The question is whether these computers hook up to the Internet -- and what's inside. No mention of the web -- heavily controlled in Turkmenistan -- has been made at all in these reports. And according to accounts from the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH), each notebook comes already stuffed with thousands of interactive slides containing lessons on mathematics, Turkmen and foreign languages, drawing, singing, sports and labor education.
The Chinese-manufactured computers were supplied to Turkmenistan by the company Lenovo as part of a Chinese grant valued at $7.8 million, AFP reported. A leading Chinese computer science academic also visited Turkmenistan lately as part of a Chinese team helping Turkmenistan "modernize" its telecommunications system. China -- now Turkmenistan's biggest gas customer -- is noted for filtering Internet content and monitoring users.
While no doubt some of the materials like cartoons and songs are engaging, the prominent Turkmen state symbol on the green-and-white laptops gives a hint of what else is inside: "poetry, sayings, and proverbs" that state educators have likely been prompted to select in a patriotic vein. An educational expert, O. Bolotnikova from Elementary School No. 6 in Ashgabat, was brought in to create educational programs for students and their parents and the National Institute for Education also assisted school teachers to develop curricula -- all in a context known for its propagandistic approach. The laptops have bright buttons that students can click to navigate a virtual library, but it does not appear to be online.
Only a tiny percentage of Turkmen citizens have access to the Internet, especially since the shutdown of Russia's MTS mobile phone service which formerly served 2.4 million people. There have been some reports that the state will temporarily allow the old MTS network to function again during the independence day ceremonies when a lot of foreigners are expected to come, with demands for working cell phones.
The lavish new facilities will serve about 2,000 children, although it's not clear how students will be selected to study in them or what kind of conditions the rest of the student population will face. (More than 27% of Turkmenistan's population of about 5 million are 14 years old and younger). The usual state ceremonies were organized to open the schools, with children pressed into service to perform songs and dances. Laptops were also handed out to children in the provinces on behalf of President Berdymukhamedov, who wished the students "to acquire new knowledge that will enhance the intellectual potential of our Motherland."
The massive distribution of state-stuffed laptops is part of a troubling trend of increasing government intrusion in public life and a growing personality cult for the Turkmen leader, now working on a new cult book to replace the old one of his predecessor.
Yet TDH saw the laptop giveaway as "bright evidence for the Turkmen leader’s concern for the younger generation" as well as "a new step to promote the education reform initiated by President Berdymukhamedov that combines centuries-old experience in public education based on national spiritual values and the achievements of world pedagogy."