The Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a news website operated by members of Turkmenistan’s opposition-in-exile, has been taken down by its managers in Austria after a particularly nasty hacking attack they blame on the Turkmen security services. This is the third time the website has been compromised this year, they say.
According to CA-News.org, hackers posted pornographic pictures on the site’s homepage on December 5. The hackers reportedly also changed the name of the site to “The Chronicles of the Bald Clan” and uploaded several articles insulting the Turkmen opposition.
In an emailed statement, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), which operates the site, blamed the Turkmen security services:
TIHR believes that such an action is a clear statement of the Turkmen secret services and the Turkmen authorities that they do not tolerate freedom of expression and freedom of information, although these rights are anchored in the Turkmen constitution. The website “Chronicles of Turkmenistan“ is the only Turkmen source that publishes independent information about developments in Turkmenistan. The two previous attacks in 2012 took place ahead of the presidential election in February and ahead of the Independence Day celebrations in October. In both cases the work of the website was quickly restored.
This time it remains unclear if there was a specific reason the site was targeted.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan has been publishing news from Turkmenistan since 2005. It is often the leading and sometimes sole source of news from the secretive and closed country.
Turkmenistan’s authorities go to extremes for pageantry. Last week, in one of the regular displays of patriotism Turkmen citizens are forced to attend and prepare for ad nauseam, two students waiting outside in unseasonably cold Ashgabat caught pneumonia and died, according to an opposition website.
The staged ceremony was in preparation for the upcoming Neutrality Day on December 12, and university students were practicing how to stand alongside the road to wave at the motorcade of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. They were told to wear light clothing, despite the cold weather.
Both [the students] were diagnosed with acute pneumonia but the call for medical assistance had been too late.
According to some students, many of them complained to the teaching staff that they felt unwell. Yet, the teachers kept repeating: “Even if you die, you will die here, at the stadium!”
Public displays of patriotism are a mandated tradition in Turkmenistan, and almost everyone – children, teachers, government employees and soldiers – is required to attend. In July, approximately 500 doctors and nurses were taken off their rounds and forced to attend the opening ceremonies of a hospital in another region. And the roll call of holidays never stops. In September, a government newspaper published a list of 49 “official” festivals and public events.
As the temperature drops, and residents scramble to heat their homes, prices often rise in Uzbekistan.
But once again, Tashkent’s economic band-aids don’t look likely to provide much relief from the annual crisis. As he’s done before, on November 9, President Islam Karimov hiked salaries, pensions, and student allowances – this time by 10 percent. Starting December 1, the minimum monthly wage will be increased to about $30.
Can that compensate for the skyrocketing prices of goods and services?
According to the independent news outlet UzNews.net, the price of milk and butter in Tashkent has risen by 18 percent in the past month. Part of the rise in costs, milk sellers say, is to compensate for the 50 percent increase in train tickets on the rail line connecting the capital with its suburbs.
Tashkent residents complain of gas shortages and hikes in taxi fares. What’s more, says the UzNews report, the government is struggling to control the price of coal even though last month authorities set up distribution points for coal in the capital and many parts of the countryside and fixed coal prices and purchase quotas.
No matter what it does, Tashkent’s numbers don’t add up. Maybe because the numbers are wrong?
President Islam Karimov has signed a law that promises to do something new in Uzbekistan: “On the defense of private property and guarantee of the rights of owners.”
“Every entrepreneur should know that he can without fear invest in his own business, expand production activities, increase production and generate income [...] keeping in mind that the government is guarding the legal rights of the property owner,” Karimov said two years ago when proposing the law.
The new law, signed on September 24, even has a special section on the rights of foreign businesses in Uzbekistan.
Try telling that to Russian mobile giant MTS.
In June, Uzbek authorities began investigating senior officials at MTS for tax evasion and money laundering. Within two months, the company’s entire Uzbekistan operation was seized, 9.5 million users were left without service, and the company was forced to write off $1 billion. MTS denies wrongdoing and observers believe the company was simply plundered by well-connected Tashkent elites.
Once again a foreign telecoms firm in Uzbekistan is at the heart of an international scandal, and this time the trail leads back to a close associate of Gulnara Karimova's.
An investigation to be aired September 19 by Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT) charges that Swedish-Finnish mobile giant TeliaSonera has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to a shady offshore firm for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov, is close to the action, says SVT's Uppdrag Granskning (“Mission Scrutiny”) program.
TeliaSonera, which is 37 percent owned by the Swedish government, started operating in Uzbekistan in 2007. In order to work there, the company relied on a partner called Takilant Limited, which is based in Gibraltar and run by an Uzbekistan national named Gayane Avakyan.
