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Qishloq Ovozi

Women wearing protective face masks walk along a street in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. (file photo)

Various media reports and independent sources indicate that Turkmenistan is being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet Turkmen officials continue to say there have not been any incidents of COVID-19 in the country.

But the cases of two diplomats assigned to Turkmenistan suggest the virus is indeed there -- though in both cases their governments remain quiet. Such silence helps allow Turkmen authorities to continue spouting the official line that the country is somehow unaffected by the global pandemic.

Guzide Uchkun is the widow of Kemal Uchkun, a Turkish diplomat who died in a hospital in Turkmenistan on July 7.

She recently filed a lawsuit against Turkey’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Togan Oral, and several other government officials for their failure to transport her husband from Turkmenistan to Turkey for proper medical treatment.

Starting in January 2018, Kemal Uchkun was stationed at the Turkish Embassy in Turkmenistan as an adviser on religious affairs.

On June 27, 2020, Uchkun was admitted to a hospital. His symptoms were breathing problems, heavy coughing, and a fever, signs associated with the coronavirus. Doctors treated him for pneumonia.

Guzide Uchkun says Turkmen doctors treated her husband with antibiotics, which don't work against viruses.

Turkish doctors said the X-rays they received of Uchkun from Turkmenistan indicated there was a better than 90 percent chance he had COVID-19.

Guzide’s lawyer, Ahmet Basci, told Azatlyk that the embalming of Uchkun’s body was done in Turkmenistan, so a subsequent autopsy in Turkey was unable to determine if the diplomat’s death was due to the coronavirus.

But Basci said Uchkun’s family showed the chest X-rays to other Turkish forensic experts after his death. Basci said those experts had no doubt that Uchkun had died of COVID-19 and that he probably would have survived if he had been brought back to Turkey.

“I pleaded [with Turkish authorities] to send a medical transport plane or any kind of plane to bring my husband back to Turkey,” Guzide told the Turkish newspaper Sozcu. “I filled out applications and provided all the necessary documents every day until his death.”

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Turkmen officials did not give official permission for a Turkish plane to come to Ashgabat, which has not been accepting international flights since March, until after Uchkun died on July 7.

Publicly, Turkish authorities have still not criticized Turkmenistan’s reluctance to allow an ill diplomat to be evacuated home for treatment, although it seems cause for some outrage. Ankara has also not said anything that might question Turkmenistan’s claim of being free of the coronavirus.

Guzide Uchkun also plans to file a lawsuit against Turkmen authorities, charging them with negligence and obstruction.

Britain’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Hugh Philpott, is known for promoting the culture of Central Asian countries where he has been stationed, sometimes through song.

Philpott performed a Tajik song when he was ambassador to Tajikistan and recently sang a Turkmen tune.

On December 16, Philpott tweeted that he was “recuperating from a virus trending in the ‘physical world.’”

Philpott did not say where he was recuperating, but he has been in Turkmenistan since returning from a trip abroad in late September.

RFE/RL's Coronavirus Crisis Archive

Features and analysis, videos, and infographics explore how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the countries in our broadcast area.

The British government has not publicly commented on Philpott’s condition or where he contracted the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also not confirmed that the coronavirus is in Turkmenistan, despite making an official visit.

The WHO sent a team to Turkmenistan in July after more than two months of delays caused, apparently, by Turkmen authorities’ procrastination in giving official permission.

The WHO team was guided around Turkmenistan and afterward could only say they had not seen any clear evidence of the coronavirus in Turkmenistan, though they did express concern at “reports of increased cases of acute respiratory disease or pneumonia of unknown cause” and advised “activating the critical public-health measures in Turkmenistan, as if COVID-19 was circulating.”

The team also recommended that “surveillance and testing systems are scaled up, and that samples are sent to WHO reference laboratories for confirmed testing.”

Eurasianet.org contacted the WHO about that and in December received a reply that "unfortunately, due to many travel restrictions currently in place, this has as yet not been possible."

Given the Turkmen government’s penchant for exaggeration, if not outright lying, it is not surprising that officials there continue to cling to their narrative that the coronavirus has been prevented from entering Turkmenistan.

It is somewhat surprising that international organizations and individual governments are not challenging this claim by the Turkmen government, especially considering the heavy impact it is having on the citizens of Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
While there are multiple blocs campaigning for the elections, none can be called an opposition party.

On January 10, Kazakhstan will hold its first parliamentary elections since the country's longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, stepped down in March 2019.

Nazarbaev remains the head of the Nur-Otan party, which is expected to do well in these elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, as it always has since its founding in 1999.

Conspicuously absent from these elections are any political parties that could remotely be called a genuine opposition, despite a pledge from the new president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, about the need for opposition parties to participate in politics.

Political activists are reporting increased harassment in the weeks leading up to elections.

And a new report from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, casts new light on the vast wealth former President Nazarbaev and members of his family have acquired outside Kazakhstan.

On this week's Majlis Podcast, RFE/RL's media-relations manager for South and Central Asia, Muhammad Tahir, moderates a discussion on Kazakhstan's approaching parliamentary elections and what has changed and what looks the same under a different president.

This week’s guests are: from Kazakhstan, Darkhan Umirbekov, Azattyq's digital editor, who also participated in preparing the report on the Nazarbaev family wealth; Sofya du Boulay, who is researching the study of legitimation, authoritarian durability, and politics in Central Asia and the South Caucasus at Oxford Brookes University; Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian studies at Glasgow University and author of the recently published book Analysing Kazakhstan's Foreign Policy: Regime Neo-Eurasianism In The Nazarbaev era; and Bruce Pannier, the author of the Qishloq Ovozi blog.

Majlis Podcast: What's At Stake In Kazakh Elections?
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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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