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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmenistan continues to say it has no cases of coronavirus. (file photo)

Turkmenistan’s government never fails to disappoint, and its latest action will keep that reputation intact.

For more than two decades the government has been touting its UN-recognized status as a neutral country to close itself off from the rest of the world and preserve the harmony Turkmen authorities say exists there.

For example, the Turkmen government continues to claim there are no cases of the coronavirus in Turkmenistan.

That claim is interesting to many parties, among them the World Health Organization (WHO) that had planned to send a delegation to Turkmenistan to discuss combating the coronavirus.

The WHO delegation is already in Tajikistan and after work there was planning to go to Turkmenistan, but officials in Ashgabat are using an old trick to delay and possibly prevent the delegation from arriving.

The postponement of the WHO delegation’s trip to Turkmenistan is a bit baffling.

If Ashgabat has been so successful in preventing the coronavirus from entering Turkmenistan, one would think the Turkmen authorities would be glad to allow the WHO delegation to document the country’s story of virological triumph.

Perhaps Turkmenistan is doing something other countries should be copying.

The obvious reason for not allowing the visit by the WHO delegation is that the claim by Turkmenistan of being free of the coronavirus that has raged all over the world -- infecting millions and killing nearly 270,000 people as of May 8 -- is almost certainly not true.

But there is another reason.

Every single one of Turkmenistan’s neighbors has registered cases of the coronavirus.

As of May 7, Turkmenistan’s eastern neighbor Uzbekistan had recorded 2,269 cases, northern neighbor Kazakhstan 4,530 cases, and southern neighbors Iran and Afghanistan had 101,650 and 3,392 cases, respectively (though in all these countries there are reasons to suspect the figures are being underreported).

Yet officials in Ashgabat claim not a single case in Turkmenistan.

Prior to April 29, it was possible to report that Turkmenistan and Tajikistan were officially saying they had no cases.

But Tajikistan suddenly went from no cases to reporting 15 cases on April 29, to having nearly 500 by May 7.

Many believed there were coronavirus cases in Tajikistan weeks earlier and officials there had allegedly given orders to attribute the cause of COVID-19 illnesses or deaths to something else, usually pneumonia.

Many think the situation in Turkmenistan is the same. Reports of an inordinate amount of people dying from pneumonia in Turkmenistan started already in February.

Why Numbers Don’t Tell The Full Story

A daily compilation of global coronavirus cases by Johns Hopkins University is currently the most comprehensive in the world, but it relies on information provided by governments.

In many countries, there are restrictions on releasing such information or reasons why the full story might not want to be told.

The methodology, immediacy, transparency, and quality of this data can vary dramatically country by country.

But hiding cases of coronavirus is no longer the sole problem Turkmen officials would face if they let the WHO delegation visit.

In February, as the magnitude of the spread of the coronavirus became increasingly obvious, Turkmen authorities established quarantine zones in the eastern Turkmen province of Lebap for its citizens who returned from abroad.

Everyone arriving by plane had to fly to the airport in the provincial capital Turkmenabat (formerly Charjou) and be isolated in camps for a short period to ensure they had not brought the coronavirus into Turkmenistan.

These camps would naturally be something a WHO delegation would want to visit and it appeared Turkmen authorities were preparing in advance for just such a visit.

Quarantine Camps

On April 23, Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, tweeted that the Tajik and Turkmen Foreign Ministries “welcome” the visit from the WHO technical teams and a WHO mission would be arriving in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan “in the coming days” as part of the Central Asia mission on COVID-19.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported that after Kluge’s tweet, officials in Lebap started moving people out of the quarantine camps.

The Khronika Turkmenistana website, run by Turkmen activists who fled Turkmenistan, reported there were at least seven patients with coronavirus in the quarantine camps who were among those evacuated.

But on April 27, hurricane-type winds and rain swept through parts of Lebap Province (and Mary Province), causing extensive damage to the area, particularly to Turkmenabat.

The Turkmen government never mentions the natural disasters that occasionally strike the country and the fierce storm that hit areas of eastern and northern Turkmenistan with devastating effects was no exception.

