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Turkmen Starting To Complain In Greater Numbers

In Shift Toward Free Speech, Turkmens Voice Anger With Government
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In Shift Toward Free Speech, Turkmens Voice Anger With Government

Public criticism of the government is virtually unheard of in Turkmenistan, one of the world's most reclusive and repressive states.

Those who openly speak out against the president or his government's policies can face harassment by security services, at best, or end up in psychiatric hospitals or prison, at worst.

That seems to be changing, however, at least anecdotally, as dozens of people from across Turkmenistan have been contacting correspondents from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known as Radio Azatlyk, to voice their frustration with the authorities. In a country where people normally avoid speaking -- even anonymously -- to foreign media outlets, some Turkmen are now talking publicly or even allowing themselves to be filmed.

"Come and film every corner of my home. Let's show to our country's leaders what conditions ordinary people live in," Gulnara Najimova, a 35-year-old housewife, tells an RFE/RL correspondent.

"Our lives and living conditions are very different to those reports in Turkmen television shows," Najimova says as she shows a reporter around her dilapidated, one-story mud-brick home in the Qarashsizlik district of eastern Lebap Province.

Like many ordinary Turkmen living in rural areas, Najimova's major concerns are unemployment and poverty, widespread despite the country's vast natural gas resources.

Najimova's husband, Muhammad Pirmonov, is bedridden with a back problem. The couple and their three young children have no income, relying on charity from relatives and neighbors.

"I have two requests from the authorities," Najimova says. "Provide a disability allowance for my husband -- and find me a job."

Overwhelming Frustration

Najimova, who has no professional skills, says she is willing to do "any job" – from cleaning to farming -- to make a living.

It was her overwhelming frustration with local authorities, she explains, that finally convinced her to contact RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.

"I've asked district authorities many times. I've been to every job fair. I've been registered in the local job center, but to no avail," Najimova says. "When a job center official told me to leave, I was so angry that I decided to call Azatlyk to tell my story."

Najimova appears careful, however, not to directly criticize Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

In fact, Najimova says she wrote a letter to the president and that she even received a response from his office. She says she showed the response from Ashgabat to local officials, but they still ignored her.

Likewise, two women who approached an RFE/RL correspondent outside the Ashgabat mayor's office stayed clear of criticizing the president.

The women, who consented to be filmed but didn't want their names used, complained that they had lost their homes to a state urban renovation project without receiving compensation.

Thousands of people in the Ashgabat area have seen their traditional homes demolished in order to make room for highways, parks, and modern, multistory apartment blocks.

Many residents have said they have not received either proper compensation or the alternative housing promised by authorities before the demolitions.

"I've been waiting in a queue for over a year to talk to the city mayor," one of the women says. "I come here every week and wait to see him, but his aides send me back home, saying he is busy or he is away."

The second woman says she has been waiting for a meeting with the mayor for six months.

People who contact RFE/RL correspondents face-to-face mostly complain about social and financial concerns, such as housing issues, unemployment, and public health-care problems.

The Turkmen Service has also received dozens of phone calls from people who want to vent about similar problems.

Muhammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, says it hasn't always been like this.

"I've been working for Azatlyk for 11 years, and I remember how difficult it was for us to get any comment from anyone in Turkmenistan because people were afraid," he says. "One of our local correspondents had 10 SIM cards because he knew that after each phone call to RFE/RL, Turkmen authorities would cut off his phone. It's a big change having people approach us."

Change Of Tactic?

Is it a sign of bravery, people's growing frustration with authorities, or does it somehow signal more tolerance from the government in Ashgabat? As with many questions about Turkmenistan, the answer will likely never be known.

"It's a [nice] surprise that people are willing to talk this way," says Johan Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media watchdog.

For one thing, Bihr says, it shows they trust in RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.

Bihr also says he doesn't rule out "that some degree of criticism may be tolerated," as is the case in Chechnya.

"We have seen that in such a heavily repressive environment as Chechnya, some degree of criticism is tolerated from citizens and simple journalists if it doesn’t directly point at the head of the state or the authorities as such," Bihr says.

In Chechnya, Bihr says, "people are, to some extent, allowed to denounce corruption problems or public health problems or issues like this if they don't clearly criticize the government for that, or if they criticize low-ranking officials and if they ask for the president of the Chechen Republic to intervene."

He describes it as a possible "change of tactic from the [Turkmen] government to channel discontent to lower-ranking officials rather than government policies."

But Bihr notes it is still dangerous for anyone in Turkmenistan to openly criticize the government.

Ranked 178th out of 180 countries in RSF's latest worldwide Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan remains one of the world's least-free societies.

The latest human rights report by the U.S. State Department, released in February, was also damning, citing arbitrary arrest and torture as among the country's most egregious human rights violations, while also pointing out blatant disregard for civil liberties, including restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and movement.

The State Department report also noted there were no reported prosecutions of Turkmen government officials for human rights abuses in 2013.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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