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.