Turkmenistan celebrated the New Year with typical pomp and circumstance: a 37-meter high tree – approximately the height of a 10-story building – stood in Ashgabat’s main square, topped with an eight-pointed star with a "2013" sign on it. A festive fairy-tale town was set up around the tree and thousands of children, folk dance groups, and circus and theater artists gathered to celebrate. A carriage with Ayaz Baba – the Turkmen version of Santa Claus, accompanied by Akhal Teke riders and characters from Turkmen folk tales, proceeded through the main streets of the capital city, “inviting” children to the festival. In his congratulatory speech President Berdymukhamedov said: “In the New Year, each of us has to work with even more enthusiasm, perseverance and productiveness to help our beloved Motherland – Turkmenistan – enter the ranks of the most industrialized and advanced countries of the world.”
The festive period was not so happy for everyone. Deputy Chairman of the Turkmen State Committee on Emergency Situations, Rozymyrat Seyitkulyev, received a severe reprimand from the president and was fired shortly afterward, for the usual bromides of “failing to organize his work in an appropriate manner.” Berdymukhamedov also fired the Deputy Chairman of the State Concern Turkmenpagta (Turkmen Cotton), Ashyrmyrat Cherkezov, for “improper performance of his official duties.” Turkmenistan’s state media reported that Berdymukhamedov was unhappy with his energy minister, Murad Artykov, for poor preparation for the winter temperatures, formally reprimanding him for “improper performance of official duties, weakening of control over the activities of the energy sector of the country, failure to take appropriate measures to ensure the smooth operation of industry facilities during the winter season.” Similarly, the Minister of Public Utilities, Arslan Yagshimammedov, received a severe reprimand for the lacklustre preparation for the cold season.
Turkmen state media also reported on a routine drug burning to destroy over 193 kilograms of drugs seized by Turkmen law enforcement agencies in a number of special operations. The reports claimed that the amount was much less than in previous burnings, drawing the conclusion that this indicates Turkmen law-enforcement’s increasing success combating drugs. However, a report on the opposition website gundogar.org claims the Turkmen authorities are misleading the international community and Turkmen people by concealing the real data on crime rates and the extent of corruption in Turkmenistan’s law-enforcement system. Recently, many high-level law-enforcement officials, including the Minister of Interior, have left their posts and the new officials replacing them routinely face reprimands from the president for concealing the real state of affairs in combating crime. Despite Berdymukhamedov’s scoldings, law-enforcement has not been successful in bringing down Turkmenistan’s high crime rates.
The Turkmen Parliament adopted a new law on mass media seeking to enforce “the generally accepted legal and ethical norms and regulations.” This would unlikely change Turkmenistan’s media landscape, which is totally controlled by the state, and which has the president as the founder of most of the central mass media. Some suspect that the law may make life even harder for journalists working within this very rigid system – as the law regulates the procedures for working with information, including its gathering and distribution, and provides additional grounds for firing media workers.
During the holiday season, Turkmenistan engaged in fewer international encounters; a delegation of representatives of Russian companies led by Nina Levshins, Deputy Chairman of the Russian-Turkmen Business Council and CEO of "Russian-Turkmen Trade House,” visited Ashgabat to express interest in establishing close business partnerships with state-owned and private businesses in Turkmenistan. President Berdymukhamedov met with Yoichi Kobayashi, President of the Japanese-Turkmen economic cooperation committee and Executive Vice-President of “Itochu Corporation,” to discuss Turkmen-Japanese cooperation in the energy and other sectors. And Iran and Turkmenistan struck an agreement to bolster cooperation in the oil and gas sectors.
The Environmental Performance Review of Turkmenistan, performed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), revealed that the salinization of irrigated lands, desertification, and biodiversity loss remain the most pressing challenges for Turkmenistan, according to a review published this week.
The SecDev Group has released a study of Internet censorship and surveillance in Turkmenistan. The report was commissioned and financially supported by the Open Society Foundations. It is posted on the ONI Website, and can also be downloaded from here.
Neither Here Nor There: Turkmenistan’s Digital Doldrums
Abstract Turkmenistan is slowly emerging from decades of darkness. President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has vowed to modernize the country by encouraging the uptake of new technology for economic development and more efficient governance. Hundreds of thousands of Turkmen citizens are now online. However, the country faces serious challenges as it prepares to go digital. Infrastructure is primitive, and public access is enforced by a state monopoly. Slow speeds, exorbitant pricing, and technological illiteracy all constitute major hurdles. A new study from the SecDev Group highlights the ambivalent policies and practices that have left Turkmenistan mired in the digital doldrums, torn between its desire to join the worldwide web and its compulsion to control cyberspace.