Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is against cigarette smoking and his antismoking stance has led officials to adopt and strictly enforce new rules concerning tobacco use -- all reportedly with an eye on making the country tobacco-free by 2025.
Although Turkmenistan now has the lowest rate of tobacco use in the world according to the WHO, the restrictions on cigarettes must rough on many citizens of the country. If there is one thing I remember from my days in Turkmenistan it’s that the men smoke -- a lot.
There are differing accounts about the new antismoking rules. Some Iranian media were reporting in late January that smoking had been banned throughout Turkmenistan. It never actually reached that point but the lives of smokers have definitely become more complicated.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, decided to do some investigating. The Turkmen government doesn't like Azatlyk so the country's people are understandably frightened to speak with us.
But Azatlyk found a Turkish truck driver named Murad who was happy to share his experience with Turkmenistan's antismoking regulations earlier this year.
"I walked out of a cafe in [the Caspian town of] Awaza and there was a market straight ahead of me," Murad said. "It was 10:30 at night. I'm walking toward the market with a cigarette in my hand. Before entering the market I put out my cigarette," Murad recounted. "At that moment someone called to me. I looked and it was a policeman."
Murad asked what was wrong, to which the policeman replied, "You're smoking."
'Did I Kill Somebody?'
The policeman took the bewildered Murad to the police station. Murad called home in Turkey to inform about his situation but his phone credit ran out before he could fully describe what was happening.
"We were in the police station and they [police] started writing out a report," Murad continued. "I asked: 'What happened? Did I kill somebody?'"
"You were smoking" a policeman shot back.
Informed by Murad's family, the Turkish Consulate in Turkmenistan called Murad on his phone and he explained what happened and that he was at the police station.
A sign in a shop in Ashgabat informs customer that "No Cigarettes" are sold there.
After the call, Murad asked again what he had done. "The police told me that people were passing by [when he was smoking]."
"I said, 'What people? It's the middle of the desert. What would people be doing walking in the middle of desert at 10:30 p.m.?'"
The policeman said, "You were smoking in the street. If you were smoking by your truck we still would have picked you up. You should smoke in your truck. But you can't smoke in your truck when it's moving, you have to stop."
Murad's frustration was growing. He asked if he could step outside the station for a few minutes.
"Where are you going?" the policeman asked.
"To smoke," Murad said.
"Why do you think you're in the police station in the first place?" the policeman asked.
Limits On Possessing Cigarettes
Another policeman who spoke Turkish arrived, apparently after the Turkish Consulate had contacted Turkmen authorities about Murad. This policeman asked Murad why he did not care about "our president's decree [on smoking in public]."
"I said, 'Look, that is your law, it doesn't apply to me. My president is in Turkey."'
The policeman asked Murad if people in Turkey could smoke in a public.
"Absolutely," he replied. Murad told the policeman in Turkey it was prohibited to smoke in enclosed areas. "In Turkey I can openly smoke in the street and no one bothers me but here you have the opposite law," he told the policeman.
The policeman reminded Murad he was in Turkmenistan and must obey the laws of the country.
"I said, 'Okay, I'll obey but look at the time, it's 10:30 at night, in the middle of the desert and I was going to a shop to buy something and I threw away my cigarette before I entered the market."
The police decided to release Murad and not file a report. Murad could have faced a fine of 70 manats [$18 at the official rate].
Murad shed some light on other aspects of the antismoking campaign. He said when he crossed into Turkmenistan the border guards told him an individual could enter Turkmenistan with no more than two cartons of cigarettes [equivalent to 400 cigarettes, usually].
He also said that usually when he was stopped by Turkmen traffic police they asked for a pack of cigarettes but Murad had learned you could get by with simply giving them a couple of cigarettes.
He also said it was possible to purchase cigarettes all over Turkmenistan and that the prices had gone down after spiking in January when Turkmen officials erroneously interpreted President Berdymukhammedov's comments on cigarettes as meaning authorities should crack down on cigarette sales.
Muhammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, contributed to this report.