Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Leaving Turkmenistan Gets Even Harder

Getting out of Turkmenistan is becoming more difficult as the security agencies widen their net and bar more people from leaving the country.
A blacklist of people not allowed to travel now appears to include small traders and labour migrants. The new rules have been applied since August, with the level of scrutiny intensifying in September.

The ban was previously applied to members of the few non-government groups that exist, and to relatives of government officials who have fallen from favour and ended up in prison. But reports from travellers indicated that the list is widening to include people not remotely connected with controversial activities, and who go abroad merely to earn some money.

The list of names and categories of people is not made public, but comments from border guards as they turn travellers away at the airport indicated that its use is standard practice. The blacklist replaces the requirement to obtain an exit visa to travel outside Turkmenistan, which was revoked in 2004. The practice allows the authorities to continue controlling the movement of people without being criticised for using Soviet-era restrictions.

One man who has been going to Turkey for many years to buy clothes to sell back in Turkmenistan said he was stopped at passport control in September. Passport officials gave no explanation but just said he was not allowed to travel.

Mubarak Muradova from the central Ahal region is another small-time “shuttle trader” who had to cancel a trip to Delhi after a passport control officer told her she was barred from leaving the country. An interior ministry official told her that her name appeared on the blacklist. She wrote a letter of complaint to the Ministry of National Security, MNB, which sent it on to the interior ministry and she has heard nothing since.

As well as “shuttle traders”, people who go abroad as migrant workers have also found themselves being watched.

Like other Central Asians, many people go to Russia, but others go to Turkey where the entry visa requirements are not so strict and where the language is sufficiently close to Turkmen as to present few obstacles. Sometimes they work abroad for a season at a time, but others such as pensioner Razykhal Gapurova’s three daughters, son and daughter-in-law have been away in Turkey for almost three years. Her son is a street-sweeper and the women work as maids, earning 300 US dollars a month - three times what they could make at home – of which they send 200 dollars home.

At one silk-weaving plant in the eastern city of Turkmenabat, MNB officers asked managers to draw up a list of people living at the factory worker’s hostel who had left for Turkey. The same thing happened at hostels belonging to other factories.

Some of the workers living in the hostels believe the lists are a scare tactic designed to deter others from going abroad, since the MNB could just as easily have got the names out of the passport-control computer system.

No one is clear why the government is targeting social groups whose activities could not be construed as subversive even by the most suspicious mind.

One trader from the western city of Balkanabat suggested the authorities might have decided to tighten controls on travel ahead of Turkmenistan’s independence day on October 27, out of concern that hostile elements might enter the country during this period. He said he hoped this theory was true, so that what he called the “iron curtain” would be lifted after the event was over.

Whatever the reason for the crackdown, the authorities will have to work hard to stop people travelling because life is so tough in Turkmenistan. One villager in the eastern Lebap region said that if the authorities want to retain their workers, they should create decent conditions for them.

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