On May 4, Human Rights Watch released a statement questioning why, more than one week after the storm, state media had still not reported on the disaster, and why police in the area were focusing on detaining people suspected of filming the damage on their mobile phones and posting it on social networks.

Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe
Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe

Azatlyk reported that at least 30 people were killed and later reported that the government would not be helping the thousands of people severely affected by the disaster, many of them homeless.

A little-known provincial Turkmen news website in Lebap called did report about the storm on May 4, saying a strong storm had blown roofs off several houses and knocked down trees and power lines, but assured “all possible efforts” were being made to repair the damage. On May 6, it reported that “specialists” were arriving from other parts of Turkmenistan to help repair work in Turkmenabat and in towns on the outskirts.

The WHO has no authority to demand access to suspect sites, or medical records, or make impromptu visits to hospitals. Individual governments define the level of cooperation with the international organization.

The WHO’s on-site representative in Turkmenistan, Paulina Karwowska, had visited the quarantine zones in Lebap in early May.

"We rely on Turkmenistan’s health-care bodies to report about confirmed cases, and up until now we have not been informed about any cases," she said.

The report did not mention any comments from Karwowska about the damage in Lebap.

If it were just a case of bringing a WHO delegation to Potemkin quarantine areas, there probably would not have been any problems or delays.

But the damage in the Lebap area that state media and Turkmen officials have avoided mentioning would be impossible to hide.

The method of delaying the WHO delegation’s visit draws on an old Turkmen government trick for OSCE election monitors that dates back more than 20 years to when authoritarian leader Saparmurat Niyazov was president.

Niyazov said all who wish to monitor elections are welcome, but no one would be specifically invited.

The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) offers to monitor elections, and Turkmenistan is an OSCE member, but ODIHR requires a clear, official invitation to do so, and Turkmen authorities have never sent a specific invitation to ODIHR.

The WHO delegation is in a similar situation. They need an official invitation to visit Turkmenistan and Turkmen authorities have not sent one to them.

Perhaps sensing there could be problems, Kluge reportedly appealed to Anna Popova, the chairwoman of Russia’s Rosptrebnadzor (Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Well-Being) for assistance, including bringing Russian specialists to both Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Kluge tweeted late on May 5: “I welcome Turkmenistan Government’s invitation for @WHO_Europe to undertake a technical #COVID19 mission.”

But he added that WHO was "ready to deploy as soon as possible," apparently indicating the WHO delegation had not yet received all the permission it needed to travel to Turkmenistan.

But "as soon as possible" might depend on how soon damage is cleared up in Turkmenabat.

Has Darigha Nazarbaeva been pushed out of power for good?

The abrupt dismissal from parliament of Darigha Nazarbaeva -- the powerful chairwoman of the Senate and eldest daughter of Kazakhstan's founding father, Nursultan Nazarbaev -- has raised questions about the country's political leadership and the future of the ruling family.

The brief statement on Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's website on May 2 announcing that Nazarbaeva was relieved of her post as speaker injected a great deal more confusion into a country already experiencing its share of woes as it combats the coronavirus and copes with a major revenue loss due to the drop in world prices for oil, one of the country's main exports.

The appointment of Nazarbaeva as chair of the Senate came on the heels of her father's March 19, 2019, announcement resigning as leader. Nazarbaev had ruled Kazakhstan for nearly 30 years, since before it gained independence following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The Senate leader wields little real power but the holder of the post is next in line for the presidency, according to the Kazakh Constitution, should the president be unable to perform his duties.

Nazarbaeva's surprise dismissal left many wondering if Toqaev is attempting to move out of the shadow of the Nazarbaev family or is simply reshuffling Nazarbaev loyalists.

The president's promotion on May 4 of Maulen Ashimbaev as the new chairman of the Senate did little to answer that question. Ashimbaev had served as first deputy head of the presidential administration since December and has been loyal to the ruling, Nazarbaev-controlled Nur-Otan party for at least 15 years.

He was also Toqaev's campaign manager when he ran for president in the snap election in June.

Maulen Ashimbaev is a longtime Nur-Otan loyalist.
Maulen Ashimbaev is a longtime Nur-Otan loyalist.

