ASHGABAT -- Pro-Russian propaganda efforts are under way in Turkmenistan, with officials in the authoritarian state vilifying the West for supporting Kyiv and whitewashing Moscow's image amid its unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
Education officials along with police and intelligence officers have held several meetings with students and employees in the Balkan and Lebap provinces in recent days, urging people to shun Western media and culture that they say brainwash young Turkmen.
In one of such meeting in Balkan Province on December 8, officials warned against the "poisonous" influence of the West on the youth of Turkmenistan, a participant told RFE/RL.
"The officials said that a war such as the one in Ukraine can happen in Turkmenistan too, tomorrow, if we don't keep our youth away from the Western media and culture," said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing repercussion in the strictly controlled state.
"They added that American and European media information -- which [they claimed] poisons the minds of young people -- is the main reason the war broke out in Ukraine."
Officials urged people not to read Western media coverage of the war, according to several participants of gatherings held in schools, government agencies, and other companies.
They said the officials also warned the audiences against "foreign agents" who allegedly seek to destabilize Turkmenistan.
"Officials said there are Western agents among us who try to instigate war in our country by reporting for the Western press about any problems in Turkmenistan, and provoking the Turkmen people," said a man who works for a local company in the port city of Turkmenbashi.
"[Officials said] our neutral, independent country -- rich in oil and natural gas -- is strengthening its friendly and brotherly ties with Russia," the man added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
An official from the state cybersecurity agency was among the government representatives who took part in recent meetings in Turkmenbashi, RFE/RL correspondents reported. The official spoke about how some students have criticized Russia in their online comments about the Ukraine war.
"It would have been alright if [the Turkmen students] had criticized Ukraine, but obviously it shows that [the Western media] has poisoned the minds of the youth," the security official was quoted as saying.
The government in Ashgabat has never publicly stated its position on Russia's devastating invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24. But it has maintained close ties with the Kremlin during the war.
Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov visited Moscow to meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in June. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Serdar's father and his predecessor as president, went to Moscow in November to meet with Putin in the Kremlin.
Turkmenistan's representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Hemra Amannazarov, walked out during a speech by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba during an OSCE Ministerial Council on December 1.
Amannazarov returned to the meeting hall after Kuleba finished speaking. The gathering in Lodz, Poland, focused on the regional security challenges and ramifications created by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Sources close to the Turkmen government told RFE/RL that officials were wary of growing discontent among ordinary people struggling with widespread poverty and food shortages despite the country's vast natural resources. The country is also plagued by chronic unemployment and corruption.
The government has brutally suppressed dissent at home, banning all independent press, blocking access to social media and the independent press, and arresting critics or forcing them into exile.
But activists have been increasingly vocal among the Turkmen migrants abroad, using social media and independent press outlets to spread their message.
One source said Ashgabat's reluctance to fully resume international flights after a pandemic-era ban is connected to the authorities' fear that activists might return to Turkmenistan and destabilize the country.