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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during a meeting with the Russian foreign minister in Ashgabat in January.

According to officials in Turkmenistan, it is still “Altyn Asyr,” the Golden Era, as it supposedly has been for many years now.

But recently things have been different in Turkmenistan. Cracks are appearing within the dictatorship and the shine is rubbing off the Golden Era.

Of course, with Turkmenistan it is always difficult to tell what exactly is happening inside the country, dubbed the hermit kingdom, so it is difficult to see where the country is headed.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to look at what we know about recent events in Turkmenistan.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating in the talk was Peter Leonard, Central Asia editor at Eurasia Net, Ruslan Myatiev, journalist and founder of the Alternative Turkmenistan News website. And since I’ve been following the often bizarre events in Turkmenistan for many years, I said some things also.

Myatiev started by saying, “A lot of things have changed especially in the last year. That applies to the economy, to the social life… to the freedom of the people in the country.”

Hard times have hit Turkmenistan, the sort of hard times the country really has not seen since it became independent. Turkmenistan is heavily dependent on natural-gas exports for revenue. The recent sharp decrease in gas prices on world markets seems to have touched off a chain reaction in Turkmenistan. As Leonard said, “This sort of cushion of large riches flowing into the country has suddenly dried up, kind of creating a great crisis of confidence.”

There is ample evidence of crisis. Last year, the Turkmen government announced cuts in subsidies for gas, electricity, and water, which were all previously free. Rates are still very low for the use of these utilities but they could get higher quickly if the government acts on a proposal to totally do away with these subsidies.

There are also reports of growing unemployment, though the Turkmen government does not speak about unemployment, so it is unclear how bad the problem is. Some opposition websites, based on information from people inside Turkmenistan, reported there were layoffs in the gas industry and suggestions nearly half the gas workers would eventually be let go. Recently, authorities have been preventing nonresidents of the capital Ashgabat from entering the city. One thought is that officials are preventing a mass migration of unemployed people seeking to find work in the capital.

Leonard cautioned that in Turkmenistan the government has a counternarrative it has been preaching for years when it comes to socioeconomic problems. “In Turkmenistan, the state message is [that] the white marble, the big projects, the stadiums, the hippodromes, the statues, whatever, all of this is a sign of economic success. The signs of economic failure are not unemployment or drops in productivity. The signs of economic failure are holes in the road, ugly buildings, all of these things,” he said.

That explains to some extent how the government has been able to cut back on social spending while at the same time allocating state funds for realizing grandiose projects, many of which seem to serve little or no purpose.

All the same, there have been some reports of social discontent, the kind of reports not heard out of Turkmenistan for some two decades. The gas workers in the eastern Lebap Province went on strike last summer. Something happened last year in the late winter in the city of Tejen, some 220 kilometers east of Ashgabat, that involved mass arrests but there have been conflicting reports about the cause.

Conflicting because of course it is nearly impossible for outside news services to gain access to Turkmenistan, especially to areas outside the capital or Caspian resort area Awaza, especially in recent months. Azatlyk, for example, has been able to do some reporting from inside Turkmenistan, but last year, as the economic problems set in across Central Asia, harassment of Azatlyk correspondents increased and Azatlyk correspondent Saparmamed Nepeskuliev was arrested.

Nepeskuliev was charged with narcotics possession, was held in custody without authorities informing his family, and was quickly convicted and was sentenced at a trial where he had no legal representation. [You can find out more about this here.)

Turkmen authorities prefer to control what information comes out of the country. Azatlyk was allowed to work within tight and tacit parameters but Nepeskuliev’s case, and that of other Azatlyk correspondents, seems to show those parameters have contracted as conditions inside Turkmenistan have gone into decline.

Myatiev said it is part of a broader pattern of renewed repression. “People started to display their disagreement with the current policies and the repression here started to become… more tangible,” he said.

The reduction in revenues may also be leading to infighting in the government. There have been a wave of dismissals in the government in recent weeks (I deal with that in a report to be released soon), more so than usual.

Leonard suggested “under [the president] are all these people trying to grab a now, smaller and smaller pie, and that the best way to get a piece of the pie is to say ‘look at that guy, he’s stealing’ or ‘he’s doing his job badly’… this kind of fighting under the rug is going on.”

I’ve made it all the way through this text without mentioning President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov by name. That’s not easy when writing about Turkmenistan.

Myatiev agreed with Leonard that there is “fighting under the rug” and said the source of this is Berdymukhammedov’s family, which has been acquiring ever more sectors of the economy.

