The government of Turkmenistan reportedly has begun cracking down on student contacts with U.S. organizations. Turkmenistan, an energy-rich Central Asian state, has long worked to isolate itself from the outside world. The concerns driving the current government actions may be well-founded. In either case, the moves suit Moscow just fine.
The government of Turkmenistan is clamping down on student contacts with U.S. organizations, according to students in Ashgabat interviewed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Turkmen Service Nov. 11. The report claims school officials warned students not to visit or interact with U.S. organizations operating in Turkmenistan, including the Public Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy, the U.S.-funded American Center and the International Research and Exchanges Board. Students were also reportedly discouraged from applying to a foreign exchange program run by the American Center known as FLEX. In addition, Turkmen university officials reportedly have denied students wishing to complete their postgraduate education in the United States school transcripts in English. The Central Asian desert state of Turkmenistan has long kept itself insulated from the outside world. With a number of great powers eyeing the country's vast energy reserves and a population deeply divided among warring clans, it is no wonder that the Turkmen police state is exceptionally paranoid when it comes to foreign organizations operating on its soil. But after the death of Turkmenistan's eccentric dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov — aka Turkmenbashi — the hermit state slowly started opening up under the rule of Niyazov's alleged son, Berdimukhammedov. The young Turkmen leader saw the potential in loosening up some of his predecessor's strictly isolationist policies as the Russians, the Americans, the Europeans and the Chinese all started knocking on Ashgabat's door in search of lucrative energy and defense deals. With this slow and steady opening came an opportunity for the United States to openly build cross-cultural exchange programs with the Turkmen population, working through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and universities to expose Turkmen students to the West. Just two years after his predecessor's death, however, Berdimukhammedov is already reverting to his father's practice of clamping down on any outlet to the Western world that could potentially threaten his regime. In this case, Berdimukhammedov may have good reason to be paranoid. Turkmenistan has taken notice of Western-backed color revolutions that have sprung up in recent years in Turkmenistan's neighborhood. The list includes the Rose Revolution in 2003 against former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, the Tulip Revolution in 2005 against former Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev and the infamous Orange Revolution in 2004-05 that helped bring pro-Western Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to power. A common thread to all these revolutions was a little-known group called CANVAS. The group grew out of a well-organized student opposition force called Otpor, Serbian for "resistance," which helped bring down former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. CANVAS seeks to draw lessons from the Serbian success to teach local Turkmen opposition groups how to most effectively challenge their country's regime. The group's objectives are independent of those of the United States. But U.S.-based development organizations with ties to Washington interested in employing such local organizations to confront authoritarian regimes with soft-power tactics have been known to provide some funding to CANVAS. These U.S. groups have included the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and/or the U.S. Agency for International Development. STRATFOR recently learned that elements traceable to the U.S. government have set up Internet and communications technology infrastructure in Turkmenistan, particularly in the country's universities. In addition to bringing Turkmenistan into the twenty-first century, these development programs are designed in part to facilitate revolutions in key parts of the world. The two key ingredients for a successful color revolution are Internet technology and a university student movement. With this formula, the United States can place people on the ground, build up student organizations and establish contact with student activists. STRATFOR sources say the money coming from these U.S. organizations has not yet made it into Turkmenistan for this exact purpose, which suggest that any potential action being mulled for Turkmenistan is still in its nascent stages. It appears Berdimukhammedov has picked up on similar rumblings of revolution organizing, and is now moving preemptively to nip these student organizations in the bud. By cutting off contact between Turkmen universities and U.S.-based organizations, the Turkmen government can have at least some control over potentially subversive action in the works, and it can short-circuit any effort to wire the universities. Given its vast intelligence network, the government is already well-equipped to keep tabs on the universities and the American NGOs operating in the country. Clamping down on these Western outlets not only serves Ashgabat's interest in maintaining control over the regime. Russia, which has watched warily as Berdimukhammedov gradually has opened his country to the West and to Asia to attract investment, wants to ensure that Central Asia remains well within the Russian sphere of influence in the years ahead. With Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, dispersed throughout Turkmenistan, it would not be surprising if the Russians themselves were tipping off the Turkmen government to potential threats to the regime emanating from the universities. And the more paranoia Moscow can sow in Ashgabat about the risks of opening to the West, the more the Kremlin can consolidate its grip in this strategic Central Asian state.