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Turkmenistan’s Digital Education System and COVID-19: Still Waiting for Change

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the country’s government to embrace the immediate introduction of digital technology into education. In Turkmenistan, where the authorities still do not officially recognize cases of COVID-19, digitalization of education is slow. On that is independent researcher Rustam Mukhamedov with his piece for CABAR.Asia.

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Photo: turkmenportal.com

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the wide digital divide across the globe, highlighting the negative implications of lagging behind in digital uptake. In the field of education, a large number of states struggled to offer adequate remote learning alternatives to disrupted conventional schooling, exacerbating further the pre-existing inadequacies and inequities of their education systems. As such, the coronavirus crisis offered an opportunity to reflect on current policies, identify gaps and reinvent mechanisms for delivering vital public services for all. This is of particular relevance for Turkmenistan; though digitization has been reportedly high on the top leadership’s political agenda in recent years, the country’s digital advancement has been modest to say the least. Ashgabat’s low digital capabilities prevented it from delivering the education services online in the wake of the crisis, jeopardizing public health. It is, hence, crucial that the government learns from this crisis; and most importantly, that it learns the right lessons.    

The COVID-19 Response: All is well in Ashgabat

In brief, Turkmenistan has been following a contradictory approach towards the pandemic. In early spring, when the virus reached Central Asia, the government refrained from introducing strict containment measures akin to those of its neighbors. The authorities, however, closed the borders, restricted cross-country travel, placed checkpoints at the entrance to Ashgabat, limited access to certain public spaces or closed them altogether, introduced some social distancing, and raised awareness about personal hygiene.[1] These measures, the authorities argued, were sufficient for preventing the spread of the virus into the country.

The government’s approach however was inconsistent, which certainly undermined the positive impact of the efforts outlined above. While closing certain public spaces, the government kept others operating, such as museums and theatres. Authorities also neither closed educational establishments nor prolonged spring vocations as was done in many states. The mass-orchestrated events to celebrate Nowruz and International Health Day were also held, gathering large groups of people together with no protective gears whatsoever.[2] Mask wearing, in general, was discouraged as not to cause public chaos. 

Most importantly, the government’s stubborn reluctance to share detailed and accurate information on the course of the disease in the country with the public and international community has been the most pronounced undermining factor. Authorities denied (and still do) the presence of the virus and invested considerable efforts to advance this narrative. The government, for instance, has been silencing healthcare workers, intimidating activists, and repudiating independent reporting that tried to shed light on the actual developments. In June, the Foreign Ministry publicly rejected the US embassy’s alert on the coronavirus situation in the country, labeling it “fake” and “distorted”. The government is also most likely behind the cyber-attacks on the Chronicle of Turkmenistan website and behind copyright infringement accusations of Erkin Turkmenistan Radio Youtube channel[3] as both have been providing independent coverage of the coronavirus related developments in Turkmenistan.   

Altogether these efforts put the local population at a significant risk, particularly given the country’s healthcare system’s low responsive capacity. Turkmenistan ranks 101th of 195 states in the 2019 Global Health Security Index, and its preparedness capabilities in addressing the infectious diseases have long raised criticism.[4] Turkmenistan has the highest number of deaths from tuberculosis among European and Central Asian countries, according to the 2019 Global Tuberculosis Report and has persistently failed to properly acknowledge and share information on HIV/AIDS cases in the country.[5] In regard to recent developments, Turkmenistan has been experiencing a surge in acute pneumonia cases, the symptoms being consistent with COVID-19.

The denial and distortion of data, an acute lack of competent personnel and the necessary equipment, particularly outside major urban areas, significant underfunding, endemic corruption, and refusal to better engage with international healthcare entities forestall any meaningful development of the country’s healthcare system, threatening the public health and safety not only in Turkmenistan itself but in the region as well.

Wider Implications

The authorities’ response to the coronavirus-related developments indicates the government’s lowering administrative and institutional capacity to maintain adequate level of essential public services’ provision in light of the ongoing economic shock. President Berdymukhamedov already stated that the country’s budget needs to be revised to better reflect the disruptive impact of the virus on the national economy, implying further cuts in public spending.[6] Though the coronavirus did have a considerable negative effect on the local economy, it is far from being the main aggravating factor for the country’s economic troubles. Turkmenistan’s economy is undiversified and is highly reliant on the export of hydrocarbons; to make matters worse, the government has long pursued dubious economic policies, such as allocating significant funds in showcase projects of little societal value instead of developing human capital. State’s heavy handed control, patronage networks and rampant corruption are additional obstacles for the genuine development.