That service plus Ashimbaev's rapid rise under Toqaev's short rule as president suggests the loyalty of the new Senate leader might lay with the current president and not necessarily with Nazarbaev.

Other changes in the aftermath of Nazarbaeva's demotion were Information and Social Development Minister Dauren Abaev being named the new deputy head of the presidential administration, replacing Ashimbaev, and Aida Balaeva being moved from her position as presidential aide to replace Abaev.

These latest events do not seem to be part of the managed transition that started after Nazarbaev stepped down as president and if there is indeed a shift in power in Kazakhstan, the Nazarbaev family fortunes could be on the wane.

But that will only become apparent if there are moves in the coming days to limit the influence of other Nazarbaev family members, notable among them Timur Kulibaev, the husband of Nazarbaev’s second daughter, Dinara.

Kulibaev has amassed a great amount of wealth and is extremely influential in Kazakhstan's business world. He had previously been mentioned as a possible stage-managed successor to Nazarbaev.

Why Was She Dumped?

There are at least several possible reasons for action to remove Nazarbaeva and the dismissal does not bode well for her future.

Nazarbaeva, who will turn 57 on May 7, had been in politics for some 20 years.

She founded the Asar political party in 2003 and headed it until 2006 when it merged with her father's Otan (now Nur-Otan) party. Nazarbaeva was elected to parliament twice, she was deputy chairwoman of the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, served as deputy prime minister, and then was a deputy in the Senate, the upper house of parliament.

Her ascension to the post of Senate leader after her father formally ceded the presidency seemed a logical step that protected the Nazarbaev family's interests and preserved her father's legacy, even though Nazarbaev has remained active in politics as head of the Security Council, a position that was given extra power in the months prior to his resignation.

Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (center) stands as Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) and his daughter, Darigha, applaud during the Nur Otan party congress on April 23.
Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (center) stands as Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) and his daughter, Darigha, applaud during the Nur Otan party congress on April 23.

While some described Nazarbaev's resignation last year as sudden, the sequence of events that immediately followed indicated the transition of power had been planned well in advance. Toqaev would later claim that preparations for Nazarbaev to leave office started some three years earlier.

Nazarbaev stepped down, Toqaev stepped in, and Nazarbaeva was named Senate chairwoman in rapid succession.

The hierarchy seemed to be established according to plan, which is what makes Nazarbaeva's sudden ouster so unusual.

Was It The Wealth?

Nazarbaeva has been in several reports in international media recently, almost always connected to some scandal.

In early April, lawyers for Nazarbaeva and her oldest son, Nurali Aliev, successfully fended off an attempt by Britain's National Crime Agency to seize property the two owned in Britain worth a combined $100 million under the unexplained wealth orders (UWO) law.

Though Nazarbaeva and her son kept their London mansion and other properties, the media attention put the entire Nazarbaev family in an unwelcome spotlight that several family members, including Nazarbaeva, had been under for months.

In the first weeks of 2020, Nazarbaeva's younger son, Aisultan, who has been battling drug problems, posted on social networks and gave interviews alleging bizarre things like that his mother was trying to kill him and that his grandfather was really his father.

While these well-publicized scandals might have added fuel to the fire of a reason to dismiss Nazarbaeva, they are unlikely to be the sole cause of her sudden change in fortunes.

Nazarbaeva has been well-known in Kazakhstan as a child of privilege for all its years as an independent country.

In the 1990s, she owned some of Kazakhstan's most prominent TV and radio stations and along with her former husband, Rakhat Aliev, she had interests in leading businesses in Kazakhstan.

But everyone in Kazakhstan always knew that she had lots of money and she was able to survive several of the later scandals that surrounded her former husband.

Rakhat Aliev
Rakhat Aliev

Rakhat Aliev was accused of being behind the murders of political and business rivals and was finally accused by the government of plotting to overthrow Nazarbaev, his father-in-law.

Nazarbaeva divorced Aliev in 2007 after he had been sent into a form of exile as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria and representative to international organizations that are headquartered in Vienna.

