Immune to the Truth: Turkmenistan’s crackdown on dissent around the pandemic4 min read

 In Central Asia, COVID-19, Editorial, Politics
Turkmenistan has not had a single case of Covid-19–at least according to officials. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, and even a former top official allegedly dying from the virus, they have held firm. Many inside and outside the country have been fighting back against this claim, which has brought a new wave of repression.

Turkmenistan is perhaps one of the most closed off and repressive countries in the world. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov controls most aspects of public life. The population is also widely impoverished and has difficulty finding steady work, which has led to a mass exodus of migrant workers, who have gone to look for work elsewhere, usually Turkey, Russia, and Cyprus. Those living abroad have recently been considered a threat by Turkmen authorities because many have been speaking out about the ways that the coronavirus is being handled in Turkmenistan. 

One of the most vocal activists is Dursoltan Taganova, a migrant worker currently living in Turkey. She has been detained multiple times by Turkish authorities for speaking out against Turkmenistan’s government since the beginning of the pandemic. She was taken into custody on September 26 after being called in to ‘sign documents’, which led to her being sent to a deportation center. While there she was questioned about her anti-government activities online, and was told she would continue to face problems if she continued to post this type of content. She was released three days later, but has promised to continue speaking out against the current regime. Even during her detention she posted a video stating, “This could be my last video. Whatever happens, keep fighting fellow citizens.”

In an interview after her release she claimed the reason she was brought in was because of the daily meetings she holds with other dissidents online, which attract about 6,000 to 7,000 viewers a day. This following has created alarm among Turkmenistan’s officials over fears of these meetings being accessed by those living in Turkmenistan. While it remains clear why those in Turkmenistan would be concerned, what is less clear is Turkey’s motivations for pursuing these activists. Some within the exile community have pointed towards efforts by Turkey to have Turkmenistan join the Turkic Council, however the real reason remains to be seen.

Turkey, however, is not the only country that has seen repression of Turkmen activists within its borders. In Russia, for example, Rozgeldy Choliev, who has been vocal about his criticisms of the Turkmen government, was held by border officials in March. He was also expelled from his university for his activism. There have also been several notable protests held in Cyprus by Turkmen exiles calling for the resignation of President Berdymukhamedov. However, unlike in Turkey, these protests were not put down by local officials. 

Unfortunately for those protesting abroad, the pushback by the Turkmen government did not stop there; officials have used family members as a means to halt their activities. When Dursoltan Taganova was first detained for her activities in July of last year, her relatives were forced to call her a traitor on video. Other activists have reported that their family members have been called in for questioning, including Rozybai Jumamuradov’s 14-year-old nephew

Turkmenistan has also seen resistance to its claims about coronavirus within its borders. There have been reports of Turkmen citizens facing prison sentences for speaking out about the pandemic. One was that of Murat Dushemov, who is currently serving a four-year sentence after questioning why he was being asked to show documents proving he did not have coronavirus while at a checkpoint, because of the supposed lack of cases. There were also stories from earlier in the pandemic of people being taken away by police for talking about the coronavirus in public. 

In the midst of all these physical crackdowns on anti-government activism, Turkmen officials have also attacked media outlets that have been covering how the country has been handling the pandemic. One was the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, the target of a cyberattack in May, which significantly slowed down the website. This was believed to be carried out by Turkmen security services. This theory seems plausible as in the same month the organization’s YouTube channel was blocked after complaints of copyright infringement by a government account. They were not the only victim of this campaign; Eurasianet was also accused of copyright, which resulted in its account being taken off YouTube. 

What began as an absurd lie on behalf of the Turkmen government has become a real danger to Turkmenistan’s citizens. It has created a public health crisis as resources have not been allocated to dealing with the pandemic in the country, coupled with an already inadequate health system. It has also posed a threat to freedom of information as the government has gone to great lengths to silence those who oppose it. There are many concerns about how long Turkmen officials will continue to claim that there is no Covid-19 in the country, but one can only hope that they are soon forced to reckon with the truth. 

Featured image: Land of Fairy tales / Robert Preston, Alamy 
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