Fear and Repression in “Reformed” Turkmenistan
Despite Turkmenistan’s attempts to present itself abroad as a reformed state, people who live there say the atmosphere remains as repressive as ever.
Fear of retribution for anything that might be perceived as disloyal towards authorities has created a climate of silence in which people put up with mistreatment without complaint.
When Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov succeeded the late Saparmurat Niazov as president in 2007, he signalled a change of direction away from total repression.
In some areas like healthcare, education and culture, Berdymuhammedov reversed a series of restrictive and sometimes eccentric cutbacks imposed by his predecessor. But hints at reforms in other areas have either not materialised, or in the case of political pledges such as allowing opposition parties to operate, are patently designed to impress the international community and are not intended to come into being. (See Charm Offensive Belies Turkmen Reality.)
As in Niazov’s time, Turkmenistan is a one-party police state with no independent media. The security services are omnipresent, tapping phones, monitoring internet traffic, preventing anyone they regard as suspect from travelling out of the country, and generally intimidating anyone who complains about life in Turkmenistan.
Active dissidents and opposition supporters either went to jail or emigrated years ago, so the focus of harassment is on family members, including those of officials who fall from grace in one of Berdymuhammedov’s regular purges of government.
“We thought that [this] president would prove more humane than the last one, that the repression would stop and that the fear would go away, but things haven’t turned out that way at all,” an Ashgabat-based journalist said.
“We’re afraid to talk to people on the phone. A lot of people have been put behind bars because they let something slip during a telephone conversation.”
An elderly woman in the capital Ashgabat said she was summoned by the Ministry of National Security a couple of days after she complained about rising prices while on the phone to a relative in Ukraine. She was lucky to get away with an abject apology after a security officer pointed at Africa on a map on the wall and said, “That’s where they’ve got nothing. We have everything here – understand?”
It does not take much to get into trouble with the authorities.
A resident of the western town of Balkanabat described how both he and his wife lost their jobs after he asked for payment or time off in lieu because he was regularly required to work overtime.
“The managers told her, ‘Go and tell your husband to stop banging on about his rights or we will put you both behind bars’,” he said. “So now we’re both left without work.”
In Turkmenabat, a town close to the country’s eastern border with Uzbekistan, said people now feared prosecution “for a word misinterpreted, for expressing the wrong view”.
In this climate of fear, people knuckle under and say nothing when they are forced to turn out as a cheering crowd for some national celebration, to provide free labour for public works such as cleaning the streets, and for the all-important task of tending and picking the cotton crop. “Voluntary” collections are organised to fund government projects or ensure mass subscriptions to state newspapers.
“Everyone puts up with arbitrary treatment, as they know that standing up to it will have negative consequences,” a resident of Kunya-Urgench in northern Turkmenistan said.
Observers believe the blacklist of people barred from travelling outside Turkmenistan has increased since Berdymuhammedov came to power
“There are now more than 18.000 names of Turkmen citizens on it, ” Timur Misrikhanov, of the Netherland-based Association of Independent Lawyers. He noted that since then the list has almost doubled.
Approached to confirm the existence of a blacklist, an official with Turkmenistan’s migration service said he could lose his job if he showed too much interest in it.
An Ashgabat resident who gave her name as Anna said she had been barred from visiting relatives in Russia since 2006, when her brother was imprisoned.
Police and migration officials told her the ban could not be lifted, and now she does not approach them any more. “I’m afraid that asking about it could draw attention to us and lead to retribution against me and my family,” she explained.
Often, people do not realise they are on the no-travel list until they encounter delays getting the permits they need, or even until they are stopped at airport border controls.
The reasons are unexplained. In 2009, many Turkmen students studying in Kyrgyzstan were prevented from going back there after the summer holiday.
“Some of these young people still find themselves on the black list of people barred from travelling,” said a Turkmenabat resident, who had been considering sending his own son to study abroad but has thought better of it .
In January, President Berdymuhammedov strengthened the role of the migration service in a move seen as tightening up border controls even further. This followed a speech in September when he urged the security services to take vigorous action against anyone who slandered the “democratic, law-based and secular” state of Turkmenistan.
An analyst in the country was pessimistic about the future, saying criticism had been all but stamped out.
“The authorities will continue to deal ruthlessly with anyone who takes a stand, in order to perpetuate their hold on power for the long term,” he said.
One of the few remaining non-government activists in Ashgabat said the effect was to crush initiative and prevent Turkmenistan developing.
“The security services exercise power in the worst sense of the word,” he said. “To them, every citizen is a potential lawbreaker. This intensifies their instinct for repression, and leaves ordinary people feeling downtrodden.”
Omar Seljuk is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan. Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR’s Senior Editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.