These days, Turkmenistan’s strongman, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, would prefer it if Ukraine didn't exist. But try as he might, his government can't keep Turkmen citizens completely in the dark about Ukrainian events.
State-controlled media in Turkmenistan -- one of the most repressive states in the world, according to human rights organizations – has maintained steadfast silence on events in Ukraine since the start of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv last November. The news blackout not only has covered the downfall of Viktor Yanukovych’s administration, but also Russia’s annexation of Crimea and, most recently, the upheaval in eastern Ukraine.
Similarly, the Turkmen government has not issued any official statements concerning Ukrainian developments. The evident fear guiding government policy is that news of an uprising against incumbent authorities in another formerly Soviet state might inspire Turkmenistan’s own beleaguered population to follow suit.
While many Turkmen citizens, especially those in rural areas, have little, if any knowledge of recent events in Ukraine, the government’s information filter isn’t strong enough to keep all information out. For one, about 15,000 Turkmen students are studying at various institutions of higher learning in Ukraine, and they are potential sources of first-hand reports to friends and family members back home. In addition, a significant number of citizens inside the country, particularly in the capital Ashgabat, are able to access Russian news channels via satellite television. The internet offers another means of obtaining news from the outside world, but access is limited.
A twenty-something Ashgabat resident who works for a foreign company operating in Turkmenistan reported that he can access Western media outlets and social networks occasionally via the Internet. “There is always a difficulty with those [Internet-based news sources], since our government periodically bans them,” he said.
Turkmen authorities have long had an uneasy relationship with satellite dishes. Earlier initiatives to clamp down on satellite television, however, met with sufficiently strong popular opposition that authorities decided to grudgingly tolerate the broadcasts. Many Ashgabat residents have thus been able to keep up with the Russian version of events in Ukraine, a narrative in which “fascists” seized power in Kyiv, forcing Russia to occupy and annex the Crimean peninsula in the name of protecting ethnic Russians there.
“Before the conflict resulted in the annexation of Ukrainian territory by Russia, Turkmen authorities did not object [to Russian satellite broadcasts], since Russian media presents the political crisis in Ukraine as a fight against terrorists and combatants trying to usurp power. Such a version benefits [Turkmen] authorities,” said a political observer in Ashgabat, speaking on conditions of anonymity.
In recent weeks, Ashgabat satellite television viewers have noted changes that indicate Berdymukhamedov’s regime is growing increasingly uncomfortable with Russian news coverage of Ukraine, in particular the seizures of buildings and entire towns and cities by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine.
“We see more interferences, poor broadcast signals or even blackouts in the city during news programs. I believe this is due to the fact that the authorities cannot decide how to react to other Ukrainian regions asking to join Russia. The authorities are probably afraid such a scenario could take place here too,” said the Ashgabat observer.
The doctrine established by Russian leader Vladimir Putin that assigns the Kremlin responsibility for “protecting” the rights of ethnic Russians anywhere in the former Soviet Union appears to be what’s making Turkmen authorities nervous. Over 100,000 residents of Turkmenistan hold Russian passports. Although that number represents only about 4 percent of the population, that’s plenty to provide Moscow a potential pretext to meddle. In recent years, Turkmen authorities tried to abolish dual citizenship, and thus force Russian passport holders to either leave for Russia or renounce their Russian citizenship. But vigorous push-back from Russia caused Turkmen authorities to back down.
Although officials may worry that Turkmen citizens might embrace the Euromaidan spirit if they had full access to news about Ukraine, another Ashgabat observer, who quietly tries to monitor rights violations in the country, says the chances of mass protests occurring in Ashgabat anytime soon are near zero. Years of stifling government repression has left the population fearful and unwilling to take risks.
“There are about 10 activists … who try to somehow draw attention to human rights violations in our country,” the expert said. “While these select individuals try to do at least something, the other 5 million people are completely passive!” the expert said.
Aisha Berdyeva is a psuedonym for a reporter who follows Turkmen affairs.