Berdimuhamedov, the Red President?

by Asher Kohn on 11/16/2009 · 2 comments

The story is a bit old, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. In Turkmenistan, the government is forbidding what amount to a whole class of college students from studying abroad in some capacity. The EurasiaNet article states that students looking to study elsewhere in the Former Soviet Union, rather than just anywhere in Europe or wherever, are the ones that are getting their visas frustrated.

I’ve been following this story at the same time that I’ve been reading The Well-Protected Domains, a book by Selim Deringil on how Abdulhamid II, the “Red Sultan” attempted to instill a sense of nationalism in the then-collapsing Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th Century. It is fascinating stuff if you’re an Ottoman nerd, and besides, Deringil was one of my favorite professors I’ve ever had.

But I digress, The Well-Protected Domains spends a bulk of its pages on the battle of education in the Ottoman Empire. The state was trying to bring Yezidis, Shi’a, and all the other non-Hanefi Muslims into the fold, and used scholarships to the major Istanbul schools to incentivize an Ottoman Education. At the same time, the state worked as hard as they could, usually through diplomatic channels, to keep the Francophone and otherwise missionary schools at a minimum and at a disadvantage from Ottoman schooling. They felt that schools outside the Ottoman state education system were a threat to the system (and were probably right, when you see that Ataturk had a Donme education in Salonika and all sorts of revolutionary folks when to Galatasaray).

It is an interesting parallel from late-era Ottoman lands to current-day Turkmenistan. Berdimuhamedow is the head of a state that probably could use some legitimacy from sources besides its natural gas and a flaming crater that could reasonably be posited as the entrance to Hell. For him to follow in Niyazov’s statist legacy, he’ll likely want a bureaucratic class that is educated the “right way” to some extent, at least. Turkmen educated in Kazakhstan may have allegiances that fall outside of Turkmenistan’s celebrated neutrality, which would, of course, alter the course of the pipes shipping out gas. However much gas there may be.

I’d hate to build a reputation as “The Education Guy” over here, because that really isn’t my academic focus (since my bio, like the rest of the new writers, hasn’t been posted yet, I feel I ought to say that I’m getting a law degree stateside right now looking at natural resource law). All the same, education is a huge part of state-building and nation-building, and it has been since the rise of nationalism in the 19th Century. The Turkmen government wants to build a country from its natural gas reserves, which is certainly commendable. It just makes one wonder which blueprint they’re looking at sometimes.

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– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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Ekspeditsya November 16, 2009 at 11:42 pm

Although it is quite conceivable that current Turkmen educational policies are determined by the kind of Ottoman insularity that you describe in your highly interesting post, the parallel starts to fray at the edge on even the most cursory examination.
Turkmenistan is not the beneficiary of around six centuries of civilisation, history and culture, so the proposition that they could (or are trying to) autochthonically assemble a national self-determined curriculum of further education is a little fanciful. The nation is almost entirely ethnically and religiously homogeneous, so there is not much scope for the kind unity-building exercise that you talk about.
Where I see stronger similarities, however, is the way in which a bureaucratic and despotic state attempts to deal with its political predicaments. The current moves are a ham-fisted response enacted by the country’s security services, I would argue, to ongoing developments.
Berdymukhamedov and his retinue have become consolidated to the point that two seemingly contradictory impulses have arisen. The president’s status has been elevated to almost Niyazov-like levels, with a reappearance of the kind of reverence unseen since the late leader’s rule. The word of the president has assumed utter supremacy and any vague momentum toward democratic process has been crushed.
Conversely, the accumulation of such power has fomented a brand of paranoia that belongs squarely in the 2002-2006 era. Insofar as that is the case, your statement on the Ottoman’s education could be easily be amended to read: “They feel that schools outside the Turkmen state education system are a threat to the system.”
Except, of course, they are not right, as Turkmen higher education institute of a travesty of a joke.
As to the matter of legitimacy, I fear that it is naive to imagine that Berdymukhamedov believes himself to be in need of legitimacy. Like his predecessor, he has quickly convinced himself that the head of the state derives legitimacy from his constitutional role, not the other way round.
On education, the Turkmen government has reverted to the stage where it doesn’t care where people study, as long as they can wield total control over the students in question. After all, state-supported students continue to travel to Russia, Turkey, China, Malaysia and even Romania to take up courses in IT, agricultural sciences, medicine, economics and finance, energy sector engineering, and other strictly non-political subjects areas.
It is self-funded or U.S. scholarship-bearing students that worry Ashgabat.
This is all my fantastically long-winded way of saying that the irony of yielding all-encompassing power is that it makes you wary and suspicious to the point of delusion. Education and the future of Turkmenistan’s brightest and most hopeful young people will necessarily become victims of Berdymukhamedov’s monomaniacial love for himself and his own power.

AS November 18, 2009 at 11:30 am

You have an interesting point, “nation-building” at least in the Turkmen sense, is definitely an incomplete and ongoing project for Turkmen government. Before the Soviet period, Turkmenistan’s tribes only hated each other slightly less than they did their non-Turkmen rivals and I think Turkmenistan today is more divided (particularly among urban/rural areas and the 5 different tribes) than Ekspeditsya suggests. The government is certainly aware of this and has done its best to, it its own ways, acknowledge these divisions but stopped short of anything further to in effect prevent the further fractionalization of society. That being said, The number of students that actually go to university in TM is quite small and the number that go abroad to study is only a fraction of that. Any kind of desired “national” effect this policy is supposed to have would be very limited even in its most succesful manifestation. I think the decision with the students was founded more upon domestic security concerns than nation building. The blacklist is a simple way to keep TM’s smartest and most motivated students in country and under control. The trial of Zatoka, if anything, indicates a complete disatisfaction with any sort of opposition, and the government is probably wondering why they’re taking the risk of permitting the possible emergence of more Zatokas and Tuhbatullins 5-10 years from now. I’ve met Turkmen students studying abroad in CA, and generally they know the delicateness of their situation and how to tow the line, but as long as their degrees aren’t recognized in TM, they know they’ll be living abroad elsewhere in CA or Europe. To the Turkmen government, why take the risk?

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