Prominent human rights advocates want the United States to consider invoking the Jackson-Vanik amendment against Turkmenistan over Ashgabat's refusal to let hundreds of young scholars leave the country to pursue their studies.
Rules changes imposed by the Turkmen government this past summer disrupted the plans of roughly 1,500 students to embark on study-abroad programs during the fall semester. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Hundreds of students, mainly those who sought to attend the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, remain unable to leave the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Rights groups and education specialists have urged US and EU officials to take a forceful stand against the Turkmen government's study-abroad restrictions. But so far Washington has finessed the issue. Many regional experts believe that US officials are reluctant to do anything that could alienate Ashgabat, given Washington's desire to secure Turkmen participation in Western-backed energy projects, including the proposed trans-Caspian and Nabucco pipelines. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The dilemma facing US diplomats was on full display in mid-November, when Ashgabat hosted a major energy exposition concurrently with a large education-related event. The energy conclave, the Turkmenistan International Oil and Gas Expo 2009, received lots of US diplomatic attention, with the American delegation being led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Krol.
Meanwhile, US diplomats did their best to sidestep the study-abroad controversy during the November 16-20 education fair - dubbed International Education Week. In November 18 comments to EurasiaNet, William Stevens, a spokesman for the US embassy in Ashgabat, explained AUCA's absence from the education fair in the following manner: "AUCA is not actively recruiting in Turkmenistan this year, so they didn't ask to be included in International Education Week."
Speaking at a news conference in Ashgabat on November 17, Krol indicated that he raised the study-abroad issue during talks with Turkmenistan's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rashid Meredov.
"They want to solve this issue. Let's see how [they do it]," Krol said, adding that it would be "worthwhile" to continue discussions with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. It was not clear whether or not Krol actually raised the issue when he had an opportunity to talk with Berdymukhamedov.
The US Embassy has remained tight-lipped on the issue. "We raised the issue of the TASP [Turkmenistan AUCA Scholarship Program] students," Stevens said. TASP is funded by the US State Department through US embassy in Ashgabat.
Representatives of Human Rights Watch and other watchdog groups now seem intent on turning up the heat on Washington.
"The US government raised the issue several times with the Turkmen leadership, and made this known publicly, which are good steps. But it isn't clear what consequences there might be for US-Turkmen relations if the Turkmen authorities don't let the students travel," Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said on November 19.
Denber suggested that if the Washington was serious about pressing Turkmenistan on the study-abroad issue, it might consider raising the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 statute that allows for the imposition of economic punishments on states that do not permit freedom of movement.
"The only thing needed is the Turkmen authorities' political will to let people exercise a fundamental right," Denber said. "This isn't a complicated issue."
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs.