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Viability of Turkmen Society at Risk, Expert Says

(Washington, DC--December 19, 2004) As the level of corruption and repression continues to rise in the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan, an expert on the region fears for the viability of Turkmen society. Robert Templer, Asia Director for the International Crisis Group, told a recent RFE/RL audience in Washington that, despite Turkmenistan's potential for developing a prosperous middle class society, the steady decline of Turkmenistan's economy and culture, and its growing isolation are creating a breeding ground for future terrorists.

Templer compared Turkmenistan to West African countries where authoritarian governments rule, civil society is weak, the economy is narrowly based on a single or few commodities, and extreme poverty and conflict are the norm. According to Templer, Turkmenistan is experiencing a "narrowing of the educational sphere," because of the government's decision to restrict most coursework to the study of the "Ruhnama" or "Spirit Book" authored by President Saparmurat Niyazov (also known as "Turkmenbashi," or "Father of the Turkmen") -- a situation that could produce an uneducated population "vulnerable" to extremism. Under Turkmenbashi's rule, the education system, living standards and health care have been degraded, while corruption grows as drug trafficking makes up an ever larger proportion of the economy. Templer suggested that, if Turkmenistan's "self-isolation" continues, it could become the next North Korea -- unresponsive and outside of international norms.

International pressure on Turkmenistan, according to Templer, has been insufficient and he suggested more cooperation between the United States, Russia, China and Turkmenistan's neighbors in Central Asia to try to engage with the Niyazov regime. In addition, Turkey and the European Union need to be encouraged to apply more pressure on Turkmenbashi, although Templer acknowledged that sanctions may be less effective in dealing with Turkmenistan than a policy of engagement.

Templer said that, to deal with the long-term threats to social development in Turkmenistan and to prepare for the post-Niyazov era, the international community should adopt a "lifeboat strategy" of funding media, NGOs and educational initiatives for Turkmens outside the country. By focusing on the Turkmen diaspora, international foreign assistance can be used to help ensure that after Niyazov leaves office -- sometime in the future -- technically and politically knowledgeable specialists are available to help the country rebuild.

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