In view of the state of things in Turkmenistan, earning citizenship from Ashgabat should probably be considered at best a questionable blessing.
And yet, for the 863 permanent residents of Turkmenistan who have for years lived in limbo, bestowal of citizenship this week represents an important step toward full personhood.
But documents only get you so far. In unusually candid public remarks for a diplomat, the foreign minister in Turkish northern Cyprus commented this week on the matter of Turkmen citizens being deprived of the right to leave their country. Writing on his Facebook page, Kudret Özersay noted that Ashgabat’s arbitrary policy of stopping people returning from visits home is breaking up families.
One common explanation for these draconian restrictions is that the Turkmen government is distressed by its demographic situation. As RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Azatlyk, reported in June, citing anonymous insiders, almost 1.9 million may have fled the country over the past decade. That figure did not include people going abroad for short periods.
That latter category includes young people bent on getting halfway decent university educations. Data published by the government in Belarus have shown Turkmens ranking second in absolute numbers of foreign nationals seeking residence. With 4,000 of its citizens applying to live in Belarus in 2018, Turkmenistan outstrips the far more populous and geographically close Ukraine, whence 3,400 relocated to Belarus.
When, or if, those qualified young people return home, will they find anything worthwhile awaiting? Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported September 20 on the shortage of nurses at clinics. Many qualified medical personnel have found they would prefer to take care of the elderly and disabled children in Turkey for salaries running up to $800 per month than remain impoverished in Turkmenistan. Chronicles has previously reported on the shortage of teachers, who also leave for Turkey.
As if the lot of women was not bad enough already, there have been fresh reports that traffic police in Ashgabat have been stopping female drivers on downtown roads and summarily confiscating their licenses. “Women are being halted en masse on the main road running alongside the presidential palace and near … the Olympic town,” a correspondent for Azatlyk reported. This mystifyingly misogynistic ban has reportedly been in effect since the start of September.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is a confirmed petrol-head. That lends some credence to the notion that some of the more lunatic automotive policies being enforced – such as the alleged unofficial ban on black cars – are the slavish implementation of his whims.
As every Turkmen knows, the one thing that Berdymukhamedov purports to love just as much as his cars is sports. Sadly, Turkmenistan has never won a single Olympic medal. The government is now seemingly pinning its hopes on its Belarus-based students. Amsterdam-based Turkmen.news on September 17 published a copy of a letter from Ashgabat’s ambassador in Minsk to Turkmen students wondering if any of them might be qualified to represent their country in such disciplines as curling, biathlon, figure skating, hockey or skiing at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
The cotton harvest is now in full swing. Four of Turkmenistan’s five provinces began gathering the crop on September 11. Harvesting started one week later in the Dashoguz province, reportedly because of climatic conditions.
As is customary, all hands are being put to the job. And that includes young men on military service. Conscripts in the town of Kerki, in the Lebap province, were sent out to the cotton fields as early as last month. Parents of the youngsters have told Azatlyk that the conscripts are being housed in unheated tents and not being provided with proper nutrition. “Parents have spoken about how their sons and other soldiers have, in this month, grown thin to the point of being unrecognizable,” the Azatlyk correspondent reported.
In more grim military news out of the Lebap province, Chronicles reported on the death of four servicemen at a military unit in the village of Shagal. The website has claimed, in part based on what it says is the testimony of one of the mothers of the men, that the early September fatalities were the result of intense hazing. The mother said she demanded a medical examination of her son’s body and found that he had sustained traumatic brain injuries and showed signs of sustained beatings. Yet another fatality is said to have occurred in Kerki, though in that case military prosecutors are reportedly acting to punish the perpetrators.
This is all a far cry from the very literal dog and pony show arranged for Berdymukhamedov during military exercises at the start of the month.
In a customary attempt to inject a spirit of cheer ahead of Independence Day, which is marked on September 27, Berdymukhamedov approved a decree granting amnesty to 868 prisoners. He may, of course, just be freeing up some space into which throw countless other people. Turkmen.news has reported that police have intensified security checks in advance of the holiday. Men with five o’clock shadows are being ordered to return home and shave, the website claimed. Motorists are also purportedly being serially stopped at intersections and being made to display their documents.
In the peculiar stakes, however, nothing quite matches what appears to be a grotesque attempt at face-saving trickery by Turkmen authorities. In March 2018, a young man called Omriuzak Omarkuliyev was lured back to Turkmenistan from Turkey, apparently for engaging in some milquetoast apolitical activism, and was then promptly thrown into the notorious Ovan-Depe prison.
But last week, regime-friendly, self-styled independent journalist Dovletmurat Yazkuliev posted a detailed video purporting to document how Omarkuliyev has, in fact, been doing his military service all this time. Pushing aside the patent absurdity of the claim that Turkmen authorities would ever have allowed a truly independent journalist to produce such a report in the first place, RFE/RL patiently dismantles this cynical attempt to obfuscate on yet another instance of regime excess.
Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.