Turkmenistan has dealt another blow against internet freedom by blocking access to TOR, a network known for providing online anonymity and circumventing censorship measures.
As Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news reported on July 28, this measure came on the heels of the increasing popularity of this blockage-busting technique.
This has led to something of an internecine squabble to break out among Turkmen internet users. Established TOR users gripe that it was only after the usefulness of the network began to be widely advertised on Telegram channels and in other forums that state cybersecurity services were moved to act.
In a further intriguing detail, however, Turkmen.news notes, citing unnamed sources, that the goal of the cyber-police here is not to shield the population from politically sensitive information, but rather to make a profit. Censors at the spigot reportedly “whitelist” certain VPNs, which are used to circumvent site bans, against payment. Internet users are then compelled to subscribe to the services provided by the administrators of those whitelisted VPNs.
If the hyper-paranoid Turkmen authorities were serious about their censorship agenda, they might finally implement their own “sovereign internet” space – something along the lines of North Korea’s Kwangmyong intranet system – but this does not happen since there would be no profit in doing so.
Using the internet in general, censorship or not, is a headache. Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan has reported on a fresh bout of chronic cutoffs taking place since July 23. This report is based on the testimony of sources inside the country and data provided by Cloudflare Radar.
Irony of ironies, things have not been well with the internet ever since the inauguration of the Arkadag “smart city” at the end of June 29. The supposed smartness of that city is contingent on it being an urban center where everything is run along an “internet of things” principle. Traffic, air conditioners, water meters, and even vacuum cleaners are supposed to be seamlessly run by a remote online system, but it is hard to see how that will work under present conditions.
Where new-fangled form of censorship don’t work, the authorities resort to more traditional, time-tested techniques. RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk, has reported that government workers in the Caspian port town of Turkmenbashi were gathered on July 25 to get a lecture from security service agents, among others, on how they should refrain from sending stories about social and economic problems to Radio Azatlyk. The civil servants were further told they should not be looking at Radio Azatlyk at all, in fact.
“Each of those present was urged to keep an eye on their family members,” one attendee of the meeting told Radio Azatlyk, an immediate indication the injunctions have promptly been ignored.
Among the issues that officials do not want to see carried in foreign news websites are the long lines at government stores, nonfunctioning ATMs, and medical malpractice at state hospitals.
Talk on Turkmenistan’s potential as a cargo transit hub has tended to focus in the recent past on geographically sprawling concepts like the North–South Corridor, a railway route that Russia is banking on breaking it out of its current international isolation by giving it eased access to the Indian Ocean. The concept has its roots in an agreement reached between India, Iran and Russia in 2000 and has expanded since to draw in other countries.
But it was only last month, on July 11, that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin agreed for his government to formally admit Turkmenistan to the International North-South Transport Corridor.
Since that time, though, attention has turned to smaller side initiatives that would nevertheless likely plug into a broader North-South agenda. Uzbekistan’s Transportation Ministry said in a statement on July 31 that the governments of Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are at the moment putting together an agreement on setting up a transport corridor between their three nations.
Transport officials dwelled more specifically on proposals to reduce fees for international road transport through Iran, making greater use of the Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, and developing an Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Iran transport corridor. While Russia may perennially loom in the background of such conversations, the relevance for Central Asia here is that exploiting full potential of ports like Chabahar would enable the region to deepen connectivity and economies ties with India and other parts of south Asia.
There may be little sense in thinking about the big stuff without fixing the smaller things, however.
Uzbek media reported on July 27 that representatives from the state railway companies of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan met to thrash out some problems crimping the potential of physical trade between the countries. First was the apparently lamentable state of Turkmen cargo carriages, many of which are in sore need of maintenance. The somewhat anodyne reports on these discussions also indicate that severe delays are being incurred by Turkmenistan.
In happier Turkmen-Uzbek border news, work should have now started on a trading and retail facility in Turkmenistan’s Dashoguz province. The appearance of this structure will be the fruit of an October 2021 bilateral agreement on the creation of a border trade zone. The facility should be up and running by July 2025.
The regional integration project may be given another jolt when the presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan meet for a three-way summit in Ashgabat later this month. The exact composition of the agenda has not yet been made publicly known, but trade and ongoing efforts to complete the so-called Line D of the Central Asia-China natural gas pipeline will likely feature.
While state propaganda trumpets Turkmenistan’s great achievements, discussions at the July 28 Cabinet meeting laid bare the struggles that the government is having in providing even basic needs for the population. President Serdar Berdymukhamedov heard how “measures are being taken to ensure the uninterrupted supply of clean drinking water in Ashgabat” – as sure an indication as any that this is not happening at present.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan earlier reported on how running water was turned off from around 10 p.m. on July 22 in Ashgabat’s Parahat-7 microdistrict and other locations and only turned back on the following day. The same cycle repeated a few days later. Turkmen.news previously carried a news item on how fountains in the city had been turned off to economize on water.
Such interruptions at the height of summer may constitute only relatively minor irritations for the time being, but with Turkmenistan embracing greater degrees of urbanization amid a broader incipient regional water crisis, it may be safe to expect more of the same unless remedial action is taken.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.