MARY, Turkmenistan -- Turkmen authorities have a reputation for organizing lavish concerts and events during New Year’s festivities, one of the most popular celebrations in the country.
But this year, regional authorities have ordered residents in the provinces to tone down their celebrations, even as festivities are in full swing in the capital, Ashgabat.
Officials in the repressive Central Asian nation have not offered an explanation. But police have been deployed across the country to enforce the new restrictions.
Several public employees in the southeastern province of Mary, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that state companies have been barred from organizing New Year’s parties. Even private parties held at home or in restaurants have been banned, they said.
Imams have told worshippers that some New Year’s traditions such as “decorating pine trees at schools and offices, and dancing and singing around them” can be considered “sinful.”
Locals in Mary said restaurants, cafes, bars, and banquet halls were ordered to shorten their opening hours in the run-up to the festive season, which began in mid-December.
In what is usually their busiest and most profitable time of the year, restaurants have had to close their doors by 9 p.m.
A restaurant owner in Mary City, the provincial capital, told RFE/RL on December 26 that the restrictions have hurt businesses and their employees.
“It doesn’t make any sense. These are the days when people want to hold private gatherings for New Year’s in restaurants and banquet halls,” the businessman said on condition of anonymity.
He said the New Year’s celebrations are “one of the few occasions for people to have fun” in Turkmenistan, a poverty-stricken country where the government controls all aspects of people’s lives.
“State employees end their work at 6 p.m., and they usually come to restaurants by 8 p.m. But we have to start closing the restaurant at 8:30 p.m. nowadays. So we have to demand that they leave the restaurant before they even manage to order their food,” the businessman added.
More Police On The Streets
Mary residents said they have noticed an increased police presence on the streets in recent days.
“Police are banning people from gathering for private parties even in their homes. When there is loud music, [police] demand that people turn it down,” one local man said.
But police turn a blind eye to the actions of government officials and other well-connected people who disregard the new rules, several residents claimed.
In neighboring Lebap Province, the opening hours of restaurants have not been affected. But public employees in many parts of Lebap have been banned from celebrating New Year’s in restaurants, bars, cafes, and even their workplaces.
A state employee in Lebap told RFE/RL on December 20 that the ban was announced by company managers, who informed their staff that they would be fired if they violated the ban.
In Balkan Province, state-backed imams have told worshippers during mosque sermons that celebrating New Year’s is un-Islamic.
The imams told the congregations that some New Year’s traditions such as “decorating pine trees at schools and offices, and dancing and singing around them” can be considered “sinful,” according to locals.
A legacy of the Soviet era, New Year’s celebrations are held across Central Asia, a predominately Muslim region. People install decorated pine trees at home while some set off fireworks to ring in the New Year.
Municipal authorities organize concerts, food fares, and other events during the holiday season. New Year trees are also installed in cities, where decorations adorn the streets for several weeks.
The New Year’s restrictions in the provinces were not publicly announced, and the government has not offered any explanations.
Turkmen authorities often force people to take part in various state-organized events and parades. But they are wary of private gatherings.
Some have linked the restrictions to safety concerns. Last year, four people were killed and 30 wounded when homemade fireworks exploded in front of a crowd in Lebap.
Police officers have visited schools and homes in the provinces in recent days to discourage young people from making or setting off fireworks during New Year’s festivities. Parents have been warned that they face fines if their children violate the ban.
Authorities have also banned bonfires near apartment blocks.
But it is unclear if the restrictions are all related to safety concerns.
The lack of New Year cheer in the provinces contrasts with the lavish festivities in Ashgabat. On December 15, an outdoor concert and party was held after the city’s New Year tree was lit up. The ceremony officially kicked off the festive season.
Roads in central Ashgabat were cleared on December 15 for Father Frost and the Snow Maiden, the traditional symbols of New Year's in former Soviet countries, who arrived in a white carriage.
Several other concerts and events have been announced by state media to celebrate New Year’s in the capital.