Another Peace Corps Rejection [UPDATED]

Post image for Another Peace Corps Rejection [UPDATED]

by Joshua Foust on 4/2/2012 · 4 comments

Update: I got in touch with a spokesperson at the State Department about this. The spokesperson disputed some points I made, specifically over the visa issue compared to a broad push against the Peace Corps, and offered the following:

  • Six U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers departed Turkmenistan at the end of March 2012. They departed after 24 months in Turkmenistan, but a few months earlier than originally scheduled because their visas were not extended.
  • Peace Corps remains in Turkmenistan, with 18 volunteers serving throughout all of Turkmenistan’s five regions.
  • Assistant Secretary Blake and Foreign Minister Meredov had a productive discussion on Peace Corps operations in Turkmenistan during the recent U.S.-Turkmenistan Annual Bilateral Consultations in Washington, DC. In Ashgabat, Peace Corps leadership and the U.S. Embassy leadership regularly engage with the Turkmen government about the future of the program, including its size and scope.

I’m also reaching out to the Peace Corps to see if they have any comments on what happened. The bit about engaging is nice — I’m sure most governments do. In fact, I’m sure Kazakhstan did before the Peace Corps chose to withdraw. I can’t confirm these details, but I think this spokesperson is right to call attention to the fact that this was a visa issue, rather than anything larger. Still, governments (especially in Central Asia) routinely use visa issues as a cover to do bigger things, so I don’t think it’s out of line to speculate about whether there is an ulterior motive on the part of the Turkmen government.

Original text continues below:
This time it’s Turkmenistan that is unceremoniously letting the Peace Corps know, “in a civilized way” as Uzbeks in Osh put it after the June Events, that they are no longer welcome there.

The Turkmen authorities have refused to extend the stay of the Peace Corps volunteers in Turkmenistan until May. The volunteers had their visas valid until 26 March but they were urged to leave Turkmenistan on 23 March.

This is the latest of a wave of anti-Peace Corps statements and moved by the Berdimuhamedov government since he came to power in 2007. It’s unclear whether the Turkmen government will back off on this latest move; in all likelihood they won’t.

The Peace Corps have been under increasing pressure in Central Asia. Last November, the Peace Corps was rather unceremoniously uprooted from Kazakhstan, which the Kazakh government tried to sell as evidence that they’re so advanced they didn’t require volunteers anymore.

Color me skeptical.

This is part of a larger movement against U.S. government-funded civil society groups — the new government of Egypt, for example, really doesn’t like the National Democratic Institute — but in Central Asia it seems especially acute.

There are many reasons the Central Asian regimes don’t like groups like the Peace Corps: rejection of outside interference or assistance, a refusal to admit failures in civil society (assuming they even acknowledge one exists), and so on. Sarah Kendzior has suggested that Uzbekistan banned Wikipedia, for example, as a way to guard some sense of “Uzbekness” — it’s not a huge leap to imagine similar concerns driving the other autocrats in the region, especially if they can use it as a cover to kick out meddlesome Americans trying to open and liberalize their countries.

We really have no way of knowing. What we do know is that now Turkmenistan won’t have any value they might have derived from Peace Corps volunteers, and that’s a real loss.

Further (Weird, Not Quite Related) Reading: Dan Baumann‘s 2001 book, Imprisoned in Iran: Love’s Victory Over Fear, in which he recounts living in Ashgabat in 1997 as a covert Christian missionary, then snuck into Iran, where he was thrown into prison for illegal proselytizing and only escaped by appealing to his European parents’ citizenship. Good times all around.

Image: Ashgabat in winter, by Flickr user Ashgabatus.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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RScott April 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm

When organizations and individuals have agendas other than that for which they received their visas, they should at least be kicked out. As far as I know, most Peace Corps volunteers are there to teach various subjects in schools, in the past most frequently English. They should stick to the rules or leave and should not feel bad if they get kicked out for breaking the rules…the agreed upon reasons for them being there. They should not be working for the CIA, the worse case scenario, and they should not be undercover missionaries preaching Christianity. When these other agendas turn up, trust is lost for that organization and for the US in general.

In the 1960s the Peace Corps was in Turkey at the village level (among other places)working in what was then known as community development and in collaboration with local government but it involved getting the villagers to organize to get involved in their own development…with government help. It resulted in too many demands being made on local government for projects and eventually a request that the PCV community development activities be ended, which happened. (This is an over-simplification of what was going on.) But a different example of what can happen with well meaning and agreed upon PCV agendas.
The Nur Eye Clinic in the 1970s in Kabul and as I remember Herat was run by a group of missionaries but with agreement that there was to be no proselytizing. They were doing good and needed work but when a stack of bibles in Dari turned up along with some statements they they were not sticking to the agreement, they were asked to leave.
When PCVs are asked to leave, the question should always be asked if they were doing what they were there by agreement to do…or something else.

Nathan Hamm April 4, 2012 at 9:18 am

I broadly agree that the Peace Corps should do what it agreed to do and within the laws of the host country.

However… The former Soviet states are notorious for changing up the rules or pretending agreements that were made in the past never were in fact made. In most countries, this manifests primarily in turning up bills for unpaid back taxes or a raid for failing to have all the right stamps on documents, but it applies more broadly as well. The rules are set up so that they are almost impossible to actually follow cleanly. So in the case of Uzbekistan, for example, I’m sure one could make the argument that volunteers were exceeding their mandate by simply talking to members of the public and infecting them with the insane idea that Americans weren’t all funding and organizing democratic and Islamist terrorist groups to overthrow governments (as was the Uzbek line at the time). When these countries invite volunteers, they know they’re signing up for having foreigners living among their people, but they’ve only more recently realized that they might not in fact want that.

In my limited and anecdotal experience, Peace Corps is very good at staying non-controversial. In Uzbekistan we were warned away from associating with the secret missionary groups and strongly discouraged from talking about political topics, the two biggest problem areas at the time.

Pasha April 4, 2012 at 3:12 am

Wow… spoken like someone who has worked with Peace Corps Volunteers in the field.

Pasha April 4, 2012 at 3:17 am

that is ‘not’ worked with…

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