Turkmenistan Increases Crackdown On Internet Access As Living Standards Continue Downward Spiral

Connecting to the Internet has never been easy in Turkmenistan, but authorities in the isolationist Central Asian country are waging a new campaign aimed at preventing unsavory information from entering or exiting the country.

Authorities are hunting for people who have virtual private networks — popularly known as VPNs — and have also taken measures to block them.

As part of the crackdown, students are also being made to sign statements that they will not use the Internet to access banned sites.

And even outside the country, Turkmen officials were able to have the YouTube site of a Turkmen opposition group taken down after a semiofficial Turkmen news site that also posts on YouTube filed a complaint.

Why the Turkmen government has engaged in these new measures at this time is not difficult to understand.

The situation in Turkmenistan is really bad and the patience of the people with their government is wearing thin.

Turkmenistan has been in a steep economic decline for some five years.

The price for natural gas — Turkmenistan’s main export that accounts for between 70 to 80 percent of the country’s revenue — has fallen by more than 70 percent since 2015, and its biggest customer, China (it and Russia are actually the only customers), announced in March it was cutting back on the amount of gas it would buy from Turkmenistan.

Mother nature has also pounded Turkmenistan in the last few years.

Floods and drought have hit different areas of the country, and a freak salt storm blew over northern and eastern areas of the country in May 2018, destroying crops and leaving alkaline deposits on farmers’ fields.

In both of these cases, authorities were unable to provide the necessary assistance to those who were affected.

Meanwhile, the government continues to claim there are no cases of the coronavirus in the country, despite testimony from people in the country that the situation with the virus is out of control, with hospitals filled and widespread shortages of medicine and personal protective equipment.

It is exactly these types of reports that Turkmen authorities hope to stop from reaching the world outside by further clamping down on access to the Internet.

But in a new development, growing opposition to the Turkmen government abroad has received greater publicity, and anti-government messages, including calls for protests and even the ouster of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, have made their way into Turkmenistan.

That has forced the already paranoid Turkmen authorities to visibly increase security measures across the country.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported in mid-August that the only Internet provider in the country, Turkmentelekom, has started using new technology reportedly obtained from Germany and installed by Chinese specialists that can block websites and many VPN services more thoroughly.

People inside Turkmenistan can only access many sites outside of the country by using VPNs, so authorities started questioning and, in some cases, arresting telephone salesmen or repairmen who were downloading VPN apps onto people’s phones.

First-time offenders face 15 days in detention or a fine, while third-time offenders can have their businesses shut down.

In any case, many of the shops that once engaged in such work are now closed.

The official reason is to prevent the possible spread of the coronavirus, which, again, the government says is not present in Turkmenistan, as well as the aforementioned requirement for students to sign declarations pledging not to access prohibited websites and to only use the Internet for “educational purposes.”

The YouTube channel Erkin (Free) Turkmenistan is one of the sites blocked in Turkmenistan, and now the channel has been forced to remove material due to a complaint by another YouTube channel called Watan Habarlary (Homeland News).

Erkin Turkmenistan broadcasts content that is critical of the Turkmen government. Watan Habarlary broadcasts what could definitely be considered to be pro-government reports.

According to Erkin Turkmenistan, Watan Habarlary filed three complaints with YouTube between August 29 and September 3, alleging Erkin Turkmenistan was using its footage without permission.

After the third warning on September — when Erkin Turkmenistan aired a report called It Is Not Worth Torturing People — YouTube informed the station it would be blocked for three months.

Erkin Turkmenistan countered that although it is the same footage Watan Habarlary used, it comes from Turkmen state television, which is where Erkin Turkmenistan gets it, as do others such as Watan Habarlary.

Erkin Turkmenistan also notes that its programming also includes original material and reporting, whereas Watan Habarlary simply takes state TV footage and reposts it as is.

A letter sent to RFE/RL from the founder of Erkin Turkmenistan said: “We have never knowingly violated or are violating YouTube’s internal policies…[and had] not previously received a warning from YouTube regarding our shows [until Watan Habarlary made its complaint].”

Turkmen authorities are currently confronting problems they have never seen before.

The incompetent management of the country in recent years by Berdymukhammedov’s government has spawned local resentment and emboldened Turkmen outside the country to stage public demonstrations.

Turkmen citizens have staged protests in Cyprus, Turkey, and in the United States, including in Washington, D.C., and outside the UN building in New York.

Some of these Turkmen are calling for the ouster of the Turkmen government and that message has reached Ashgabat.

On September 25, the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) is expected to approve a package of amendments to the constitution, none of which is expected to improve life for the people of Turkmenistan.

The big amendment to be passed is the establishment of a 56-member Senate. As the country’s parliament and the Halk Maslahaty have always been rubber-stamping bodies, it is difficult to see what benefit there is in creating a bicameral parliament in Turkmenistan.

The bigger issue would be the appointment of the chairman of the Senate, who would be the No. 2 official in Turkmenistan. There have been suggestions that Berdymukhammedov would guide his son Serdar into that role.

Two days after the Halk Maslahaty session, Turkmenistan will mark its Independence Day.

In a sign of how concerned the authorities are about the situation and the unhappiness among the people playing out, security has been noticeably increased across Turkmenistan.

In Mary Province, where small-denomination banknotes with messages calling for a revolt have been distributed in at least two districts, there are reportedly many police on the streets. Vehicles are often stopped, the trunks of vehicles thoroughly inspected, and drivers and passengers photographed.

In the meantime, officials are doing their best to ensure that no one in the country transmits or receives any information that would help fuel the growing discontent in the country.


Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.