In what's become an almost daily scene at the super-modern, sumptuous Ashgabat International Airport, dozens of ticketed passengers with visas in hand are being told without explanation that they cannot board their planes, often bound for Istanbul or Dubai.
Some of them who anticipated the rejection collect partial reimbursement for their ticket and leave the airport disappointed. But others are enraged and argue vociferously with airport personnel (as in the video below, in Russian and Turkmen):
With estimated unemployment of around 50 percent, skyrocketing inflation, and shortages of consumer items including staples like bread, flour, eggs, and other dairy products, some people are leaving the country in search of better lives.
"I was recently fired...and despite the fact that I have a higher education, was unable to find another job,” one Turkmen émigré told RFE/RL from Turkey. “Prices are going up, life was getting more difficult [in Turkmenistan]. I had to leave the country.”
We are not going to go back to Turkmenistan now because there are no conditions for a normal life there."-- Turkmen national living in Istanbul
Most of those being prevented from boarding their planes are from Turkmenistan’s desolate outer regions, such as Dashoguz and Lebap, where economic conditions are most severe.
The national Migration Service office at the airport has a near-permanent crowd hovering outside its doors wanting to know why they were blocked from leaving the country.
"Those citizens who wanted to fly to Dubai and Turkey but were not allowed to board the plane are usually on a Migration Service ‘black list,’” a Turkmen émigré who requested anonymity out of fear that his relatives would be harassed, told RFE/RL. “When someone repeatedly tries to go to another country, they are summoned [by Turkmen security officials] for a meeting and reminded that they have already been denied permission to leave [Turkmenistan].”
Analysts note that the Turkmen government’s seemingly arbitrary refusals to allow citizens to leave the country violate an international convention on freedom of movement that was ratified by Turkmenistan in 1997. In addition, Turkmen law also guarantees its citizens free exit and return to the country.
Although Turkey has been a frequent destination for Turkmen migrants, obstacles to getting there in recent months have led many people to opt for Azerbaijan instead. Still others are going to neighboring Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan in search of work but also as a way of getting around the flight ban that many Turkmen nationals face in traveling to Turkey.
"When we wanted to go to Istanbul, we were prevented from boarding our flights several times at the Ashgabat airport,” a Turkmen now living in Istanbul told RFE/RL. “After our attempts to leave [Turkmenistan] did not succeed, and since we did not have the money demanded [by officials] as a bribe, we had to look for other ways. In the end, some of us crossed the border to Uzbekistan, and some to Kazakhstan, and from there flew to Istanbul.”
The man added that there are people at the border who, for $300, promise to arrange transport to Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan.
“We are not going to go back to Turkmenistan now because there are no conditions for a normal life there," he added.
Meanwhile, with the government actively blocking Turkmen from leaving the country, it is also putting considerable effort into getting émigrés to return to Turkmenistan.
Turkmen security agencies have been pressuring the families of migrants to urge their loved ones to return.
“Recently, I was called to the local police department, and they demanded that my younger brother return [to Turkmenistan],” a resident of the southeastern Mary Province told RFE/RL. “They said that he needed to ‘fulfill his duty to the motherland’ and warned me that if he did not return and did not serve in the military, he would be considered a deserter and face criminal charges.”
Other measures have been financial, with Turkmenistan’s Vnesheconombank introducing restrictions last year on cash withdrawals and noncash transactions in foreign currencies abroad.
Similarly, many Turkmen who have performed their military service and want to go abroad to study are being made to pledge in writing that they intend merely to study, not work.
A Turkmen studying in Kazakhstan told RFE/RL he had to sign a statement vowing that “as soon as the academic year is over...in nine months, I will be back [in Turkmenistan].”
Some former Lebap Province residents working in Turkey told RFE/RL that their relatives had been pressured by local Turkmen officials to urge them to come home.
“Even if we would return,” said one, “we have no prospects [for work in Turkmenistan].”