Turkmenistan’s government never fails to disappoint, and its latest action will keep that reputation intact.
For more than two decades the government has been touting its UN-recognized status as a neutral country to close itself off from the rest of the world and preserve the harmony Turkmen authorities say exists there.
For example, the Turkmen government continues to claim there are no cases of the coronavirus in Turkmenistan.
That claim is interesting to many parties, among them the World Health Organization (WHO) that had planned to send a delegation to Turkmenistan to discuss combating the coronavirus.
The WHO delegation is already in Tajikistan and after work there was planning to go to Turkmenistan, but officials in Ashgabat are using an old trick to delay and possibly prevent the delegation from arriving.
The postponement of the WHO delegation’s trip to Turkmenistan is a bit baffling.
If Ashgabat has been so successful in preventing the coronavirus from entering Turkmenistan, one would think the Turkmen authorities would be glad to allow the WHO delegation to document the country’s story of virological triumph.
Perhaps Turkmenistan is doing something other countries should be copying.
The obvious reason for not allowing the visit by the WHO delegation is that the claim by Turkmenistan of being free of the coronavirus that has raged all over the world — infecting millions and killing nearly 270,000 people as of May 8 — is almost certainly not true.
But there is another reason.
Every single one of Turkmenistan’s neighbors has registered cases of the coronavirus.
As of May 7, Turkmenistan’s eastern neighbor Uzbekistan had recorded 2,269 cases, northern neighbor Kazakhstan 4,530 cases, and southern neighbors Iran and Afghanistan had 101,650 and 3,392 cases, respectively (though in all these countries there are reasons to suspect the figures are being underreported).
Yet officials in Ashgabat claim not a single case in Turkmenistan.
Prior to April 29, it was possible to report that Turkmenistan and Tajikistan were officially saying they had no cases.
But Tajikistan suddenly went from no cases to reporting 15 cases on April 29, to having nearly 500 by May 7.
Many believed there were coronavirus cases in Tajikistan weeks earlier and officials there had allegedly given orders to attribute the cause of COVID-19 illnesses or deaths to something else, usually pneumonia.
Many think the situation in Turkmenistan is the same. Reports of an inordinate amount of people dying from pneumonia in Turkmenistan started already in February.
But hiding cases of coronavirus is no longer the sole problem Turkmen officials would face if they let the WHO delegation visit.
In February, as the magnitude of the spread of the coronavirus became increasingly obvious, Turkmen authorities established quarantine zones in the eastern Turkmen province of Lebap for its citizens who returned from abroad.
Everyone arriving by plane had to fly to the airport in the provincial capital Turkmenabat (formerly Charjou) and be isolated in camps for a short period to ensure they had not brought the coronavirus into Turkmenistan.
These camps would naturally be something a WHO delegation would want to visit and it appeared Turkmen authorities were preparing in advance for just such a visit.
On April 23, Hans Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, tweeted that the Tajik and Turkmen Foreign Ministries “welcome” the visit from the WHO technical teams and a WHO mission would be arriving in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan “in the coming days” as part of the Central Asia mission on COVID-19.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported that after Kluge’s tweet, officials in Lebap started moving people out of the quarantine camps.
The Khronika Turkmenistana website, run by Turkmen activists who fled Turkmenistan, reported there were at least seven patients with coronavirus in the quarantine camps who were among those evacuated.
But on April 27, hurricane-type winds and rain swept through parts of Lebap Province (and Mary Province), causing extensive damage to the area, particularly to Turkmenabat.
The Turkmen government never mentions the natural disasters that occasionally strike the country and the fierce storm that hit areas of eastern and northern Turkmenistan with devastating effects was no exception.
On May 4, Human Rights Watch released a statement questioning why, more than one week after the storm, state media had still not reported on the disaster, and why police in the area were focusing on detaining people suspected of filming the damage on their mobile phones and posting it on social networks.
Azatlyk reported that at least 30 people were killed and later reported that the government would not be helping the thousands of people severely affected by the disaster, many of them homeless.
A little-known provincial Turkmen news website in Lebap called Jeyhun.news did report about the storm on May 4, saying a strong storm had blown roofs off several houses and knocked down trees and power lines, but assured “all possible efforts” were being made to repair the damage. On May 6, it reported that “specialists” were arriving from other parts of Turkmenistan to help repair work in Turkmenabat and in towns on the outskirts.
The WHO has no authority to demand access to suspect sites, or medical records, or make impromptu visits to hospitals. Individual governments define the level of cooperation with the international organization.
The WHO’s on-site representative in Turkmenistan, Paulina Karwowska, had visited the quarantine zones in Lebap in early May.
“We rely on Turkmenistan’s health-care bodies to report about confirmed cases, and up until now we have not been informed about any cases,” she said.
The report did not mention any comments from Karwowska about the damage in Lebap.
If it were just a case of bringing a WHO delegation to Potemkin quarantine areas, there probably would not have been any problems or delays.
But the damage in the Lebap area that state media and Turkmen officials have avoided mentioning would be impossible to hide.
The method of delaying the WHO delegation’s visit draws on an old Turkmen government trick for OSCE election monitors that dates back more than 20 years to when authoritarian leader Saparmurat Niyazov was president.
Niyazov said all who wish to monitor elections are welcome, but no one would be specifically invited.
The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) offers to monitor elections, and Turkmenistan is an OSCE member, but ODIHR requires a clear, official invitation to do so, and Turkmen authorities have never sent a specific invitation to ODIHR.
The WHO delegation is in a similar situation. They need an official invitation to visit Turkmenistan and Turkmen authorities have not sent one to them.
Perhaps sensing there could be problems, Kluge reportedly appealed to Anna Popova, the chairwoman of Russia’s Rosptrebnadzor (Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Well-Being) for assistance, including bringing Russian specialists to both Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Kluge tweeted late on May 5: “I welcome Turkmenistan Government’s invitation for @WHO_Europe to undertake a technical #COVID19 mission.”
But he added that WHO was “ready to deploy as soon as possible,” apparently indicating the WHO delegation had not yet received all the permission it needed to travel to Turkmenistan.
But “as soon as possible” might depend on how soon damage is cleared up in Turkmenabat.