People have a particular way of explaining almost every process in their lives. If asked why a plane flies to Turkmenistan, we would say that it was due to lift force. But if you ask a Turkmen the same question, he would resolutely reply, “the plane flies to Turkmenistan because the passengers were given visas, and Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç, our leader and wise ruler, has agreed to accept the plane on Turkmen land.” See, in Turkmenistan, everything submits to the will of the leader; birds do not sing, the sun does not rise, and the wind does not blow without his approval. After all, Berdimuhamedow is the initiator and inspirer of the new Renaissance and global reformations; God give him the power and strength to carry a nation of 5.3 million Turkmens on his shoulders! There are no laws in Turkmenistan; there is only the will of the leader. Greater than any law, it lights the way for Turkmens like the sun.
Turkmens long ago stopped questioning what they were told to do and why. During their twenty-five years of independence, they have experienced a lot. First, Turkmenbashi molded his nation like clay. Then the regime of petty tyranny was continued by the new leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and the show goes on. So let’s look at some things that are prohibited in Turkmenistan.
Most importantly, there is no freedom of opinion in Turkmenistan. At all. The mere idea that someone may not like something about Turkmenistan terrifies the locals. And you can forget about protests! People here do not know what protests are; they are afraid to criticize the government even in their own homes. And due to the long years of pressure from the government, Turkmens have learned to justify every stupid thing that happens to them. A common conversation with an aborigine looks like this:
“Hey, what’s that thing sticking out of your ass?”
“What do you mean? Don’t you know it’s a mop!?”
“But why do you have a mop in your ass?”
“What do you mean why? Don’t you guys have one?”
“No, we don’t; we can walk around without mops in our asses.”
“But it’s more convenient with a mop. Why would you walk around without one if you could do it with one?”
“Well... can you remove it?”
“No, of course not! We were all told to leave it!”
“Is there a law that says so?”
“Then who told you to do it?”
At this point the Turkmen usually pauses, as he himself doesn’t remember who told him to do it.
After all, no one told him to hang portraits of the leader everywhere, it’s just universally accepted. Every head of a company has a portrait of the leader. Why? Better safe than sorry. And the television will explain what you should and shouldn’t do. People take TV very seriously here: it wouldn’t lie. Television in Turkmenistan is like a voice from above. Though, of course, every Turkmen knows that the real higher power is Berdimuhamedow; let the Moon and Sun light his way as let his clothing glisten in glory!
As an example, the import of black cars has been prohibited in Turkmenistan since 2015. Why? Well, Berdimuhamedow believes that the color black brings bad luck. So, naturally, no one can drive a black car. Officially, customs officers have denied the import of a vehicle due to an “incompatibility between the black color and the weather conditions in Turkmenistan.” In fact, hatred of the color black had grown so intense that in 2014, police conducted raids on cars with black rims.
The Arkadag simply does not favor black cars. He himself owns a white Rolls-Royce, and his presidential entourage consists solely of white vehicles. The high-ranking government officials are given white cars as well.
But that’s not the only ridiculous prohibition; new ones appear constantly. In 2007, the import and use of right-hand-drive cars was prohibited, and in 2009 the import and use of coupes and sports cars was also forbidden. Berdimuhamedow himself has a green Bugatti Veyron, but of course that doesn’t count.
In 2010 cars with an engine displacement larger than 3.5 liters were prohibited, in 2013 – tinted windows, and in 2015 – an engine displacement less than 1.3 liters. Generally, there are no official statements for such restrictions; instead, custom officials simply explain that they have received “an order from above.”
Any sort of automobile tuning is prohibited in Turkmenistan. Once I asked a Turkmen if he knew the purpose of such restrictions, he simply replied: “If tuning a car wasn’t prohibited, a Turkmen would dress it up like a Christmas tree and drive it at 3 in the morning, enjoying himself and disturbing everyone else! One time, even honking was prohibited for a month, and people had their driver’s licences taken away for using the horn!”
It is shocking that such an inferiority complex was cultivated in the people of this nation. Apparently, in the textbook for dictators there is a paragraph that states: “Tell your people that they are savages, and that you’re the only one who knows what to do and how to do it.” In fact, many Turkmens sincerely believe that their nation is inherently wild, and that the leader’s regime is the only thing able to maintain order.
One time, a prosecutor’s nephew got himself a BMW Z3 sports car. After a few searches and seizures, the prosecutor went to jail for 20 years.
In Turkmenistan absolutely anyone can be jailed. The joke “it’s not your merit that you’re not in jail, but rather our shortcoming” is definitely not funny in Turkmenistan. People disappear, are persecuted, and are arrested due to false denunciation. The exact magnitude of this scourge isn’t known, as there are no human rights organizations in Turkmenistan. But based on the fear in people’s eyes when asked about repression, it is a serious problem. This is what western human right activists say (and, of course, they’re probably lying...):
”Turkmenistan has retained one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the world. Berdimuhamedow came to power after the death of the former president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006. In the first year, he attempted to take steps to dismantle some of the most odious aspects of Niyazov's social policy, but genuine reforms in the field of human rights did not follow. Hundreds, if not thousands of people remain behind bars, convicted at unfair trials for alleged politically motivated charges. Draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of association, assembly, movement and religion are retained.”
Recently a law was passed in Turkmenistan that prohibits advertising for casinos, dietary supplements, fortune tellers, erotic massages, pyrotechnics, energy drinks, and even infant formulas.