The current socio-economic situation is indeed dire, some international observers describing it as “humanitarian catastrophe”.

The reforms the government has put forward thus far all lack meaningful commitment to address the structural impediments for growth as outlined above. Digitization is one such initiative. In theory, it can lead to positive growth, strengthen state institutions, cut state expenses, and diversify the economy. By digitizing the education sector, the government can lay the foundation for a more resilient economy, able to minimize the negative effects of external shocks; it can contribute to bridging the gap between the advanced and disadvantaged social groups, and it can contribute to greater workforce mobility and the expansion of the talent pool, developing competencies that will be requisite for tomorrow’s societies.

In practice, however, these outcomes are not predetermined as digitization is not a panacea in itself. The lack of a thought through approach with clear long-term planning risks turning it into another showcase project of little value to the society at large. Ashgabat’s current efforts demonstrate just that.

Digitization of the education system

In 2017, Turkmenistan adopted the Concept of the digital educational system development, seeking to “improve the quality of educational services through digital platform and create conditions for continuous education for all segments of population”.[7]

The government’s pursuance of these goals has been largely formalistic, leading to poor outcomes.

In 2018, the government adopted the Concept for the development of digital economy in Turkmenistan for 2019-2025, which is supposed to supplement and facilitate digitization in various sectors and tailor them all to the single goal – the establishment of a knowledge-based economy.[8]

The government’s pursuance of these goals has been largely formalistic, leading to poor outcomes. It is indicative that except for Turkmen International University of Humanities and Development, Turkmen higher education institutions (HEIs) still do not have distinct websites; the information about the country’s HEIs and their programs is hosted on Turkmen Academy of Sciences’ webpage. Turkmen HEIs are equally humble about publicizing their research and academic activities online.

Thus far, the authorities mainly focused on reorganizing the traditional academic institutions and programs. They reorganized the State Institute of Transport and Communication into an Institute of Telecommunications and Informatics, established the Learning and Training Center, responsible for the development of computer software for the needs of the economy; established “IT-platforms” to train specialists in software support, and introduced academic programs in several HEIs and vocational schools to name but a few.[9] The official reports about the progress in the field are usually limited to concise and patchy statements as ones above with little to no follow-up information, making it nearly impossible to evaluate the factual positive impact of implemented changes.

Despite this fact, some empirical evidence suggests that Turkmenistan lags behind. President Berdymukhamedov continuously reprimands state officials on the slow paced implementation; in February 2020, he even issued a decree that urges all state and state-affiliated institutions to speed up the development of their websites and integration of digital tools in their work.[10] The government’s failure to provide online learning during the COVID-19 crisis is another strong evidence of the existing gap. According to official reports, authorities were developing the platforms for online learning only in June 2020.[11] In October 2020, Orient.tm website reported that only two Turkmen HEIs started to provide the distance learning for fourth and fifth year students – the aforementioned Turkmen International University of Humanities and Development and the Institute of Telecommunications and Informatics.[12]

The current and prospective efforts are unlikely to bring in any real change unless the government starts to address the underlying obstacles. The first two are directly linked to digitization, the digital divide and low digital literacy. Turkmenistan has a primitive ICT infrastructure; the country’s Internet is slow and expensive.[13] Thus, the uptake is at low levels as large segments of the population, residing outside major urban areas, do not have adequate access to Internet and digital technologies. The pledges to modernize the infrastructure are welcoming, yet, it is equally important that the government commences reforms in the telecommunications sector, expanding the access and making it more affordable.

The authorities must also think of dialing down their own digital invasiveness; Turkmenistan is among the most repressive states in terms of Internet freedom, regularly featuring near the bottom in respective indices. The government’s attempts to “sterilize” the online environment hits the education sector hard by circumscribing access to information and curtailing critical thinking and academic freedom.

Improving the digital literacy is another vital task. The government introduced several learning courses to address the problem[14]; however, there are noticeable shortcomings. The problem with such courses is that they are short-term, limited in scope, and even force the participants to pay for them out of their own pocket. The fact that most of them focus on computer basics denotes the current knowledge gap. The authorities still have to develop a comprehensive strategy that will reach out to the education community, and cover topics, such as cyber-hygiene and new modes of delivery of teaching.

