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Fred Starr in Turkmenistan: "I am in complete amazement from everything!"

This evening Dr. S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, will speak on "Turkmenistan: A New Identity?" The event is part of the Silk Road Studies Program, an area of increasingly avid interest -- and as Steve LeVine has blogged, deadly risk of romance -- for the U.S. as it builds the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia to supply the war effort in Afghanistan. Fred Starr is one of the major proponents of working with Central Asian regimes to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Starr will report on his findings from an extended research trip to Turkmenistan last year when he visited more than two dozen health and educational institutions. A long time enthusiast for leaders in the region whom he sees as authentically reforming where others see them as imitating reforms, Starr was received personally by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov when he visited New York last fall to attend the UN General Assembly. The State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) reported that the professor, "one of the leading American experts on Central Asia," was grateful for the opportunity "to express his personal support for the wise and far-seeing foreign policy of its leadership."

Although other regional experts have ignored or failed to find plausible Turkmenistan's ambitious role for itself in bringing peace to Afghanistan, Starr said he "highly appreciated Turkmenistan's new initiatives to settle the crisis in Afghanistan and the creation of a reliable platform for an effective regional mechanism for interaction for the sake of peace, sustainable development and progress".

Starr "expressed admiration for the modern achievements of Turkmenistan" and said "the scientific works and other books of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov which he had read with particular interest enabled him to understand the logic of the current unprecedented successes of the Turkmen government."

Starr may be one of the few -- or only -- Westerner who has read the Turkmen leader's works ranging from his bromides on health care and the economy to encyclopedic lists of medicinal plants, but he has also found another way to the dictator's heart -- talking up the ancient ruins that give Turkmenistan its sense of pride in a glorious past – noting “the significance for world historical scholarship of the rich historical-cultural legacy of the Turkmen people" and "highly praising" restoration work under way.

Academic exchange with Ashgabat has been difficult after an initial promising start, with hundreds of Turkmen students blocked for a year from studying abroad, and some universities finding their relationship stalled after initial rounds, as Turkmenistan's Ministry of Education -- and more likely the Ministry of National Security – intensively reviewed their programs to see if they would expose students to the influences of either "color revolutions" or Islamic fundamentalism. Visits by foreign academics are highly selective and heavily controlled.

Last November, at the invitation of President Berdymukhamedov, Fred Starr traveled to Turkmenistan, where he visited Mary and Dashoguz regions to see the architectural sites of Ancient Merv and Kunyaurgench. While the English-language version of TDH gave only a short notice of his trip, the Russian-language edition ran an interview with him where he was given more space for his enthusiasms:

I have the most positive experiences of contemporary Turkmenistan. I am grateful to the head of state, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, for the opportunity provided to see Turkmenistan in its various dimensions: this includes ancient monuments, three ancient capitals -- Merv, Kunyaurgench, Nisa -- and the modern, dynamically developing capital of Ashgabat; this included acquaintance with the system of education of the country, meetings with scholars and young students. I am in complete amazement from everything I have seen here! Of course, everything going on in Turkmenistan today is a new era in the life of the Turkmen people, a new page in the glorious history of many centuries on this ancient land. It is noteworthy that in the spectrum of colors in the contemporary architectural buildings of Ashgabat, the color white predominates, which has for many peoples of the world, and in many religions, the symbolic meaning of purity, the origin of origins.

Most foreigners come back depressed rather than impressed by the heavy police presence, lack of street life and miles of blindingly white marble and huge, empty government palaces, many built by the French construction company Bouygues. The showcase in the capital and Avaza, the tourist zone which has become a pet project of the Turkmen president, contrast with the poverty elsewhere in the country, as can be glimpsed in some EurasiaNet photo essays.

Another ancient monument in Turkmenistan is the health care system, ravaged in the Soviet era, nearly destroyed by past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, and still outdated and abysmally underdeveloped outside of a few showcase institutes built by foreigners and visited by foreigners (particularly German doctors, who assisted the president, a former dentist, in operating on a cancer patient himself). The new facilities were likely the ones Starr was shown. Doctors Without Borders, a non-governmental organization that served for ten years in Turkmenistan, finally gave up struggling with the Ministry of Health and other bureaucrats blocking real reform and left the country, after publishing "Turkmenistan's Opaque Health Care System," a scathing report of the inadequate and even health-endangering medical facilities and practices the doctors personally witnessed -- and the elaborate cover-up and propaganda campaign the government wages to distract from these realities.

Undeterred by the reporting of others such as the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights on the huge shortfall between Berdymukhamedov's proclamations and the realities on the ground, Starr waxed enthusiastic about education’s “ever higher and new horizons”:

I am pleased to recognize that Turkmenistan is positioning itself in the world not on the basis of gas, not on the basis of other natural resources which it possesses, but on the basis of the intellectual development of the nation and its own progressive course.

Yet by the Turkmen state media's own admission, many of the students sent abroad go to Russia and other neighboring countries to study the oil and gas business; last year students trying to study humanities were first blocked, then some finally rerouted to the "hard sciences" related to Turkmenistan's main industries. Those students who do get to an institute such as the Gubkin Russian State Oil and Gas University find...the president's economic book waiting for them there to study, promoted by obsequious Russian university officials eager to curry favor with the president during a time of troubled relations between Moscow and Ashgabat over energy disputes.

Never mind -- like the Turkmen state media and Russian officials, Starr finds the figure of the Turkmen leader himself a source of great inspiration:

A great plus for your country is that at the head of the state is a great scientist, your President himself is a professional in the area of public health. It is important also that the father of the respected President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is a teacher and his family has always cultivated a relationship to education as a foundation for the development of state and society.

We're a long way from the WikiLeaked assessment of the source for a U.S. Embassy dispatch who said that Berdymukhamedov was seen as "vain" and "not a very bright guy". Yet with foreign visitors like Fred Starr, the truth may continue to be held from him -- and the rest of the country.

Fred Starr in Turkmenistan: "I am in complete amazement from everything!"

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