Language and power in Turkmenistan

December 24, 1999

Turkmenistan president Sapar-myrat Niyazov has decreed that the 21st century will be a "golden" age in which "science, education and learning will become the great pillars of the nation and social reforms".

In preparation, he has launched a purge of unproductive or stale scholars. Jobs at the high council for science and technology have been slashed and the deputy prime minister responsible for science has been dismissed.

During a televised visit to the Turkmen Academy of Sciences,the president declared the rector of the Turkmen Polytechnic Academy unfit for his post because he answered a question in Russian, rather than the state language - Turkmen.

Development of the state language is an important plank of nation and state-building in all post-Soviet republics - with the exception of Belarus, where President Lukashenka is committed to "integrating" his country with Russia. President Niyazov wants to build a separate Turkmen identity.

James Dingley, head of the language unit of London University's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, said that the wish for Turkmen to be the national language "has to run parallel with proper teaching of the language in schools and the development of vocabulary - and also the recognition that Turkmen is not an international language and is unlikely to become one, and that its scientists have to have an international language to communicate with the outside world.

"This, in the long run, should mean English. But all this means investment in Turkmen scientific textbooks and then in teaching English. Can the country afford it?" Mr Dingley asked.

Turkmenistan is fairly prosperous by post-Soviet standards. For example, its capital has such luxuries as a gold-plated statue of the president that revolves always to face the sun. But even if it could afford to print new university science texts every year in Turkmen, has the language developed the necessary terminology?

It could adopt the terms it lacks from Turkish. But even Turkish, Mr Dingley said, has not solved the problem of its scientific language.

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