The hallmark of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s coming to power in 2007 was his opening of Internet cafes and restoration of the education system – these steps into the 21st century for his isolated Central Asian nation caused Westerners to become the most hopeful about change in Turkmenistan. In fact, the cafes came with soldiers and passport checks, and remained too expensive for most users.
Since that time, Internet penetration shot up, while remaining the lowest in Central Asia at 1.6 percent of the population, but then slowed to a plateau, and service grew far more expensive, facing many obstacles, even as other countries have found connection costs dropping.
In his campaign speech January 9, when Berdymukhamedov spoke of moving his country from the agrarian to the industrial stage, he meant that most Turkmens are outside of the oil and gas industry, eking out a living in agriculture or low-wage municipal jobs or jobless in poverty. As much as gas revenue is supposedly plowed into social development, there is little to show for it – new clinics and schools sit half empty with new equipment gathering dust because there aren’t enough trained people.
That’s why the president spoke of modern times demanding “the preparation of society for accepting changes and supporting them" -- people have to adapt to the state's dictation of change and like it. Berdymukhamedov has spoken often of the need for information technology and filled many elementary schools with computers. Yet they aren’t hooked up to the Internet, or if they are, face blockages of critical news and political sites, and some social media.
At some level, the Turkmen president does realize the connection between modernization of society and greater Internet penetration – but he wants it on terms that will not undermine state power, or his own power as the state’s personification. He says he hopes to train “a new generation of specialists who have mastered all the modern communications and multi-media technologies” in a future “highly developed information society” who will advance civilization “by the unrestrained flight of human thought.”
Human thought can’t take flight as much as it would like in Turkmenistan, when even Youtube singers land in jail and the government can arbitrarily cut off cell phone service for half the population.
According to Farid Tuhbatullin, head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, there are about 100,000 high school graduates every year in Turkmenistan but only 12,000 of them can find places in Turkmen universities and colleges. Thousands then seek education abroad in Turkey, Russia, Tajikistan and other neighbors and some manage also to find spots in the EU or US.
Such young people would seem to be natural candidates for Internet and mobile usage and to some extent they are, but inside Turkmenistan, only in very small numbers. Facebook has 12,060 users who list themselves as being from Turkmenistan, and usage decreased in the last year, to 0.24 percent of the population. Vkontakte, the popular Russian social network, had 53,644 users in Turkmenistan, Russian Sphinx reports.