Since the start of 2018, Turkmenistan has continued to experience the worst economic crisis to hit the country since its independence in 1991. People have been severely affected by widespread unemployment, price hikes on consumer goods and services, and shortages of basic foodstuffs and commodities. In an attempt to cope with the decline in its energy-dependent economy, the government has also demanded “donations” be made to state needs from state employees and others.
Authorities have simultaneously attempted to deny the serious economic problems in the country. Government propaganda continues to focus on the supposed well-being and achievements of the nation, and open discussion on the challenges facing the country is suppressed through control of state media and censorship. In one example, a pro-government site claimed that store counters were “bursting with an abundance of food stuff” ahead of the New Year, although independent websites reported shortages of flour and eggs and two-fold price increases on fruits, vegetables and bakery goods.
While residents continue to be forcefully mobilised for regime-praising events, such as the New Year celebration, critical voices are subjected to ongoing pressure. In this context, concessions made by local authorities in response to a spontaneous protest against price increases on public transportation in the Dashoguz region appear aimed at preventing further expressions of discontent.
— openDemocracy (@openDemocracy) December 20, 2017
More information on these and other recent developments relating to freedom of expression, assembly and association in Turkmenistan can be found below. The update has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) for the CIVICUS Monitor based on TIHR’s monitoring of the situation in the country from November 2017 to January 2018.
In late November 2017, President Berdymukhamedov ordered the relevant authorities to elaborate a programme for internet development in the country. The plan is that the state Altyn Asyr operator will ensure internet access for all residents of Turkmenistan and that internet speed will be increased up to five times in the capital (100 Gigabytes per second) and that it will be no less than four Gigabytes per second in any part of the country. Currently, internet speed is slow and access is expensive. According to the Speedtest Global Index, Turkmenistan was ranked 126th among 131 countries worldwide regarding its slow internet speed in November 2017. Customers of Altyn Asyr have also complained about frequent interruptions in internet access.
In the National Human Rights Action Plan for 2016 to 2020, the Turkmenistani authorities set out to ensure unobstructed internet access for all. However, as covered before, internet access is still limited in the country and websites featuring information displeasing to the authorities are blocked.
— Eurasia Update (@eurasia_update) November 17, 2017
In a new development in the authorities’ arbitrary campaign to crack down on private satellite dishes, the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported in early December 2017 that the residents of newly-built townhouses in the Choganly district of Ashgabat had been ordered to remove their satellite dishes. According to local residents with whom RFE/RL spoke, local officials also insisted on the removal of satellite dishes in the yard so as to not “spoil” the street appearance of the houses, which is the official argument used to justify the campaign against these devices. The residents said that they had not been informed that satellite dishes and other devices installed outside their houses were not allowed when moving in. Satellite dishes are used to access foreign TV and radio channels, as an alternative to the state-controlled channels broadcasting in the country.
As reported in the previous update, authorities in Turkmenistan have recently stepped up pressure on critical voices and their family members.
In December, one of the activists whose case was previously covered, as well as her daughter, were arbitrarily detained as follows:
Galina Kucherenko, the animal rights activist in #Turkmenistan, has been serving the sentence of 15 days of arrest since her detention on 7 December – https://t.co/GhWkOrsx5S pic.twitter.com/jpjrv9DyiN
— Fergananews Agency (@Fergananews) December 12, 2017
In a separate incident, a RFE/RL correspondent was subjected to a new attack:
On #HumanRightsDay RFE/RL pays tribute to its journalists and their family members who are in prison and under threat: Mykola Semena, Stanislav Aseyev, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, Soltan Achilova, and Aziz Yusupov. https://t.co/2UjK0jRS2I
— RFE/RL Pressroom (@RFERLPress) December 10, 2017
No perpetrators have thus far been identified or arrested in connection with the attack on the mother of TIHR’s head, who lives in Turkmenistan. The investigation into this attack, which was covered in the previous update, continues.
As covered before, protests against government policies are rare in Turkmenistan due to the repressive climate. However, in some cases, residents carry out spontaneous protests on socio-economic issues affecting their everyday lives. A recent example includes a protest over increasing costs for public transportation that were introduced by authorities in the context of the current economic crisis:
In spite of the criticism from the international community, Turkmenistan’s authorities continue to forcefully mobilise residents en masse for official events and celebrations, a violation of their right to freedom of assembly which includes voluntary participation. A recent example of a forced mobilisation is as follows:
In some cases, the mass mobilisation of residents by the authorities has taken the form of forced labour. For example, the Turkmen service of RFE/RL reported in December 2017 that employees of state institutions in the Dashoguz region were mobilised to take part in the behind the scenes work of filming a feature movie based on the president’s book Turkmenistan – the heart of the Great Silk Way. Those concerned were required to spend entire days putting scenery in place, removing snow or cleaning the territory where the filming took place. According to RFE/RL, they were expected to cover the costs of travel to the filming venue themselves and were threatened with sanctions, including dismissal from their jobs, if they refused to comply.