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Turkmenistan: With Enemies Like These, Who Needs Friends?

It is always interesting to observe how people in Turkmenistan, one of the least democratic countries in the world, view political opposition. But in the Caspian republic where the political landscape belongs to one man and one man only, there is effectively no opposition to have a view on, a situation that only helps bolster President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's monopoly over the country's political narrative.

The rare members of Turkmen opposition do not reside in the country. Their activities and media appearances are not known inside the republic. State officials ensure that the opposition activists have no access to international events, and some nations which are on good terms with Ashgabat bar the Turkmen opposition from events they host. Thus, the only channel that the opposition has so far had for reaching out to other Turkmen is a series of dissident-led websites and blogs (one of which was repeatedly targeted by hackers last year). However, even this channel is of very little use, since only 5 percent of Turkmenistan's population use Internet (2011 data), and the websites in question are blocked by the authorities anyway.

Domestic opposition

In mid-February, two journalists were released from prison in Turkmenistan. Sapardurdy Khajiev and Annakurban Amanklychev had been jailed in 2006, right before the death of Saparmurat Niyazov. Prior to their release, dissidents speculated on whether the political situation in the country would improve with Berdymukhamedov in power. But things have stayed about the same.

A 2008 Deutsche Welle interview with Turkmen opposition politician Nurmuhammed Khanamov indicates that dissidents blame Western countries for offering vain hopes for change in Turkmenistan. Neweurasia.net provides an insight into the interview:

Khanamov focuses on the policy of the West towards Turkmenistan and criticizes the European Union for an excessively lenient attitude towards Ashgabat as far as human rights are concerned.

Raising the issue of EU-Turkmen relations once again, Khanamov continues:

When you ask during these meetings: why don’t you ask these questions, [despite knowing] it is a dictator’s regime, the Western countries’ representatives would usually respond – we are glad to have managed to establish dialogue. We are afraid to scare Berdymukhammedov, because he might then restore the country’s isolation as was the case during Niyazov’s rule.

However, I consider such attitude as not quite correct.

Marciula, the author of the blog post on neweurasia.net, justifies the EU position on Turkmen issues and questions the impact that the opposition has in the country:

First of all, Western countries must be very careful in their criticism, because if it is too persistent, the Turkmen government will simply limit or withdraw from the cooperation with the West and turn towards Russia or China… Secondly, we must pose ourselves a question regarding the Turkmen opposition. The passivity and lack of unanimity are not its only problems, but also the fact that it does not have any influence [inside] Turkmenistan, where it is completely unknown.

‘Experts’

Turkmenistan is closed off not only to opposition, but also to international experts who find it extremely difficult to study the country.

Cover Page of Volkov's Novel “Turkmenka”

Dissident-run website Chrono-Tm has recently interviewed [ru] Vitaly Volkov, a Russian novel writer. In his latest novel ”Turkmenka” (Turkmen Woman), Volkov writes about the hardships suffered by a female Turkmen journalist who left Turkmenistan for Germany. The author explains that the novel was inspired by his personal meeting with a real Turkmen journalist who suffered the consequences of an attempt on the life of Saparmurat Niyazov, the late former president of Turkmenistan. Volkov says that it is very hard to find any witnesses in Turkmenistan, thus the novel is based on impressions from his rare meetings with Turkmen journalists and scanty news coming from inside the country. Therefore, the novel should not be considered a historical reference, but an image of the regime.

But people reading the interview were less than inspired by the author's opinions. Yulia, for example, commented [ru] sarcastically:

«Эксперт по Средней Азии» ни разу не посетивший Туркменистан… Потрясающе!

A “Central Asia expert” who has never been to Turkmenistan… Fantastic!

But another reader, who preferred to remain anonymous, responded [ru]:

…То что в Туркмении до сих пор средневековое мракобесье: не въехать, ни выехать, то это не вина автора. И потом, если человек к примеру филолог-Шекспировед, десять лет занимающийся данной темой, вы же будете его обвинять в непрофессионализме только за то, что он лично с Шекспиром не был знаком!..

…It is not the author's fault that Turkmenistan remains in the state of Middle Age backwardness – you can't enter the country or leave it. You wouldn't blame a person who has studied Shakespeare for ten years for being unprofessional simply because he is not personally acquainted with Shakespeare!..

These comments appear to indicate that even among the exiles, there is a fatigue that criticisms of the Turkmen regime come from various ‘foreign experts’ rather than from EU policymakers or politicians inside the country.

N.B. in the aftermath of Turkmenistan's Day of Melons we promised to keep Global Voices readers updated on the latest news regarding Turkmen holidays. On February 20 Turkmenistan celebrated the State Flag Day. According to President Berdymukhamedov, the Turkmen flag symbolizes the country's “unwavering commitment to the highest ideals of humanism, peace, and creativeness”.

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