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New Barriers for Turkmen Students: The Kyrgyz Connection

Last week, as expected, Kurmanbek Bakiyev was reelected as president of Kyrgyzstan. We have previously described the authoritarian and corrupt tendencies within his regime, and the OSCE found the conduct of the election a ‘disappointment’ (full critique here).

Before the election was even concluded last Thursday, two opposition candidates declared the process fraudulent and called for new elections. There was no significant violence associated with the election, but opposition parties have called for demonstrations beginning late this week and continuing indefinitely.

Meanwhile, students in Turkmenistan who had hoped to study at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, are being prevented from doing so.EurasiaNet reports that Turkmen students preparing to travel abroad have been told they must obtain new stamps and permits, which in classic Soviet style are proving nearly impossible to obtain in reality. The students having the most difficulty are those sponsored under US government aid initiatives (such as the US Central Asia Education Foundation) and those going to AUCA.

So is there an anti-American bias at work, and if so, would the US respond in any way? Possibly, although the timing would be curious given recent indications that Turkmenistan may be considering closer cooperation with the US and EU in the energy sphere. EurasiaNet notes:

“Ashgabat has sent signals in recent weeks that it is increasingly interested in joining a pipeline network that would circumvent Russia, and thus dramatically reduce the Kremlin’s influence in the Caspian Basin energy development game. American officials may be reluctant to do or say anything that might annoy Ashgabat, and therefore diminish the desire of Turkmen leaders to develop an energy partnership with the United States and European Union.”

A more likely explanation for the Turkmen volte-face is a fear that their students will become exposed to the comparatively more open political climate in Kyrgyzstan at a time when it is at its most vibrant, following the contested election. (Tolkun Umaraliev writes up this view atNewEurasia). Despite official constraints, Kyrgyz civil society is large and active, as documented by AUCA’s Social Research Centre.

The planned protests represent a degree of political freedom unknown in Turkmenistan – and one that has proven productive, as seen in 2005 when the so-called Tulip ‘revolution’ brought Bakiyev into power. Given the highly repressive and fairly paranoid style of rule in Turkmenistan, it is not altogether surprising that they would seek to isolate their youth from any potentially disruptive currents.

Radicalisation is, of course, a normative concept. Usually when we talk about radicalisation in the UK, we are discussing the mobilisation of people and communities toward extreme and violent ends. For a Central Asian dictator, however, radicalisation could also mean inculcating the population with ideas about political and personal freedom, free speech, open elections – ideas that if spread and acted upon would throw the regime and possibly the entire state into turmoil.

Is it any wonder that such men have counter-radicalisation policies of their own? And that they appear to be based on similar fears of a contagion effect, malign foreign influences, on-the-ground experience, etc.?

One hopes that the Turkmen students will eventually find a way to get their stamps and begin their studies – and, perhaps, get a glimpse of the political freedoms they can only dream of now.