"The system when the NGOs had a free access to Internet at the expense of commercial users was unique and very exciting," writes Andrei Zatoka, director of the Dashkhovuz Ecological Guardians. "Therefore the attack of Turkmen Telecom brought serious damage for NGO development."
Zatoka's group is just one of fifteen Turkmen environmental NGOs -- more than half of the country's total of 28 third-sector groups -- that use e-mail, according to the Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia (ISAR). E-mail allowed these NGOs, located in one of the most physically and politically isolated areas of the former Soviet Union, to publicize their activity and solicit donor support for ongoing initiatives.
It all started back in 1997, when ISAR, a USAID sub-contractor, supplied the seed money, a grant of about $20,000, to set up ISP Ariana, Ltd., which wired Turkmenistan's environmental NGOs. When the grant money ran out, Ariana extended its services to paying customers in the international community. It then used the fees it collected to continue to underwrite e-mail service for Turkmenistan's environmental NGOs.
Through quality service and competitive rates, Ariana soon became the largest and most dynamic ISP in Turkmenistan. It attracted close to 350 customers, compared to the relatively paltry 100 users of Turkmen Telecom, its main rival. But Ariana may have been a victim of its own success. "There are many in the government who believe that if a sector is profitable, then they should monopolize that sector or business," says a Western observer based in Ashgabat. "They believe that only they can offer the best prices and service or product, and that this is in the best interest of the country."
The Ministry alleged that Ariana and other ISPs, in filing official reports, had omitted and distorted information. In a May 25 letter, signed by a Ministry of Communication official, Ariana received notification that it had three days to turn in its license. The letter went on to say the company had failed to disclose details about the placement of its equipment, its data transfer process and its billing and firewall software.
In June, protest letters condemning the shutdown started circulating on the world wide web. The Socio-Ecological Union, the Catena Ecological Club, and the Law and Environment Eurasia Partnership appealed for financial assistance to help keep the ISPs operating. "We retain hope that reason will prevail," one protest letter said, "but we also know that in this case we have no guarantees." Meanwhile, the Journalists' Trade Union in Azerbaijan called on "all international freedom of expression groups to support independent ISPs in Turkmenistan."
The appeals had little influence. Most of the Internet service providers dutifully closed down. Only Ariana tried to resist the government's ruling. Vagif Zeynalov, Ariana's co-founder and technical director, kept the ISP afloat for about a month after the ministry's ruling. Since only for-profit businesses officially needed licenses, Ariana provided free service to all its customers, while company officials sought an appeal. Those efforts proved futile, however. "The Ministry of Communication switched off our phone lines and switched off our satellite equipment," Zeynalov said.
Ariana's demise allowed Turkmen Telecom to secure a monopoly of the country's telecom services, which many regional experts and watchdog groups say was the plan from the outset.
Environmental NGOs are back online, but they are finding their service is significantly curtailed. Zatoka reports that "we found a way to continue an e-mail system for NGOs, but it works not so fast, forces us to economize the traffic (an accordingly to renounce from subscription newsletters), and we completely lost full access to the Internet."
After a brief period of self-sufficiency, the environmental groups are now completely dependent again on Western donors. The local NGOs have scaled back their projects accordingly. "Before monopolization, I had a plan to develop Internet access in Dashkhoguz; now I can think only about saving of previous e-mail system," Zatoka said.
This is the first of a two-part series examining the impact of the Ministry of Communication's decision to revoke the licenses of independent ISPs
Bea Hogan is a journalist
who is an expert on Central Asian political, economic and