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Qishloq Ovozi

People waiting for a ticket at Ashgabat's airport in August, where there are many reports of officials refusing to let people leave.

Years before there was "fake news," there were official statistics from Turkmenistan.

Figures released by the Turkmen government have continually stretched the boundaries of belief and all-too-often there was no reason to believe they were accurate.

The government website Neutrality.gov.tm has just posted a new population figure for the country -- 6.2 million -- and once again the reaction is "what?"

The webpage presents basic facts about Turkmenistan and is intended as a primer for visitors the government hopes will attend a conference called The Politics of Neutrality and its Role in Ensuring International Peace, Security, and Sustainable Development, to be held in December.

For those of you familiar with Turkmenistan, I could probably end the story here.

But for the benefit of those who have not been following Turkmenistan for many years, on December 12 this year Turkmenistan will mark 25 years since the UN voted to recognize the country as a neutral state.

I would like to explain what that means, but after 25 years (and I wrote about it when it happened) I am still not sure exactly what neutrality means for Turkmenistan.

Under this status of "positive neutrality," Turkmenistan has become an isolationist country, sealing itself off from the outside world, which is why it is easy for the government to claim huge successes without anyone being sure how much exaggeration there is in the reported achievements.

Now we are told there are 6.2 million people living in Turkmenistan.

Just before the Soviet Union disintegrated and Turkmenistan became independent, Soviet authorities recorded the population of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Turkmenia as being 3.7 million people.

After that, all the figures on Turkmenistan's population came from the country's National Institute of State Statistics and Information, which put the population at 4.5 million in 1995, at 5.37 million in 2000, at 5.79 million in 2002, and 6 million in April 2003, when the government press service reported the birth of citizen No. 6 million (and said the population had increased by 1 million people since 1999, a 20 percent increase in four years), and so on, and so on. In March 2006, the institute reported that the population had reached 6.79 million.

When first President Saparmurat Niyazov died in December 2006, population figures were no longer reported publicly. Turkmenistan conducted a census in 2012 but never revealed the results.

An Internet search will show a range of estimates by various sources that go from 5 million to 6 million people. But no one really knows.

Turkmenistan's economy is in a total free fall, as the food scarcities, unpaid wages, skyrocketing unemployment, lack of hard currency, and massive inflation will show.

But curiously, official figures provided by the government show robust growth in the country.

Testimony from an increasingly frustrated population that escapes the state cage indicates that the economic situation is dire, certainly not ideal conditions for young couples to think about having large families.

And there was also a report in May 2019 from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that quoted an official as saying nearly 1.9 million people had left the country since 2008 and that the real size of the population was closer to 3.3 million.

Indeed, there are many reports of officials at Turkmenistan international airport in Ashgabat refusing to let people leave the country.

Azatlyk just had such a report, in which people were being refused entry to planes despite having tickets and valid visas to the countries they were to fly to.

No reason is ever given to those denied boarding, which perhaps lends credence to the report about the massive exodus of Turkmen from the country in the last 12 years.

Still, it is quite impossible to know for sure how many people live in Turkmenistan at the moment.

Another dubious claim on the list of basic facts on the Neutrality.gov.tm website states: "There are more than 100 nations (nationalities) living in the country."

No way.

I traveled extensively around Turkmenistan in 1992-93 to all corners of the country. There were certainly far less than 100 different nationalities living in Turkmenistan at that time, and there is no possibility there are that many living there now.

If anything, the policies of the "Turkmenization of Turkmenistan" have caused a significant out-migration of non-Turkmen people in the last 20 years.

So that claim is false, and likely so too is the claim about the population being 6.2 million. The webpage provides no rationale or supporting evidence for this figure.

Of course, anyone familiar with Turkmenistan's current authoritarian president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, will have seen him show off his many alleged talents for state media.

So amazing is Berdymukhammedov that he alone might be counted by state officials as 3 million people.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Protests -- previously infrequent and rare in Kazakhstan -- have recently become almost a feature of life under the new president.

The Mahatma Gandhi Park in Almaty sounds like an appropriate place for peaceful demonstrations, but some argue the venue is more suited to relaxing away from the hustle and bustle of the city -- a secluded place where few would ever see rallies and protests calling for change.