And all this comes as amendments are about to be introduced to the constitution that will allow Berdymukhammedov to run for a third term in office in next year’s election, and possibly stay on far longer than just this one additional term.

The panel looked at these topics in greater detail and touched on other important events taking place currently in Turkmenistan. An audio recording of the discussion can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan -- Rotting Away From The Inside
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The Karakiya district of Kazakhstan is very dry and very hot and in winter can be bitterly cold -- a curious place to host a refugee center.

Kazakh authorities have selected two sites and allocated funds to set up two refugee centers in a move that appears to have come as a surprise to area residents.

But the biggest questions now are: Who are these refugees? And when and why did Kazakh authorities decide to accept them?

Russia's TASS news agency carried one of the first reports of this curious development on January 29. That report quoted Svetlana Nareshova, acting head of the economy and budget planning department of the government of Kazakhstan's southwestern Mangistau Province, as saying, "The regional budget provides for the establishment of refugee centers under the antiterrorism article of the defense program."

That report made it sound as if these plans for refugees were common knowledge. But, in fact, many people in Mangistau did not seem to know about it and were not happy when they found out.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, went to the region and learned that a petition against housing refugees was being circulated in Mangistau. Some 3,000 people had already signed it. "The experience in Europe shows that a flood of refugees is always accompanied by an increase in crime and additional strains on the budget," the petition says.

Azattyq spoke with former Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister General Amirbek Togusov, who was asking the same questions that many people in Mangistau are asking.

"It's not clear to me which refugees we are talking about," Togusov said. "Where will they come from? From Afghanistan or Iraq?"

Togusov then came to the crux of the matter. "How will the local population receive them?" he said.

Judging by the petition, there are at least 3,000 locals who are against the idea. Its authors claim the government never discussed such a plan with local residents. The authors also recommended spending the money allocated for the refugee center on "low-income families and invalids" in Mangistau.

But rights activist Togzhan Kizatova claimed there is just a small group of xenophobes behind the circulation of the petition and noted that in the first half of the 20th century people of many nationalities were given refuge on the territory of present-day Kazakhstan.

Kazakh political analyst Dos Koshim said there are no refugees but that it makes sense to at least be prepared and have a facility to house them, if they ever appear.

Azattyq sought local officials who could shed light on what the plans were for the refugee centers. Azattyq first telephoned the deputy secretary of the provincial council, Sarzhok Saybagytov. Asked about the planned refugee centers, Saybagytov replied, "We have so many matters to look at every day. I'm not a computer. I can't keep everything in my head. Ask the budget-planning department; ask [Svetlana] Nareshova."

So Azattyq returned to where this story started: Svetlana Nareshova. But while Nareshova was willing to provide some information to Russia's TASS news agency, she was not quite as accommodating with Azattyq. Nareshova said questions should be addressed to Gulmira Balgozhaeva, the press secretary for the Mangistau governor. Balgozhaeva said she would need the questions in written form. Azattyq still has not heard back from her.

As mentioned, Nareshova was a bit more informative with TASS. She suggested that 340 million tenges (around $850,000) had been allocated for the first refugee center, near the border with Uzbekistan, and that a similar center could be established near the border with Turkmenistan. Nareshova also said no refugees were expected in the near future.

The locations are curious. One center would be located in the Beyneu district along the Uzbek border and the other in the Karakiya district on the Uzbek and Turkmen borders. In terms of the landscape, this area -- the only place where Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan meet -- is the northwestern part of the Kara-Kum Desert. It's very dry and very hot and in winter can be bitterly cold.

It is also difficult to believe authorities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been consulted about this planned refugee camp on their borders. Refugees from Afghanistan made their way into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s. Neither country welcomed them, and both were anxious to repatriate them as quickly as possible. As recently as 2010, Uzbekistan made clear it would not provide any more than brief shelter for refugees, even when those refugees were ethnic Uzbeks fleeing from Kyrgyzstan.

Azattyq pointed out that maybe nothing will come of this by recalling that, in April 2010, Kazakhstan set up a center in Zhambyl Province to accept anticipated refugees from the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, when the government of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted. No one ever came. One ironic aspect to the episode is that Kazakhstan will mark its first Day Of Gratitude on March 1. President Nursultan Nazarbaev created the holiday to remember all the different peoples whom Stalin forcibly resettled in Kazakhstan during World War II.

Based on material by Azattyq correspondent Saniya Toyken

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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