Turkmenistan Orders Students Studying Abroad To Return Home To Serve In Army Despite Exemption

By RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

TURKMENBASHI, Turkmenistan -- Military service is mandatory in Turkmenistan for many conscription-age men, who must serve up to two years.

But many men aged between 18 and 27 try to evade conscription. The Turkmen Army is notorious for bullying and appalling conditions.

To fill the ranks of the national army, officials have now ordered university students studying abroad to return home to perform their service. That is despite university students being exempted from military service by law.

Several parents in the western province of Balkan told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that they had received "warning letters and threats" from the local military enlistment office to comply with the new order. In some cases, police officers have visited their homes unannounced, the parents said.

In the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi, a woman said police officers visited her home and threatened that the authorities would seek her son's deportation from the country where he was studying if he did not return voluntarily.

She told the Turkmen Service the police officers told her that "your son will get a university diploma only in his dreams."

The Turkmen Service did not disclose the names of the woman and other interviewees to protect their identities. In the authoritarian Central Asian nation, the government does not tolerate criticism and free speech.

The effort to draft university students in the army comes amid the autumn military call-up season.

The authorities have also targeted university students who have returned to Turkmenistan from abroad to renew their passports. Some have been taken to local enlistment centers and forced to enroll in the army, according to their families.

Hundreds of Turkmen students studying abroad only returned home this summer because the government had banned most international flights due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ashgabat has prohibited its embassies from issuing new passports for Turkmen citizens residing abroad.

Turkmen authorities did not respond to RFE/RL's requests for comment.

Last month, in a one-off, the government offered exemptions from mandatory military service to high-school graduates.

But many graduates in Balkan Province have been told by local authorities that they will be drafted in the army regardless, some parents told the Turkmen Service. In Turkmenbashi alone, dozens of graduates have been denied an exemption, according to locals.

Local military officials have said each administrative area must meet their conscription quotas. They also said each area has a limit on how many exemptions it can grant.

Hefty Bribes

The military call-up season in Turkmenistan is from October 1 to December 31.

During the twice-a-year enlistment campaigns, recruiters often patrol streets, airports, and schools for conscription-age men.

In June, dozens of graduating students who came to school for their final exams were hauled off by military recruiters hunting for mandatory conscripts, eyewitnesses told the Turkmen Service.

Many Turkmen soldiers are from impoverished families. In a country where corruption is rampant, families who can afford it pay hefty bribes to exempt their sons from military service. Some parents told the Turkmen Service they paid around $5,700 to get deferrals for their children.

A source familiar with the matter told the Turkmen Service that some parents in Turkmenbashi have paid 40,000 manats (around $11,500) in bribes to have their sons spared from military service.

"Most people here can't afford the 40,000-manat bribe," the source said. "The young men whose parents can't raise this amount are going to the army."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service local correspondents