Disturbances on the expansive, 744 kilometer Turkmen-Afghan border have been growing at an alarming rate, sparking security concerns about conflict spillover from the ongoing war in Afghanistan. In Turkmenistan, a neutral, isolationist foreign policy has left the state with little room to maneuver, resulting in an expansion of the military draft, rather than bringing in outside support.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported that boys above the age of 18 who have not yet served in the military will no longer be entitled to study outside the country.
According to a leaked government census from 2012, over 42,000 Turkmen students were studying abroad annually. The majority of these studying abroad were privately funded, with the government sponsoring just 2,000 students. Ukraine, the most popular destination for Turkmen students, received over 13,000, followed by Belarus with 10,000 enrolled in the country’s universities. Russia, Turkey, and Malaysia were other popular destinations. Internally, only 7,128 of the country’s 100,000 annual high-school graduates are enrolled in Turkmenistan’s universities.
With the Turkmen economy suffering the strains of low hydrocarbon prices, and unemployment up at 11 percent, the long-term effects of this change could be explosive. Meanwhile, insecurity along the border takes center stage.
Limited Reform in the Country’s Education Sector
Educational standards in Turkmenistan have been abysmally low since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In defiance of international pedagogical standards, President Saparmurat Niyazov lowered compulsory education to just nine years, effectively sealing the country off, since high-school diplomas from Turkmenistan became unrecognized abroad.
After Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became president in 2006, educational standards have only marginally increased. In 2007, compulsory education was extended to ten years, and as of 2013, pupils have been required to complete 12 years in order to finish their secondary education. The aim of this measure was to harmonize the Turkmen education system with international standards, allowing more Turkmen students to study abroad and develop much-needed skilled labor. In tandem with this the government decided to recognize foreign diplomas, reversing a decision by the Niyazov regime to declare foreign diplomas void in 2004 in order to deter students from leaving the country.
A lingering problem with the country’s educational system is corruption. According to a report by Slavomír Horák, the amount paid for successfully passing university entrance exams in 2014 was $40,000, with the more prestigious Medical University and Turkmenistan State University’s law faculty commanding up to $70,000 in bribes.
The allocation of government funds for high schools also suffers from corruption. In 2012, over 114 new schools were opened across the country. However, the building contracts grossly over-inflated costs. In fact, the costs were so high that many thousands of schools in Turkmenistan could have been renovated for the same amount of money. Due to severe funding shortages, the majority of high schools in the country are self-run and rely on donations from pupils’ parents to make the necessary building repairs.
The politicization of education, with the creeping encroachment of the state’s ideology, has continued under Berdymukhammedov. The study of Niyazov’s pseudo-religious text, Ruhnama, was only just eliminated in late 2013 as an obligatory topic for secondary schools and universities. The growing cult of Berdymukhammedov has also been evident. For example, his books are studied in class and his portrait in textbooks replaces that of his predecessor.
Afghan Conflict Sparks Internal Restructuring
Meanwhile, education is increasingly coming into conflict with Turkmenistan’s security concerns.
Turkmenistan lies along the northwest frontier of Afghanistan, adjacent to the Afghan provinces of Herat, Badghis, Faryab, and Jowzjan. Over the years the border has been relatively calm, but in 2014 incidents between Turkmen border guards and local Afghan actors, Taliban and non-Taliban alike, began to flare up. In February 2015, three Turkmen border guards were killed, with an additional three killed on May 24 by a small group crossing from the Faryab Province.
The situation in Faryab Province has grown critical, with militants seizing more than 100 villages in early July, causing Turkmenistan’s authorities to implement additional border security measures. Heavy military vehicles have been spotted near the border and local military garrisons have been conducting rapid-response drills. A further sign of elite concern was the mass mobilization of forces which took place along the border this year, with 200 reservists being summoned from Ashgabat and each of the country’s five provinces.
The armed forces of Turkmenistan have a manpower problem. By the beginning of the current recruitment campaign, about 20,000 conscripts were subject to demobilization, having served two years as required by law since the 2014 extension. The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported that in response to shortages, military units near the border weren’t demobilized in November, meaning they have been serving far longer than the required two years.
The apparent cause of the shortages was the 2013 transition to a 12-year compulsory high-school educational system, as well as the reduction of military service for graduates of Turkmen universities, according to the 2010 deferment laws. Instead, students were able to do an alternative service in officer training departments of the country’s universities.
After amendments to the law on military conscription and military service were made in November 2014, these military departments have been closed down in the majority of the country’s 20 institutions of higher education. After the law, military departments are preserved in only three institutions – the Turkmen State Institute of Transport and Communications, Turkmen State Institute of Architecture and Construction, and the Turkmen University of Oil and Gas. As before, graduates from these universities will only serve one year in the military forces.
The decision to cut study abroad is yet another drive to increase the reserve army. Due to the authorities’ paranoia and isolationist foreign policy, the country will squeeze all of its resources rather than co-operate with external security alliances. As is always the case in Turkmenistan, regime security trumps the aspirations of the country’s youth.
Bradley Jardine is a Central Asia researcher and writer currently interning with RFE/RL.