The pre-existing obstacles and shortcomings

In addition to the above, the country’s education system suffers from a number of structural problems. The considerable understaffing and underfunding are one of the major ones. The recently stated plans to introduce fees in tertiary education, presented as part of the plan to align domestic HEIs closer to international standards, highlight the government’s struggling efforts to ensure the proper funding of tertiary education.[15] This provides a fertile ground for corruption breeding; the bribes can be as high as tens of thousands of dollars for entering the university.

The curriculum at all levels is outdated and is overwhelmed with ideological teaching, glorifying the state and its President.

The instruction time is significantly short as students and faculty members alike are forced to participate in state-sponsored mass events.[16] This, undeniably, has a serious negative effect on the quality of education. These structural inadequacies altogether curtail access to education to the majority of population, particularly harming marginalized groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, and those from low income backgrounds. Female students, for instance, represent only 38, 5 % of all HEIs’ student body.[17]

Having little opportunities to gain proper education at home, many Turkmens opt in for studying abroad. The government’s recent draconian measures, however, have significantly reduced even such opportunities. The officials impose limits on cash withdrawals and money transfers from parents, making it difficult for the students to pay university fees or afford proper living. In addition, the government developed a list of foreign universities and degrees that it is willing to recognize, forcing many to discontinue their studies.[18]


Serdar Berdymukhamedov, Former governor of Ahal region, photo: gossov.tatarstan.ru

Digital education system, as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, is no longer a prerogative, but a necessity. The one main lesson Turkmenistan can learn from the current crisis is that the digital teaching and learning ecosystem cannot be built on a shaky foundation. It must realize that the digitization is not only about developing websites or appropriating foreign made technology. It is about building such technologies and platforms from scratch, making them agile, and resilient. It is, ultimately, about nurturing local talent that will have the necessary skillset and toolset to succeed in tomorrow’s digital world.

It is imperative, hence, that the government takes a holistic approach, focusing on eradicating opaque management practices in the system, laying the foundation for inclusive growth. States that have done just that were rewarded with greater ability to minimize the disruptive impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is unlikely that Turkmenistan will implement far-reaching institutional reforms, however, given current political realities. Currently, digitization is mainly the tool that is used to boost the President’s and his son Serdar Berdymukhamedov’s public image of modern technocrats, who eagerly strive to lead the country towards the technological revolution. The latter already made Ahal the first province in the country to fully integrate e-document management into its work while governing over the province[19], and most recently presented his father with electronic devices that were developed by local companies.[20] For the majority of state bureaucrats, digitization is just another box-ticking activity as all they look for is to avoid President’s reprimands. In such circumstances, for the population the promised digital revolution risks becoming a digital replica of the “Era of Might and Happiness”.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

[1] “Chto izvestno o koronaviruse v Turkmenistane na dannyi moment. Obzor SMI,” Chronicles of Turkmenistan, last modified March 29, 2020, https://www.hronikatm.com/2020/03/covid-situation-in-tm/

[2] Catherine Putz, “Turkmenistan Celebrates World Health Day Unwisely,” the Diplomat, last modified April 8, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/turkmenistan-celebrates-world-health-day-unwisely/

[3] Asim Kashgarian, “Turkmenistan Clamps Down on COVID-19 Criticism,” Voice of America, last modified on November 30, 2020, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/turkmenistan-clamps-down-covid-19-criticism

[4] Aynabat Yaylymova, “COVID-19 in Turkmenistan: No Data, No Health Rights,” Health and Human Rights Journal, last modified October 5, 2020, https://www.hhrjournal.org/2020/10/covid-19-in-turkmenistan-no-data-no-health-rights/ 

[5] Inga Sikorskaia, “Turkmenistan’s Covid-19 Policy: Secrecy and Denial,” last modified on April 17, 2020, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/turkmenistans-covid-19-policy-secrecy-and-denial

[6] Diana Mutalibova, “Pravitelstvo Turkmenistana peresmotrit budzhet,” Caspian news, last modified April 7, 2020, http://caspian.news/2020/04/07/%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BB%D1%8C%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B2%D0%BE-%D1%82%D1%83%D1%80%D0%BA%D0%BC%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%B8%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D0%BF%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%81%D0%BC%D0%BE/