But the opposition appears stuck with Gandhi Park for now.

Kazakh officials in the country's commercial capital chose the far away and obscure park as Almaty's second legal place to hold rallies or meetings in accordance an order from President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev for all of Kazakhstan's big cities to assign two such places for public meetings and demonstrations.

But Gandhi Park is actually closer to the center than the first place that parliament designated as an area for rallies. That place is behind the Sary-Arqa cinema complex.

As RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported, although Gandhi Park is closer to downtown, "it is removed from the two central squares [of Almaty] -- Republic Square and Astana Square -- by more than 5 kilometers."

Adding to the frustration of activists was parliament's decision to bar the press from the January 17 session where they discussed the second venue's selection.

Kazakh rights activist Erlan Kaliev called the second venue a "corral for rallies."

Kaliev questioned why the authorities were designating sites at all and pointed out that state-sponsored events regularly take place on Almaty's central squares and other public areas and the protest rallies should be able to as well.

And Kaliev noted that official permission was still required to conduct any meeting or public rally.

Protests -- previously infrequent and rare in Kazakhstan -- have recently become almost a feature of life under Toqaev.

The deaths of five children in Nur-Sultan -- then known as Astana -- in February sparked demonstrations.

The parents of the five young girls were both working the night the fire broke out in their modest home. The tragedy raised questions about working conditions and social benefits for large families in Kazakhstan. For many years the authorities have encouraged large families to help populate the sparsely inhabited country but promises of state assistance have gone unfulfilled.

Anger among citizens boiled over and then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev dismissed the government at the end of February, though key officials were simply reshuffled.

Then, on March 19, Nazarbaev surprisingly resigned and handed over the title of president to longtime ally Toqaev.

In becoming president, Toqaev vacated his position as chairman of the Senate.

According to Kazakhstan's constitution, the chairman of the Senate takes over for the president if the latter is unable to perform the function of the presidency.

The post of Senate chief was filled by Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha. And one of Toqaev's first moves as president was to push through his own motion to rename the capital from Astana to Nur-Sultan, paying further homage to his patron, Nazarbaev.

Many in Kazakhstan were unhappy with these changes, all made without any chance for people in the country to approve or disapprove them, and seen as further strengthening the former authoritarian leader, Nazarbaev, and his family.

Additionally, oil workers in the generally impoverished western part of the country -- the part that provides the oil and natural-gas revenues to construct the fancy new buildings in Almaty and Nur-Sultan in the east -- have become more vocal in their demands for better pay and conditions since Toqaev became president.

And the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in China's western Xinjiang region has become an issue in Kazakhstan since some of those Kazakhs crossed illegally into Kazakhstan and recounted their horror stories of incarceration and abuse that Kazakhs and other Muslim peoples are suffering in China.

Many in Kazakhstan protesting Beijing's repression in Xinjiang are also angry at the Kazakh authorities, who have been reluctant to criticize China -- a major investor in Kazakhstan -- for these horrific policies.

In fairness, it is worth noting that none of the handful of ethnic Kazakhs who illegally crossed from China into Kazakhstan have thus far been extradited back to China, despite pressure from Beijing.

However, some ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who moved and acquired citizenship in Kazakhstan remain in China's so-called reeducation camps after they were detained during visits to their former homeland.

Though protests and demonstrations in Kazakhstan have been more frequent in the last year than they have been since the 1990s, the numbers of people involved remains in the hundreds and some protests involve only a single person.

Toqaev said in early September that "If peaceful [protest] actions are not pursuing the goal of violating the law, disrupting social order, or the peace of citizens, then we need to go forward, in a manner prescribed by law, and grant permission to conduct [such demonstrations]."

Toqaev added that there should be two places designated as meeting places in every major city.

Almaty now has its two places, though they already appear unacceptable to some activists who feel they are being moved out of sight and out of mind.

What Kazakhstan does not have yet are the promised amendments to the law on public meetings. The amendments have been officially proposed but parliament has not yet reviewed them.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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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