Turkmenistan loves sports, so this unusually despotic nation’s attempt to garner some positive international press ahead of next month’s Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat warrants an apt metaphor.
Announcing the opening of its first shelter for stray cats and dogs was a tap-in putt.
Alas, in characteristic fashion, Turkmen authorities took their driver to that shot and planted the ball straight in the nearest bunker.
Over the past few years, there have been multiple reports of cruelly executed mass culls of homeless dogs. During one wave in 2016, municipal workers in the capital, Ashgabat, went around the city leaving poisoned food for the animals to eat. Inevitably, many house pets were also swept up in the cull.
One Ashgabat resident at the time told foreign-based Alternative News of Turkmenistan that she was on night duty when she got a phone call from her crying children. They told her that their dog had been poisoned and had died in agony.
“What kind of an education are the authorities giving our children? This is a traumatic experience for the delicate hearts of children,” the resident told ANT.
In May, one of the few people in Turkmenistan doing any kind of independent civic activism, Natalya Shabunts, sensed an opportunity with the indoor games coming up. She addressed a letter to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov appealing to him to put a stop to the new round of animal culls taking place ahead of the competition.
“I am pleading with you to cancel the order to undertake the total obliteration of dogs and cats before the Asian games and to put an end to the bloodbath. The barbaric execution of these unfortunate animals by numerous hunting squads has turned Turkmenistan into a nation of executioners and murderers and has stained its reputation,” she wrote in a public appeal.
A few months before the appeal was issued, ANT had produced a video documenting the cull that animal-lovers will find distressing to watch. Officials have claimed privately, since the problem is not even acknowledged in public, that the videos were faked and the dead animals depicted were actually photographed in China.
People concerned about the welfare of cats and dogs were supposed, accordingly, to be heartened by news published in state media on August 20 about the opening of a shelter for stray animals.
A woolly piece on the state news agency website said the shelter, called the Island of Hope, currently holds more than 100 dogs and about 50 cats. The head of the family-run shelter says in an interview that she has received support from state bodies and private companies.
But there was barely enough time for that mildly encouraging piece of news to sink in before it was utterly undermined by a depressingly familiar report.
On August 22, the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, another foreign-based news website, reported that Shabunts, who wrote the letter to the president, had been on the receiving end of a vicious attack provoked by her animal rights activism.
On the morning of August 20, as she was taking her dogs for a walk, she was verbally assaulted by two young women accompanied by their children.
“Russian pig! Only Russians keep dogs at home! Her dogs are terrifying our children,” they reportedly screamed in broken Russian, referring to Shabunts' two Pekingese dogs. The children apparently then burst into tears, terrified not by the dogs, but their mothers’ frantic screaming.
Shabunts then sought assistance from a man walking nearby, but he too joined in the onslaught, according to the Chronicles of Turkmenistan account.
“Stop! Where are you running off to, scum! Let’s talk! We live perfectly well in our wonderful country. We live as we want. Why don’t you go back to your Russia,” the man is said to have shouted.
Only after some time did Shabunts manage to find somebody to intercede on her behalf — an elderly Turkmen man.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan cited neighbors who witnessed the incident as saying that they did not know the two women who sparked the entire incident and that they most likely did not live locally.
The set-up suggests a method commonly deployed across the region, whereby people posing as regular members of the public harass and physically assault activists and journalists. With the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games looming in mid-September, authorities are evidently eager to discourage Shabunts or any likeminded people from either kicking up a fuss or speaking to foreign reporters about Turkmenistan’s countless shortcomings.
But if anything, every such crass and inept act of intimidation is only likely to draw more attention to the problem instead of distracting from it.