Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Turkmenistan: Distant Thunder From Andijan
Turkmenistan shares a long border with its Uzbek neighbours, but such is the self-imposed isolation of this desert state that talk of the recent bloody crackdown in Andijan has been confined to quiet rumours.
The parallels between the two countries are obvious - impoverished nations living under authoritarian rule, with no free media or political pluralism.
The Turkmen government has the advantage that the lack of information means only a limited number of people will have heard about what happened in Andijan on May 13, when troops opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, causing deaths estimated to run into hundreds.
So the official Turkmen response has been to do more of the same: plug any last remaining holes through which news about Andijan could leak into the country, and step up security.
The official broadcast and print media, all strictly controlled by the government, simply ignored Andijan. News bulletins talked instead about the latest meetings of the Turkmen government. Russia’s ORT channel is rebroadcast in Turkmenistan, but is already heavily filtered with only four hours of pre-recorded programmes being shown.
Those who did get to hear about the Uzbek events were mainly more prosperous urban residents with access to satellite TV. A human rights activist, who did not want to be named, said, “People learned about the events in Uzbekistan from television news on the channels received via individual satellite dishes. Many people have satellite dishes in the capital, but in the provinces, where there’s hardly enough money to buy food, only a handful of people can afford a satellite dish.”
He concluded, “Those people who are potentially capable of mounting an uprising [the rural poor] remained unaware of what happened in Andijan – and that was the aim of the authorities; to stop the news from being disseminated among the masses.”
In the capital Ashghabat, whispered news of the Uzbek disturbances was passed by word of mouth among neighbours and colleagues, and in the shops and marketplaces.
Most of those interviewed for this report were aware of the Uzbek protests - and they said they believed they were an act of despair by people reduced to destitution.
“The fact that people decided to start a revolution shows that they had no other choice,” said one an elderly woman. “I think that’s also possible here in Turkmenistan. All that would need to happen is for people to be pushed to the limit, when there’s nothing left but death or change.”
Since May 13, police in Ashgabat have been out in force to check people’s papers. Men without identity documents are liable to be arrested if they are out after eight in the evening. Even if their papers are in order, it is common practice for them to be held overnight at a police station and released in the morning after paying a fine for alleged drunkenness.
The police patrols are picking on men in crowded places like markets, and if they are found to be from out of town, they escort them onto a train taking back to their place of residence.
A man from the northern province of Dashoguz is so desperate to earn a living that he managed to sneak back to Ashgabat after being “deported”. He recalled, “I was sent away the first time on May 20, when the police raided the spare-parts market where I was working as a porter. Nearly 60 of us were taken off to a police station, and over the course of the day we were sent home, some by bus and others by train.
“They warned us not to return to the capital, otherwise the punishment would be harsher. But I came back on June 1 because I need to earn money to feed my family. Now we get a secret warning whenever a raid is about to take place, and we run away and hide wherever we can.”
Dashoguz is one of three regions bordering Uzbekistan, and residents of this and the Lebap and Mary provinces are under the closest scrutiny.
All cars entering Ashgabat are stopped by police, and the passengers ID papers are carefully examined. Those from the border provinces are questioned more thoroughly and their cars searched. It has also become well-nigh impossible to go to Dashoguz region from other parts of Turkmenistan.
Many ethnic Uzbeks live in the border areas, with relatives on the other side of the frontier.
“It’s become a real problem for us to go and visit our relatives in Uzbekistan,” said one Uzbek man. “After the attempted revolution, the Turkmen KGB started paying particular attention to us.”
Called into the local police station after he had obtained the right travel documents for a trip to see family in Bukhara, this man found himself questioned about what he’d heard of Andijan. “After a two-hour talk, I was told to go home and they promised to tell me when I’d get the permit for the journey. But ten days have now gone past and there’s still no answer,” he said.
In another sign that President Saparmurat Niazov, better known as Turkmenbashi, wanted to further isolate his country, flights to the Kazak city of Almaty – the only remaining air link with any of Turkmenistan’s Central Asian neighbours – have been halted.
A civil aviation employee who asked not to be named said, “An attempt was made to cancel the Almaty flight at the beginning of April this year, and everyone attributed that to events in Bishkek [March revolution]. A week later, the air link with Kazakstan was restored.
“But since May 30, the flight has been cancelled, the reason given being that it has become unprofitable. Now it’s only possible to fly to the neighbouring countries via Moscow or Istanbul.”
There has been no hint of an imminent spill-over from the unrest in Uzbekistan, so Turkmenbashi’s reaction probably says more about his own focus on controlling security and access to information – and his determination to keep his country as isolated from its nearest neighbours as if it were on another planet.
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