Turkmenistan protests too much as citizens are halted from leaving country
The government insisted unbidden that it respects freedom of movement, although media reports suggest otherwise.
As if for no reason, Turkmenistan’s migration authorities this week decided to remind the public of their basic constitutional right to free movement.
An item appearing on April 17 in the news section of the Migration Service noted that “no citizen of Turkmenistan can be deprived of the right to leave Turkmenistan or enter Turkmenistan.” The statement then added that “a positive dynamic can be observed” in the rate at which Turkmen citizens are making trips abroad — a slightly abstruse way of saying that people are going abroad more often these days.
The unbidden declaration looks very much like a oblique government riposte to reports that, on the contrary, many Turkmen citizens are actually being prevented from leaving the country.
One day earlier, RFE/RL had reported that hundreds of travelers bound for destinations like Dubai and Turkey were being stopped from boarding flights despite having tickets and valid visas. A video accompanying the article suggested that the unhappy customers had not taken the unexplained prohibition lying down and instead engaged in open confrontation with airport officials.
There can be little legitimate excuse for such episodes.
Turkmenistan ostensibly scrapped its Soviet-style system of exit visas in 2004. This was a mechanism that required people to obtain government permission before they could leave the country.
To be more exact though, Turkmenistan did not so much get rid of exit visas that year as deny they ever existed in the first place.
“In some places, without understanding the situation, they are spreading information that the citizens of Turkmenistan who wish to move to another country need to obtain a visa,” the late President Saparmurat Niyazov said in a televised address at the time. “We have nothing of the sort. Anybody who wants to leave can just present their passport and a letter of authorization from another country. Visas are no longer required.”
Then as now, this was so much bunkum though. As rights activists have pointed out, if there was no exit visa, there was a system of migration blacklists that enabled authorities to disallow certain undesirables from traveling. People perceived as politically suspect have reportedly often been targeted by this travel ban.
The list of people forbidden from traveling appears to be getting longer as the country slips ever deeper into an economic crisis. Hard currency has apparently almost entirely dried up, not least as Turkmenistan has little to sell to the outside world but natural gas and few nations are in a position to physically get their hands on that fuel.
The handful of émigré-run websites that have valiantly shone a light on events inside the country routinely report on how people are unable to withdraw cash with their Turkmenistan-issued bank cards even when they are abroad.
State media maintains a tomb-like silence on anything looking like bad news, reserving itself to fawning reports about President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s purported sage leadership. As a rule of thumb, the deeper the nation is sinking into the morass, the more grotesquely and darkly farcical the personality cult devoted to Berdymukhamedov is becoming. Barely a week passes that he is not shown on TV leading a sing-song, writing poems and books, riding a horse, shooting guns, driving cars, pushing weights in a gym, jogging up a hill or leading his government on mass bicycle ride.
And the grim news doesn’t just involve the economy. Earlier this month, at least 17 people were reportedly killed in a bus accident near the capital, Ashgabat. Only foreign outlets carried the news — state media never alludes even to accidental bad events, let alone those caused by officials.
What may be particularly aggrieving to Turkmens about this particular incident is that Berdymukhamedov and his state media is happy enough to bring up similar tragedies when they happen elsewhere.
Last year, for example, The Turkmen state news agency ran a report on Berdymukhamedov offering Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin condolences over a bus crash in the Russian city of Krasnodar that claimed at least 18 lives. Were Putin to return the tribute now, he would likely get very short shrift.