Uppdrag Granskning reports that Avakyan has strong links to Karimova. Her name appears frequently in association with Gulnara’s pet fashion projects. And Radio Ozodlik has quoted sources calling Avakyan very close to Karimova, adding that she manages the first daughter’s finances.
Over the course of six years, SVT says, TeliaSonera has paid Takilant 2.2 billion Swedish krona ($336 million) in exchange for 3G licenses, mobile frequencies and phone numbers in Uzbekistan. But, the program notes, the money cannot be accounted for in public financial records.
It’s September and that means it’s cotton-harvesting time in Uzbekistan. As the kids return to school (often via the cotton fields), Tashkent has issued its annual denial that they are forced to pick the “white gold.” But forget trying to independently confirm there is no forced child labor in Uzbekistan.
The government continues to refuse to allow observers from the International Labor Organization, a branch of the United Nations that monitors international labor standards, to monitor the cotton harvest, the Cotton Campaign reports. [Editor’s Note: The Cotton Campaign receives support from the Open Society Foundations; EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSF.]
Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced in August that it is forbidden to use children to harvest cotton and that schoolchildren shouldn’t even be near the fields during harvest season. However, UzNews and Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek Service note that Mirziyoyev’s decree is a yearly song and dance, and that as early as September 5, students from Jizzakh, a town in Uzbekistan’s northeast, were rounded up into buses and sent off to pick cotton in fields about 70 kilometers away.
It’s the end of an era. The Peace Corps will close all its Turkmenistan programs by December.
The US Embassy in Ashgabat has announced that the remaining 18 volunteers in Turkmenistan will be sent home this month, and the Peace Corps offices will close by the end of the year. The program has been operating since 1993, and has sent more than 740 volunteers to regions all over the country to work as English language teachers and help with health projects, said an August 31 statement on the Embassy’s website.
Though, according to the statement, “Peace Corps considers its program to have been extraordinarily successful in terms of achieving its development and cultural exchange goals,” it seems the Turkmen government has been wary of the program for some time. In March six Peace Corps volunteers were refused visa extensions and had to leave the country before completing their service. An Embassy official told EurasiaNet.org at the time that, “Peace Corps leadership and the US Embassy leadership are in an on-going dialogue with the Turkmen government about the future of the program, including its size and scope.”
Apparently “the size and scope” has now been decided.
How many people live in Turkmenistan? For years it’s been anyone’s guess.
But this December Ashgabat is planning to conduct a census -- the first since 1995. Authorities seem serious about systematically counting every person in the country. The government website dedicated to the census announces, “Right now in most cases we operate based on the 1995 census, but it seems that the situation has changed.”
According to the last survey, there were 4.481 million people living in Turkmenistan in 1995. Since then, from time to time, the government has doled out official “estimations.” Under former President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s population was announced bi-annually. The opposition-run website Gundogar notes that under Niyazov, “on March 1, 2006, new official information was printed that [the population was] 6,786,400 [...] on July 1, 2006 it was 6,836,500.” That’s a sharp increase in just a few months.
Outside observers generally estimate a markedly lower population of around 4.67 million people in 2005. The United States and the United Nations note that Turkmenistan had a high infant mortality rate – around 70 out of 1,000 births – until 2006. Now, the US and UN predict Turkmenistan’s population to be somewhere around 5.1 million.
It’s not every day that a new movie is made in Turkmenistan. So official plans to release five new features before Independence Day on October 27 is reason to celebrate. Right?
This being tightly controlled Turkmenistan, mind you, the plots are predictable. A discriminating cinophile might even call them PR. State-run Turkmenistan.ru describes three:
The first, “The Song of Avaza,” is a musical comedy about two students at the seaside resort of Avaza, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s pet tourist trap on the Caspian. The second, “The Horse - My Wings,” tells the tale of an old breeder of Akhal-Teke horses (Berdymukhamedov’s favorite) who is teaching his grandson the trade.
Turkmenistan.ru’s descriptions leave no platitude ignored. A third film, “Student Life,” is about the joys of being a student in independent Turkmenistan: “Along with the protagonists of the movie, the viewer is taken up by real student life, where the responsibilities of studying and the thirst for knowledge come together with inseparable friendships, first love, and the first independent steps toward adulthood.”
On its Facebook page, Salam Turkmen, group that aggregates and comments on news about Turkmenistan, interprets the film as a demonstration of Berdymukhamedov’s love for the youth of Turkmenistan, to which one commenter bemoans, "Again the same thing, along the same path. Unfortunately."
True, it is thanks to Berdymukhamedov that even these attempts at filmmaking happen.