Turkmenistan’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has tried to give the Central Asian country a modern gloss by touting the Internet’s ability to make life simpler. The initiative, however, has become the butt of jokes and derision among Ashgabat residents.
One such anecdote goes like this: Getting anything accomplished on the web is about as convenient as using a mobile phone tethered to a desk.
Obtaining goods and services online is nearly impossible in Turkmenistan. Many websites that purport to offer electronic solutions only cause users to pound their keyboards in frustration. For example, about a year ago, state-controlled news agencies reported that Turkmenistan’s national airline had started selling electronic tickets. But a cursory check showed that the airline’s URL's were just dead links. The only way for consumers to book air tickets remains the same as it was during the Soviet era: citizens must go to one of the airline’s offices, pay in cash and obtain a print-out of an “electronic” ticket.
When it comes to e-government, the results are similar. Websites for many government ministries and state agencies, including the Ministry of Communication and the postal service, either lack useful information, or are not functioning at all. Turkmenistan’s Academy of Sciences has perhaps the best website of any governmental body, but that’s understandable, given that it was built with the help of grants from international organizations. And even then, the academy’s site is encumbered by political jargon, specifically a slogan attributed to Berdymukhamedov: “Science and technology are branches of the national economy.”
The evident reality does not prevent Berdymukhamedov from trying to perpetuate myths and promote a parallel universe. An October 31 report posted on the semi-official Turkmenistan – The Golden Age website announced the establishment of a video-conferencing network connecting Berdymukhamedov to the offices of regional governors. While this certainly might make it easier for Berdymukhamedov to keep an eye on his underlings, it does little to encourage a greater degree of government responsiveness to popular concerns.
The mirage of convenience extends well beyond the web. What have become routine matters elsewhere around the globe in the Digital Age remain exercises in futility in Turkmenistan. One glaring example is electronic banking. Not too long ago, authorities announced that, starting this September, it would be possible for consumers to use ATMs at banks to obtain up to 200 dollars in cash. What authorities didn’t say is that the ATMs only accept old-style credit and debit cards, which do not have electronic chips embedded in them. Since most Turkmen citizens have newer cards with chips, the new ATM rules were useless. As a result, to get cash, the overwhelming majority of Turkmen must get on a Soviet-style merry-go-round: one must visit a bank branch, get a teller to issue an authorization, obtain the signatures of three separate bank managers, then stand in another line for the payout.
Turkmen authorities do not care that e-government can provide a substantive means for tightening the bonds between a government and its people, and for spreading basic information such as train or bus schedules. Berdymukhamedov’s current approach to the issue is rooted in complete disregard for the yawning gap between theory and reality. It is doing considerable harm to the country, given that the stunted banking system is stifling trade and throttling overall economic development.
It’s Turkmen citizens who are left to live amid the shards of Berdymukhamedov’s e-fantasy.
Serdar Aytakov is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Turkmen affairs.