Unusually powerful winds of more than 140 kilometers per hour battered northeastern Turkmenistan late last month, damaging countless homes, knocking electricity and gas grids offline and, according to foreign-based media outlets, claiming possibly dozens of lives.
Days later, on May 4, Lebap province was again tormented by freak weather conditions as heavy rains poured onto many now-roofless houses.
State television ignored these events altogether.
Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan relayed news of damage in the Lebap provincial capital, Turkmenabat, as well as in the Chardjou and Sayat districts. Netherlands-based outlet Turkmen.news reported significant damage in the Farabsky district, just across the Amu Darya from Turkmenabat.
Local correspondents for RFE/RL's Turkmen service, Azatlyk, cited an unspecified “informed source” as saying that at least 30 people died.
Chronicles claimed that as of May 1 dozens of employees of state firm Turkmengaz and shepherds from the impacted area were still missing.
Human Rights Watch cited partner organizations – Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens, a Prague-based group, and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights – as saying that citizens were being detained or harassed by security services for attempting to document the damage with their phone cameras or share those images with acquaintances overseas.
Although the authorities have not publicly acknowledged the apparent disaster, it seems that details about the scale of destruction might even have reached the ears of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who is likely as a rule sheltered from bad news by his trembling underlings. Turkmen.news correspondent Ogulzhan Tairova claimed to have been informed by a friend in law enforcement structures that Berdymukhamedov visited the wind-battered areas to inspect the destruction personally, although this sounds strongly like hearsay.
If the president did see any damage, he may no mention of it during the May 1 Cabinet meeting.
These government sessions are an important key to understanding how the Turkmen government operates, however. Regular state news agency bulletins try to convey the image of Berdymukhamedov micro-managing even the most humdrum and routine of issues.
This week’s bulletin featured not just updates on the government’s 2030 industrial development agenda, the environment, output in the oil and gas sector, sowing and harvesting plans for wheat, cotton and sugar beets, new products being made at cement factories, transportation, and simplification of customs procedures, but also talk about plans to hold cultural events and the current state of horse- and dog-breeding initiatives. On this last matter, the president has ordered the founding of an Association of Turkmen Alabai and has made his son, Construction Minister Serdar Berdymukhamedov, the head of it.
Cabinet sessions usually present a couple of unusual items of interest, though.
Berdymukhamedov turned his attention again to plans to launch a new telecommunications satellite. Presenting himself very much as a man before his time, Berdymukhamedov noted that it was thanks to Turkmenistan’s existing satellite, after all, that they could have the video conference calls he now tends to prefer to having in person meetings with his minions. Turkmenistan in 2015 had Thales Alenia Space build and launch a satellite that was to provide the country with its telecommunication needs. The satellite, which is called TurkmenAlem 52°E, was launched with much fanfare onboard a Falcon 9 vehicle operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.
It has also been decreed that 160,000 laptops are to be gifted to first-graders in the coming school year. The devices will be manufactured locally by the Chinese-Turkmen joint venture Agzibirlik Tilsimaty. This all sounds good, but for the fact that a 2018 investigation by the Chronicles of Turkmenistan found the company’s products to be little more than glorified, computer-shaped toys.
The official narrative is of Turkmenistan as a land of plenty, although the occasional references to “food security” in government statements hint at a less rosy reality. Reporting on the difficulty that citizens periodically experience in getting their hands on basic staples falls to exile-run media.
Turkmen.news on May 4 ran a story under the headline “Is famine beckoning?” in which it reported on how residents in parts of the Lebap, Dashoguz and Balkan regions are being issued food rations only on presentation of proof of local residency. This measure is apparently being deployed to prevent speculative buying and reselling, a fact that suggests that the produce supply chain is creaking. It is only in Ashgabat and environs that such shortages are not seen.
While pursuing a fiercely autarkic line, Berdymukhamedov’s regime occasionally talks about its desire for economic integration with the outside world. The president again signaled this week that Turkmenistan is seeking to secure observer status at the World Trade Organization.
Foreign trade yes, but no to foreign religions. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on April 28 issued its latest country report in which it called for Turkmenistan to be re-designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC). Suspicion does not extend solely to different faiths, it is reserved for Islam too. In fact, restrictions with Islam are, if anything, even more suffocating.
“Unlike its approach to other faiths, the government directly controls the practice of Islam by appointing religious leaders and dictating the content of sermons and prayers,” the report found. “The state-mandated content for imams regularly includes prayers for President Berdymukhamedov, asking not only for his health and long life, but also for God to punish his enemies.”
The implication of the CPC status is that government agencies and officials suspected of rights abuses are liable to have assets frozen and be barred from travel to the United States. Turkmenistan should also be cut off from U.S. security assistance, the commission said, a remarkable conclusion concerning a country sharing a long border with Afghanistan.
This week, holdout Tajikistan finally succumbed to reality and admitted that it had its own coronavirus outbreak, thus leaving Turkmenistan as the only country in the region supposedly without a problem. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, had announced last week that a delegation was poised to visit the country, but this appears not to have happened. Turkmen state media reported only that Kluge and Turkmen officials had discussed the pandemic via video conference on April 28. Opposition-run Gundogar website claimed that Ashgabat refused to provide an official invitation.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.