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Send Your Child To A State Kindergarten Or Lose Your Job, Turkmen Parents Told

Turkmen authorities have ordered public-sector workers to enroll their children in state kindergartens that were left almost empty after a fee increase. (file photo)

It’s been several weeks since Turkmenistan hiked fees to state kindergartens tenfold, nearly emptying many preschools, prompting a rare public protest, and resulting in the jailing of an official for merely interacting with protesters.

Angry parents say authorities are now pressing the public to enroll their youngsters in state preschools to offset an accompanying drop in kindergarten attendance, which translates into less money for the cash-strapped government.

Officials in the capital, Ashgabat, and in Dashoguz and Balkan provinces have ordered public-sector employees to send their preschool-age children to kindergartens or risk losing their jobs, several local residents told RFE/RL.

According to one resident of the northern Dashoguz Province, the November fee increase from around $2.80 to $22.80 has prompted many parents to keep their children at home.

Another Dashoguz resident complained that the higher fee represents around half of the family budget for many people in that rural region. Some women who work farmland take their children along as they can no longer afford the nursery prices, the source said.

Both residents spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing government reprisals in an authoritarian state with little tolerance for any form of dissent.

A mere comment about the nursery-fee increase landed a local education official in prison last month.

According to local residents, there are now only around 15 children in preschool facilities that previously had around 200 children attending them on a regular basis.

The head of the education department who advised the protesters to complain to the governor has been removed from his post, arrested, and charged with calling for rebellion against the government, the officials said.

The instructions to public-sector workers were issued during meetings in dozens of government institutions, they said.

As information is difficult to obtain from tightly controlled Turkmenistan, it remains unclear whether similar warnings have been given in other parts of the country.

The kindergarten fee increase, initially announced last month, prompted a rare protest rally in Dashoguz, where dozens of people, most of them women, gathered near the provincial education department on October 10.

The head of the department told the protesters to “go and complain to the provincial governor’s office” instead, according to two employees at the education department and the Dashoguz city administration who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

On their way to the governor’s office, the protesters were stopped by the country's special police force, OMON, the officials said.

The head of the education department who advised the protesters to complain to the governor has been removed from his post, arrested, and charged with calling for rebellion against the government, the officials said.

The arrested official’s wife, who worked in a local kindergarten, has also been dismissed from her job, they added.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service spoke to colleagues of the arrested education official who confirmed the charges but declined to give his name, saying only that he is about 50 years old.

They also said a state-appointed defense lawyer has since declined to become involved in his case, citing the gravity of the charges. The family is said to have hired another lawyer.

Falling kindergarten attendance is the latest blow to the state budget in gas-rich Turkmenistan, which is facing economic fallout from the global slump in energy prices.

The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from 11.1 percent in 2012 to 6.2 percent in 2016, the Asian Development Bank says.

Turkmenistan has abandoned subsidies for natural gas, electricity, and water, while ordinary Turkmen also complain that wages are often paid late.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.