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Students in Turkmenistan depend on themselves to rise above coursework that focuses on worshipping the country's leader.

Turkmenistan, my beloved motherland,
my beloved homeland!
You are always with me
in my thoughts and in my heart.
For the slightest evil against you
let my hand be lost.
For the slightest slander about you
let my tongue be lost.
At the moment of my betrayal
to my motherland, to her sacred banner,
to Saparmurat Turkmenbashi let my breath stop.

In the morning, children line up at schools, recite the oath, kiss the national flag—one after the other, in the same spot—and only then begin their studies. Many college and university students go through a similar ritual. Afterwards, they attend lectures on "Domestic and International Politics of the Turkmenbashi," "Saparmurat Turkmenbashi's Teachings About Society," "Introduction to Patriotism," and "Politics of Independence and Neutrality." In the absence of textbooks—there are only a few, none have been published since the 1970s—students rely on newspapers. Again, there are only a few, and their information cannot always be relied upon.

The 2 August issue of the Neutral Turkmenistan daily, for instance, writes about an "important" meeting of the country's leading teachers, professors, and education officials. They came together in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat to discuss the latest educational reforms and a new university admission policy. The paper quotes one of the participants at the meeting, a university dean, announcing the inauguration of a research center, which is to study a variety of subjects as directed by the "educational teachings of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi about society, the use of the Turkmen language, translation techniques and theories, textbook publishing ..." The list of teachings to be followed goes on and on, as do assertions of loyalty to the "highly esteemed" Saparmurat Turkmenbashi.

But the highly esteemed gentleman is no linguist or teacher. Neither is he a heavenly body to whom school prayers should be addressed. He is Saparmurat Niyazov, the former Communist leader of the Soviet republic of Turkmenia—now the president of sovereign Turkmenistan—and the self-proclaimed "father of all Turkmen." Education in the republic, not to mention other spheres of public life, begins here. To a large extent, here is where it also ends.

"We don't have computers. We don't have textbooks. We don't have the international press. But we do have Turkmenbashi," says Ayna, a young journalist from Ashgabat—and she knows the system firsthand. As a former history student at Ashgabat State University, she has seen a number of changes introduced in the education system since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—yet none for the better. In universities, hours of foreign language and world history studies have been cut, as has general mandatory attendance in secondary schools: What used to be an 11-year secondary education term is now only nine. This, in effect, prevents Turkmen children from gaining acceptance at Russian universities, which do not recognize diplomas that took less than 10 years to earn.

The duration of university education has also been cut, from four years to three. And the quality of this education is another, even more dismal story. "Rather than intensive, it is extensive—in the wrong direction, that is," Ayna says. Education in Turkmenistan is directed exclusively inwards; it locks on the country itself in a strange, narcissistic way. Many courses taught at universities deal with the politics of neutrality, and there is even a class on "market reforms in Turkmenistan." Ayna laughs, saying there is no such thing as market reforms in her country, which is notorious for corruption and extreme impoverishment of the population. Despite possessing the world's fourth-richest oil reserves, Turkmenistan has not been able to win favorable trade agreements with foreign clients. Instead, it is caught in a Soviet-style economic culture, mixed with feudal trade relations. As a result, universities offer classes on market economy, but have nothing to teach. With the absence of a subject matter or a textbook, Ayna says her professor simply gave all students a passing grade at the end of the term.

The professor of the politics of neutrality class shared similar teaching techniques. "No textbook, no politics," he told students at the beginning of the school year, and freed everyone from attending the class—covertly, of course. Still, the presence of textbooks would unlikely have made the course any more meaningful. International experts have long said that Turkmenistan's status as a neutral state, which it won from the United Nations in 1995, is none other than an open road to isolationism.

The few courses that deal with the world outside Turkmenistan also suffer from a lack of resources, textbooks, and qualified professors. The "new" world history book used in classes failed to mention the collapse of the Berlin wall. No, Ayna explains, it's not that the course ignores this particular subject matter; "it's just that our textbook ended sometime in the 60s," she says. Professors do little to fill in the gaps, and even if they tried, only a handful of them have knowledge worth sharing and the courage to speak out.

After the country's independence, many expected to see at least some liberalization in social norms and political attitudes in Turkmenistan. But, Ayna laments, reflecting on what she calls her people's indolence, "we have a saying, a verse: 'While the country is in uproar, the Turkman sleeps.'" Indeed, little has improved in Turkmenistan since Soviet times, and education remains largely a matter of fortitude. Another former student from Turkmenistan, Gozel, remembers that in her school days in the mid-1990s, students interested in aspects of Turkmenistan's domestic and foreign policy other than "patriotism" and "neutrality" ran the risk of being expelled for "undermining the country's national values."

