Many Turkmens who live abroad are afraid to connect with other Turkmens. They would rather not reveal where they are from or become friends with Uzbek or Kyrgyz nationals than build a community of Turkmens.
I have lived in four different countries and in neither of these places I was actively searching for or connecting with my fellow Turkmen citizens. Nor I ever wanted to visit the Turkmen embassies in these countries. At my university there was a relatively large number of students from Turkmenistan. However, we never felt like a community and rather befriended students from other countries. Students from other Central Asian countries were more organized than us and they were better connected to their respective embassies. During cultural events hosted at my university students from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were supported by their embassies. It included financial support to cook national dishes and lending cultural artifacts or traditional outfit so students could use them to represent their countries.
In my recent encounter, when I told I was from Turkmenistan my acquaintance said he knows at least a dozen of Turkmens who are currently studying or working in the country where I live. He kindly suggested connecting me to them, which, as I always do, I kindly refused. I am reluctant to meet other Turkmens because of rumours that Turkmen secret services (KNB) recruit students to spy on each other and because of unpleasant encounters I had when I felt judged or envied (for status, achievements, etc.) by other Turkmens.
Diaspora refers to Turkmen migrants, their descendants or ethnic Turkmens living abroad. It is common for countries with big diaspora communities to have dedicated policies to engage, maintain and develop relationship with their diaspora living abroad. Such policies aim to ensure the rights and protection of diaspora members as well as to strengthen their national identity, sense of belonging, and to encourage diaspora contributions to country’s socio-economic development (i.e. remittances, skills transfer).
The study commissioned by the European Union Global Diaspora Facility (EUDiF) revealed that Turkmenistan is the only country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that does not address diaspora issues in its legal and policy framework. While I understand that not all Turkmen diaspora members will have the desire to engage with each other or contribute to the development in Turkmenistan, many will. And given their size, education and skills levels diaspora community has a tremendous economic potential for Turkmenistan. Firstly, it can attract high inflow of remittances where Turkmens residing abroad can easily send money to their family in Turkmenistan. Secondly, it can foster knowledge and skills transfer as most of these diaspora populations are highly educated.
Migrants from Eurasian countries, regardless of destination country, are highly educated than the average migrant. For instance, in 2010 the average emigration rate for people with post-secondary education worldwide was 5.4% while for Central Asian countries it was between 20% (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and 10-20% (Turkmenistan).
A Turkmen diaspora is present in nearly all post-Soviet countries and estimated 10 million ethnic Turkmens live in countries beyond the post-Soviet space (International Organization for Migration, 2020). These countries include Iraq (about 3 million people), Syria (about 3 million), Afghanistan (about 2 million), and Iran (from 1.5 to 3 million). Turkey and Russia are the top two destination countries both for students and labour migrants from Turkmenistan.
Turkey receives 20,000-25,000 Turkmen workers per year with the total number of Turkmens living there reaching over one million. From 2016-2019 Russia hosted 141,629 Turkmens with student visas and 11,628 with work visas. Among the European Union countries, Germany is the top destination for Turkmen citizens where over 1,000 have received residence permits by the end of 2020.
I believe that to have an effective and productive diaspora policy the Turkmen government should develop a legal framework and policy for a long-term strategy towards its diaspora.
The very first step by the government would be to empower Turkmen embassies to organise various events and networking opportunities to connect members of the diaspora community. This can encourage exchange of ideas and collaboration and help build trust among the community. The government should support financially and politically diaspora initiatives with the potential to positively contribute to Turkmenistan’s socio-economic development. It is important, however, that Turkmen diaspora feel safe and welcome to participate in these initiatives.
As a citizen of Turkmenistan, who has two degrees from prestigious foreign universities and who has been living and working abroad for over 15 years, it is saddening and unfortunate that my government is more afraid of me than interested in me. Based on my own experience and the experiences of countless Turkmen friends, I have the impression that the government of Turkmenistan sees its diaspora abroad more of a threat to stability than a potential for progress. At least 10 million Turkmens are already living abroad. Instead of fearing them why not to befriend them and engage with them for the greater good of the people in Turkmenistan. Instead of seeing the diaspora abroad as a ‘lost talent’ or ‘traitors of their country’ why not see them as assets with human capital and financial resources able to contribute to Turkmenistan’s development.
What has been your experience as a Turkmen living abroad? Do you feel safe and encouraged to connect to other Turkmens and to Turkmen embassies? What could promote greater unity among Turkmens, both living abroad and those in Turkmenistan? And how could the Turkmen government productively engage with you and harness your skills, expertise and network to benefit Turkmenistan?
Author: Ogulgerek Palwanova
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the editorial group and other authors who write for the publication. Progres.online creates a space for the expression of diverse opinions in Turkmenistan.