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Is Central Asia kicking out the Peace Corps?

Written by on Tuesday, 18 September 2012
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A peace corps volunteer in Turkmenistan, courtesy of the Peace Corps Flickr site

This was originally posted by NewEurasia.net partner Kanal PIK.

The U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan announced Aug. 31 that it was closing the Peace Corps program in the country and the remaining 18 volunteers would be making their way out of the country this month.

The move was hardly a surprise given that volunteers regularly faced difficulties in obtaining visas and it was well-known that the closed country was uncomfortable with the presence of the well-meaning outsiders. Furthermore, the program had already left Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan is now the only Central Asian country with an ongoing program.

The Peace Corps turned 50 last year and has sent more than 200,000 volunteers abroad to 139 countries since its launch in 1961. Lately, however, the service has faced scandal and had been pushed out of some of the countries that it had just expanded to after the end of the Cold War. Its departure from Kazakhstan last November was particularly messy.

Officially, the Peace Corps said that it was leaving Kazakhstan because it was “one of the most developed countries in the world to host a Peace Corps program.” The Kazakhstani government also released a statement saying that the organization pulled out because it essentially was no longer needed.

Casey Michel, a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan wrote on Registan.net at the time:

In the end, it was neither jihadist bombings nor logical progression that is forcing us to leave. It was the multi-level strains – from the KNB’s growing surveillance, to the impunity with which the drunks attacked us – that drove us from Kazakhstan. It was averaging one rape or serious sexual assault per month since June. It was school administrators allowing KNB agents to sift through both belongings and apartments. It was appointed government officials refusing to meet with Peace Corps administrators, out of either pride or contempt or grand-standing. It was these dozens of seemingly unrelated incidents – that, yes, were set amidst a backdrop of terrorist activities – that now tear us from our new homes and drop us back in a jobless line we’d thought ourselves fortunate to escape. It was a series of degrading relations, arising from both parties, that keeps us from showing this Soviet land that not all Americans are impudent, imperial assholes.

Peace Corps had already been in the crosshairs for not doing enough to protect its volunteers from sexual assault, and help the victims after the fact. Still, warts aside, I think it’s pretty clear that the organization has a very positive overall impact. Even if the individual projects that volunteers work on themselves aren’t always of major significance, the two-way cultural exchange is great for both countries.

Central Asia is a fascinating region that I’ve been dying to get to myself and it’s a shame that it appears Peace Corps volunteers won’t have that opportunity for the foreseeable future.

For more on the shutdown of the Kazakhstan program, check out the Dec. 6 episode of the (soon-to-be-relaunched) Tbilisi Bureau podcast, where I talk about problems with the modern Peace Corps with a former volunteer.

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