Turkmenistan has increased its control over the lives of its people after the recent unrest in Kazakhstan, deploying police in residential areas and randomly checking people’s phones.
An unannounced nighttime curfew was imposed this week in Mary, the capital of the province of the same name, local residents say.
“Curfew begins at 9 p.m. and police vehicles patrol the streets all night,” one Mary resident said.
Security measures were stepped up across the entire region, as police sources say the move is linked to the authorities’ fear after seeing the anti-government protests in Kazakhstan.
Police vehicles approach people standing and chatting in the streets, and the officers demand that they disperse, several Mary residents told RFE/RL.
They said police try to justify it as enforcing “social distancing” to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although the authorities have insisted the coronavirus has not infected a single person in Turkmenistan, despite reports from health-care personnel that many have been infected with the virus and also died during the pandemic.
Officers also randomly stop young people and seize their mobile phones to check their messages and contact lists, the residents say. People spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation in the tightly controlled state that doesn’t tolerate any criticism.
Law-enforcement officers have made unannounced visits in recent days to the homes of people who have relatives studying or working in foreign countries. The officials warned them that their relatives abroad should not spread any messages or statements against the Turkmen government.
Even government officials have come under scrutiny in the latest crackdown.
According to one source in Mary, “the employees of government agencies have been warned that they would be immediately fired if their children or relatives make any anti-government statement online.”
Sources at law enforcement agencies told RFE/RL that the latest measures are directly related to the unrest in Kazakhstan. The violence in Kazakhstan began with protests over a fuel price hike in the Manghystau Province, which borders Turkmenistan.
“After the events in Kazakhstan, Turkmen authorities are worried that similar riots might take place in our country, too,” one officer told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.
Anti-government protests are extremely rare in Turkmenistan, where the government brutally clamps down on activists and critics.
Freedom of speech is nonexistent in the country, though in recent years Turkmen activists abroad have become increasingly vocal, using online platforms to spread their message.
Despite Turkmenistan’s abundant natural gas resources, the majority of the population lives in poverty. The country is plagued by unemployment, food shortages, and price hikes, adding to other grievances such as widespread corruption, unemployment, and a lack of civil liberties.
In another sign of the government’s zero tolerance of criticism, police in the capital, Ashgabat, are cracking down on residents who complained about the government’s decision to cancel subsidized prices for some food products.
Since early January, police officers have visited the homes of those who signed a petition last month about a shortage of subsidized food in some government stores in Ashgabat. The majority of those who signed the letter are pensioners.
Officers took several of them to police stations for interrogation and threatened them with criminal charges, sources told RFE/RL. Many Turkmen depend on subsidized staple foods to survive.