Aliev spent the following years doing everything he could to tarnish Nazarbaev's reputation, even publishing a book in 2009, Godfather-In-Law, that told of alleged corrupt practices under Nazarbaev's rule.

Aliev died under mysterious circumstances while being held in an Austrian prison in 2015. Officially ruled a suicide, there were many credible reports that suggest Aliev did not take his own life.

Nazarbaeva faded from political life not long after her divorce from Aliev until she again took a seat in parliament in 2012 as a member and eventually the head of the Nur-Otan faction in parliament.

The fact that she was married to a person who was convicted of murder and plotting the overthrow of the government did not affect her rise later to the country's No. 2 position -- suggesting that the family scandals by themselves are probably not the reason she was dismissed as Senate head.

The Work Of Enemies?

During her career in politics, Nazarbaeva has made several enemies.

One of those is Adilbek Jaksybekov, a confidant of Nazarbaev since the early days of independence who has held several top positions, including head of the presidential administration, a post he abruptly lost in September 2018, barely 14 months after Nazarbaev expressed confidence in him and extended his term by another five years.

Jaksybekov had seemed untouchable, but Rakhat Aliev had worked in the National Security Service (KNB) and, after divorcing Nazarbaeva, Aliev released audio recordings he claimed someone in the KNB made of conversations between leading political and business figures in Kazakhstan, mainly conversations involving his former father-in-law.

But one recording that Aliev released was allegedly a conversation between Jaksybekov and businessman Bulat Utemuratov from 2007, shortly after Nazarbaeva and Aliev divorced, in which Jaksybekov spoke of the need to prevent Nazarbaeva from climbing any higher in politics.

When Jaksybekov was suddenly cast out of politics, some felt Nazarbaeva had played a part in his removal.

There are undoubtedly others in Kazakhstan who have run afoul of the first president's first daughter at some point in the past.

What Did Dad Know?

One of the biggest questions hanging over Nazarbaeva's dismissal is what role did her father have, if any at all?

Nazarbaev has been in seclusion since the first cases of the coronavirus were officially registered in Kazakhstan on March 13. He continues to make statements through a spokesman, but he has not been seen in public for nearly two months.

Some believe the decision to relieve Nazarbaeva of her post could not have been made without her father's approval and parallels have been drawn between Nazarbaeva's recent scandals and those of Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan's first president, Islam Karimov.

Karimova was also named in dubious business deals abroad and eventually she was detained in Uzbekistan and placed under house arrest.

But Karimova also caused a commotion by publicly posting accusations against serving Uzbek officials, alleging they were deceiving her father. She even attacked her mother and sister in some of her social-media posts.

And other than a few essentially diplomatic postings, Karimova was never a top government official.

Many felt the appointment of Nazarbaeva as Senate chairwoman was a guarantee she would not end up sharing Karimova's fate, as after Karimov's death, his daughter was swiftly tried, convicted of financial crimes, and sent to prison.

There are two other big questions surrounding Nazarbaev.

How good are his lines of communication while he stays in isolation?

State media reports that he meets with various officials and, as mentioned, his spokesman sometimes issues statements for him.

But it is Toqaev who is out traveling and meeting with officials and health workers, clearly trying to show he has taken charge in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, alleviating the fallout of the falling oil prices on Kazakhstan's economy, and dealing with other issues such as the flooding in the south caused by a dam breaking in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Exactly what Nazarbaev hears in his bunker and who tells it to him is unclear.

And how is Nazarbaev’s health?

There is always the possibility, as some of his most ardent political foes have hinted, that Nazarbaev's health could be poor at the moment.

There are also almost surely some behind-the-scenes political struggles going on despite the planned transition and -- with Nazarbaev turning 80 in July -- the jostling for the top spots in Kazakhstan after Nazarbaev's death could be heating up.

If Nazarbaeva does still have her own political opponents, Kazakhstan’s current problems coupled with the marginalization of her father's influence could have given them an opportunity to go after her and seek her ouster from the Senate.

Officially, Nazarbaeva is supposed to be transferred to another post.

But she was the No. 2 person in the government hierarchy, so whatever post she might receive will definitely be a demotion.

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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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