[7] “Dobrovol’nyi natsionalnyi obzor Turkmenistana.” (Voluntary national report of Turkmenistan on implementation of SDG) Last accessed on June 20, 2020. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/2331512.07.19_Updated_VNR_of_Turkmenistan.pdf

[8] “Strategy of economic growth: modernization, digitization, investments.” The State News Agency of Turkmenistan: Turkmenistan today. Last modified on November 13, 2019.  http://tdh.gov.tm/news/en/articles.aspx&article20472&cat30

[9]  See, for example:

“V Turkmenistane byl sozdan Institut telekomunikatsiy i informatiki.” (The Institute of Telecommunications and Informatics is established in Turkmenistan) Hronika Turkmenistana. Last modified on June 12, 2019. https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/06/it-uni/

“Vedyotsa rabota po sozdaniyu Uchebno-prakticheskogo tsentra po tsifrovoy ekonomike.” (The work is being made to establish the Learning and Training Center on digital economy) The State News Agency of Turkmenistan: Turkmenistan today. Last modified on March 29, 2019. http://tdh.gov.tm/news/tm/articles.aspx&article17367&cat14

“V Turkmenistane otkroyut samookupaemayie IT-ploshadki.” (Turkmenistan will establish self-financing IT-platforms) Hronika Turkmenistana. Last modified on October 27, 2019. https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/10/it-centers/

[10] “All institutions, departments and enterprises are instructed to introduce electronic document management system and create websites.” The State News Agency of Turkmenistan: Turkmenistan today. Last modified on February 27, 2020. http://tdh.gov.tm/news/en/articles.aspx&article21637&cat26

[11] “Distancionnoie obucheniye: platforma novyh vozmojnostey,” Turkmen State News Agency, last modified June 19, 2020, http://turkmenistan.gov.tm/?id=21211

[12] “Nekotoryie turkmenskiye vuzy pereveli studentov starshih kursov na onlayn obucheniye,” Orient.tm, last modified October 14, 2020, https://orient.tm/nekotorye-turkmenskie-vuzy-pereveli-studentov-starshih-kursov-na-onlajn-obuchenie/

[13] “BTI 2020 Country Report Turkmenistan.” BertelsmannStiftung. Last accessed June 20, 2020. https://www.bti-project.org/en/reports/country-report-TKM-2020.html#pos14

[14] “Tsifrovizasiya po-turkmenski. Byudzhetnikov posylayut uchitsya kompyuternym azam” (Digitalisation Turkmen way. State employed are ordered to learn computer basics) Turkmen news. Last modified on March 26, 2020. https://turkmen.news/news/sifrovizasiya-turkmenistan/

[15] “Turkmenistan perevedet instituty na hozraschet dlya ih vklucheniya v spisok prestizhnyh vuzov,” Chronicles of Turkmenistan, last modified April 18, 2020, https://www.hronikatm.com/2020/04/self-financing/

[16] Bohr, Annette. 2016. “Turkmenistan: Power, Politics and Petro-Authoritarianism.” Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2016-03-08-turkmenistan-bohr.pdf, 44

[17] “Dobrovol’nyi natsionalnyi obzor Turkmenistana.” (Voluntary national report of Turkmenistan on implementation of SDG) Last accessed on June 20, 2020. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/2331512.07.19_Updated_VNR_of_Turkmenistan.pdf

[18] Baumgartner, Pete. “’Killing Hope’: Turkmenistan’s List Of ‘Accepted’ Universities Deals (Another) Blow To Students.” RadioFreeEurope/Radio Liberty. Last modified on April 24, 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/killing-hope-turkmenistan-s-list-of-accepted-universities-deals-(another)-blow-to-students/29901588.html

[19] “Ahalskiy velayat pod rukovodstvom Serdara Berdymuhamedova stal pervym tsifrovym regionom Turkmenistana.” (Ahal province under the leadership of Serdar Berdymukhamedov became the first digital region of Turkmenistan) Hronika Turkmenistana. Last modified on December 17, 2019. https://www.hronikatm.com/2019/12/neo/

[20] “Berdymuhamedov dal nazvaniya nacional’noj tekhnike. Sredi nih mini-telefon «Malysh» i kuler «ZHazhda»,” Biznes online, last modified October 3, 2020, https://www.business-gazeta.ru/news/483176

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