Turkmenistan remains an unabashedly authoritarian state. As such, the situation can be quickly resolved with a top-level political decision in Ashgabat. Rights advocates are calling for international pressure to be brought to bear on President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's administration to bring about just such a decision.

"Too often, Turkmenistan's partners give the government undeserved credit for announcing reforms without following up to see if they are actually carried out," Maria Lisitsyna, the Turkmen researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement. The international community can demonstrate it is sincere on human rights issues by "pressing Turkmenistan to reverse this harmful travel ban."

Western diplomats, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will have an opportunity to press Berdymukhamedov to intervene in the issue when the Turkmen leader visits New York later in September to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

Editor's Note: Azat Jenish is the pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist.

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