TURKMENBASHI, Turkmenistan – Some two dozen Turkmen students returning home from abroad were taken directly from the airport into the military, their parents claim, as authoritarian Turkmenistan struggles to fill the ranks of its national army.
According to a group of parents in the western province of Balkan, their children -- conscription-aged men -- were “rounded up” by law enforcement officials as soon as they disembarked from their plane at Turkmenbashi International Airport on October 5.
“Some 25 young men from Balkan Province were coming home after graduating from the Saratov State University in Russia,” said a woman whose son was among the graduates. “At the airport, they were met by officers from the regional military recruitment agency, the security service, and police, who rounded them up as if they were criminals and took them from the airport straight to the army.”
Another woman said the authorities didn’t even allow the graduates to speak to parents who were waiting for their children at the airport’s arrival hall.
“Most of us have not seen our children for five years,” the mother said. “The officials didn’t even let us to meet them at the airport for [a few] minutes [or to] at least drink a cup of tea with them. We don’t understand why our children were treated like this.”
The parents, who come from the city of Turkmenbashi and the towns of Akdash and Kiyanly, told RFE/RL that the officials also scolded the graduates for not returning to Turkmenistan immediately after their exams finished in June.
“Our children had been waiting for their diplomas to be issued,” one of the parents said.
They also claimed that two of the returning graduates were allowed to go home because they have relatives who work at law enforcement agencies.
The parents spoke on condition of anonymity for fears about their security in the strictly controlled country, where the government doesn’t tolerate criticism. RFE/RL contacted authorities in Turkmenistan for comment but didn’t receive a response.
Up to two years of military service is compulsory in Turkmenistan for men between the ages of 18 and 27.
Sources told RFE/RL that Turkmen authorities have been struggling for years to fill the ranks of the army, as most men try to avoid serving in the military.
During the country’s twice-a-year enlistment campaigns, police and recruiters often patrol streets, airports, schools, and busy public places to hunt for potential conscripts.
Some try to leave the country to study or work abroad after finishing high school. But in recent years, military recruiters and police were seen waiting outside the school gates on the day of the students’ final exams and haul off male students to military recruitment centers.
The rich and powerful often use their influence and connections to bribe their children’s way out of military service.
Others also pay bribes to ensure their sons in the army will be stationed in military units in the capital, Ashgabat, or other big cities, instead of being deployed to higher-risk locations, such as the border with Afghanistan.
If the sons of high-ranking government officials are enlisted in the army, they usually serve in prestigious military units in Ashgabat, such as the presidential guard regiment and other honor guards, a source close to the matter told RFE/RL.
The official said wealthy parents who want to get their soldier sons into such guard regiments must pay about $14,300 in bribes.
Meanwhile, the official says the majority of the soldiers deployed in the more dangerous border units “come from impoverished families.”