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Turkmenistan's Best Hope--Its People

(Washington, DC--September 11, 2002) Three Americans, who worked in various regions of Turkmenistan from 1998 until 2002, shared their experiences of living and working in one of the world's most closed countries during an afternoon briefing at RFE/RL on 9 September. All spoke with respect and affection for the people of Turkmenistan, while noting the challenges they face in their daily lives.

Michael Clarke, a Development Associate at the International Research and Exchanges Board, taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1998 until 2001 in a village outside the provincial city of Mary. Clarke focused on the government's campaign to isolate Turkmenistan from outside sources of information, noting how even in villages people--secretly, in the dead of night--tune in to the shortwave broadcasts of the RFE/RL Turkmen Service for accurate news about events in and outside their country. Satellite television and expensive Russian newspapers used to be popular information sources, but the government recently moved to restrict access even to these media. In another step to isolate the Turkmen people from the outside world, in early 2000 the government eliminated 5,000 education jobs--primarily those of foreign language instructors. Supplanting other literature, Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov's tract "Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen" has now become required reading in all of the country's schools.

Thomas Mark, who administers the Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program at the American Councils for International Education, served from September 1999 until September 2001 as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English and promoting community development in the city of Chardjew, near the Uzbekistan border. He described the environmental and health problems faced by the people in northern Turkmenistan, who depend on the Amu Darya river for their drinking water. Mark observed that while Turkmenistan is known for its huge gas reservers, ten percent of its GDP is derived from cotton and 44 percent of its people are employed in that sector. The Karakum canal, built to irrigate Turkmenistan's cotton fields, has drained the Aral Sea and dropped the level of the aquifer serving northern Turkmenistan so low that its now-salty water is virtually unusable.

U.S. State Department attorney John Kropf, USAID's Country Director for Turkmenistan from August 2000 until May 2002, lived in the capital, Ashgabat, but travelled extensively throughout Turkmenistan. Citing the Turkmen saying, "look at a carpet and you see his soul," Kropf described the central role that textiles play in traditional and contemporary Turkmen culture. Kropf also shared his impressions of the various archeological sites around the country, noting that both officially tolerated religions in Turkmenistan--Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy--are moderate and that pilgrimages to ancient sites are characteristic of Turkmen Islamic practice.

Despite the country's major problems--exacerbated by its tyrannical and corrupt government led by the self-styled "Father of all Turkmen," President Niyazov--the speakers spoke of the resilience of the people of Turkmenistan, many of whom struggle to make the best of their hard lot. They noted the outpouring of sympathy from ordinary people after the tragic events of September 11--even though the official press was largely silent about the attacks. Teachers work long hours for low pay, and students are keen to learn English as a ticket to a better future. Although there is no law allowing NGOs, community organizations try to fulfill a similar role. The speakers agreed that the people of Turkmenistan are that country's best hope for the future.