New textbooks written by Turkmen professors—and there were some—were subjected to such political scrutiny that none ended up being published. And in 1998, Niyazov ordered the elimination of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan for no apparent reason—at least no reason that was publicly discussed.

Today, students and teachers are expelled or fired for speaking out. Perhaps the most famous political prisoner in Turkmenistan, Nurberdy Nurmamedov, in the beginning of the 1990s headed a technology research institute until he was asked to resign because of "anti-government" activity. Turkmen officials monitor all movement in and out of the republic, confiscating foreign newspapers at the border and controlling all cyber-traffic on the Web. In fact, in May of this year, the Turkmen Communications Ministry revoked the operating licenses of all private Internet and electronic mail providers, confirming Turkmenistan's reputation—according to the French watchdog, Raporteurs Sans Frontiers—as a "black hole where information is concerned."

Student exchange programs are regulated by the government as well. On 7 August, U.S. Ambassador to Ashgabat Steven Mann met with President Niyazov to discuss U.S.-Turkmen educational exchanges. A few days before their meeting, RFE/RL reported that 38 Turkmen students who had been selected to attend American universities were prevented from leaving the country. On 9 August, the Turkmen press said the students were finally on their way to America. When TOL attempted to verify claims that the students had indeed left for the United States, telephone calls went unanswered.

In 1992, Ayna was among several hundred Turkmen students who applied to study at a university in Turkey. As a result of a tough selection process, involving exams and interviews, more than a hundred boys and eight girls gained admission. Ayna was one of them. Then came President Niyazov's decree forbidding the girls from leaving the country.

"We heard afterwards that it was because of prostitution in Turkey," Ayna says, shaking her head. "But girls from other Central Asian republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan—went. Absent were only the Turkmen girls."

During his meeting with education officials in late July, Niyazov reproved them for their poor knowledge of the Turkmen language. As a remedy, he closed the Department of Turkmen Language and Literature at the Institute of World Languages in Ashgabat, and insisted that languages should not be taught in secondary schools. To the Turkmenbashi, that logic made perfect sense: He said that since children, and officials, fail to learn languages at schools, language classes should be abandoned entirely. Instead, Niyazov proposed to create "self-financing, special language training centers" to accommodate anyone "[planning] to work in a foreign firm or [wanting] to teach foreign languages to his children." And, the president added, "if there is a family with a low income that cannot afford payment, the courses can be free for them."

An absolute majority of Turkmen families have little, or nonexistent, incomes. Some children do not attend school because of a lack of clothing. Many schools are run-down and demand renovation. Yet, any work in these areas must be done by teachers and students themselves—in most such cases, the government stays uninvolved and gives no assistance.

Meanwhile, nothing is free. According to sources in Turkmenistan, every year just prior to entrance exam dates, students seeking university admission face the same question: "how much?" This is what the locals call "a tuition fee" in a country that prides itself for providing its citizens with free education. In reality, young people pay thousands of dollars in bribes for a chance to study. "Official" rates vary depending on the program, the region where the applicant is from, and whether applicant is a first-, second-, third-, or fourth-year student.

And the bribing starts long before students even get to the university doorsteps: They must first "buy" results of school exams in order to graduate from secondary school and gain admittance to university.

Many in Turkmenistan fear that this year's "tuition fees" may skyrocket due to Niyazov's latest innovations in the education system. At the same meeting with the education officials last month, the president not only suggested revamping university curricula, clearing them of foreign language classes and other subjects "unrelated to a student's chosen profession;" he also announced that the government and individual ministries will now be able to recommend students for college or university admission. Moreover, all applicants will have to undergo a genealogical background check three generations back. According to Niyazov, "the criterion in competition for the title of a student should be such key factors as patriotism, general educational and cultural level, and psychological compatability with the highest requirements of a chosen profession."

All of this appears to mean that the tuition fees will go up and the number of students will continue to decline. And despite Niyazov's assertions that the background check is not meant as a way of gathering compromising information about applicants, the government will have that information at its disposal. But Ayna, for one, says she isn't surprised: In Turkmenistan, she says, "education is no education, it's politics."

Mariya Rasner is a Prague-based journalist
for RFE/RL's Turkmen service.

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