While it’s strange that sex shops, pyrotechnics, and infant formulas are on the same list, that’s not the point. What’s interesting is that casinos are listed, even though there are basically no casinos in the country. Previously you could find a casino in every major hotel of Ashgabat (“The Grand Turkmen Hotel,” “Ak Altyn” hotel, etc.), but then Berdimuhamedow decided that tourists were already being given enough perks and ordered the closing of all casinos, even though no specific law prohibiting gambling was passed. Oh well; just another day in Turkmenistan.
In 2012, casinos and nightclubs in Ashgabat (of which there weren’t many anyhow) were told to cease operations and migrate westward to the international tourist zone Awaza, which was built from scratch near the city Turkmenbashi (previously known as Krasnovodsk) on the Caspian Sea. But nothing was ever opened in Awaza.
The only place in Ashgabat that still allowed gambling was the state’s horse racecourse. And based on tourists’ reviews, betting is still allowed today. But I didn’t get to visit the racecourse.
Shortly after Berdimuhamedow came to power, the number of immigrants from Turkmenistan increased threefold. People rushed abroad on tourist visas and stayed abroad as illegal aliens. The most popular destinations were Turkey, Iran, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and Europe.
It’s important to note that most people began leaving not because Turkmenistan became totally intolerable after the death of Turkmenbashi, but because the border itself became just a little bit more open. But Berdimuhamedow didn’t like the idea of Turkmens leaving to live somewhere else. Don’t they like the golden statues?
Authorities decided to prohibit leaving the country to specific categories of people, and to make a blacklist of individuals who would not be allowed to cross the border in either direction.
In 2010, human rights activists found out that Berdimuhamedow’s blacklist contains 30,057 people, including 1,748 Russian citizens. Moreover, authorities gladly prohibit the relatives of dissidents from ever leaving the country. Turkmen students are not even allowed to study in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, since they might accidentally taste the air of freedom and then come back demanding respect for human rights. It is also practically impossible for doctors and journalists to leave the country.
In accordance with the law “On Migration,” leaving the country is prohibited to anyone with access to classified information. But in practice, leaving is forbidden not only to officers in groups like the Ministry for National Security, but even to minor government officials.
There is an interesting paragraph in this law: a person is not allowed to leave the country if it “contradicts the interests of the national security of Turkmenistan.” Obviously, anyone can be fitted for this criteria. But there is an even more convenient paragraph: a person’s departure can be denied if “there are concerns” that he might be enslaved while abroad.
Turkmens themselves are not quite sure whether or not they are allowed to leave. One time, a state bank officer told me that he wasn’t allowed to cross the border when going to Uzbekistan; it turns out that state bank officials cannot leave either!
Yet there’s also another problem with going abroad: the dollar exchange was recently banned in Turkmenistan. So how do you go abroad without the proper currency? It’s actually quite simple: first you deposit the money in a local bank, and when you cross the border, immigration informs the bank of your departure. You’re then able to withdraw money at an ATM in your country of destination.
Turkmenistan is the only country in the world where customs search its own citizens more thoroughly than the foreigners. This is especially true when leaving Turkmenistan; the customs officer interrogates every single Turkmen, checks various documents and papers, examines the route and purpose of visit.
And what about the mass media? Well, it’s pretty sad. In 2013, a law was passed that guarantees complete freedom to the mass media in Turkmenistan.
But in fact, everything is completely the other way round. Newspapers mostly print the official reports on grain harvests and gas extractions while extolling the greatness of the nation and touting the building of democracy. You won’t find any information on issues that might worry people; all important news is typically distributed through gossip. The import of all foreign printed press was banned during the Turkmenbashi reign, and is still in effect.
According to the UN, only 5% of the population (250,000 people) use the Internet in Turkmenistan. The Internet is slow and expensive. There is no Wi-Fi in cafes and restaurants; I have only found it in luxury hotels for foreigners, and even there it is basically half-dead.
And even if you do manage to go online, many websites will be blocked. First of all, they block the websites of the opposition, of human rights organizations, and of western social networks. For citizens of Turkmenistan, access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and messengers like Viber, WeChat, WhatsApp, and even Telegram is denied. The websites of many mass media corporations, including some of the Russian ones, are also blocked. For instance, you would not be able to access Yandex.News or LiveJournal. Almost all websites with videos are blocked. The funny thing is, in 2013, even part of the Russian Federation’s president’s website was blocked, since some of the oppressed Turkmen population complained to Putin via the page letters.kremlin.ru.
People say that in 2012, the authorities began to block proxies so that no one could access forbidden websites. I was not even able to run a VPN on my own laptop; all the methods I knew (that functioned even in China!) did not work in Turkmenistan.
By the way, the Turkmen authorities have it much easier than the Russian ones. In Russia we have a pretty complicated system with internet providers and Roskomnadzor (The Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies, and Mass Communications). But on Berdimuhamedow’s land there are only two internet providers, and both of them submit to Turkmentelecom. Thus, any website can be blocked manually and immediately, which is what usually happens. When I was in Turkmenistan Varlamov.ru was still accessible from there, but after the fist publication of this series in Russian my website was blocked.
The international organization “Reporters Without Borders” has included president Berdimuhamedow in the list of the 39 world leaders and politicians who they consider to be “enemies of freedom and information.” The organization states that “all Turkmen media is basically controlled by the government, which uses it for propaganda and severely punishes anyone for the slightest deviation from the official line. The new law on mass media has so little to do with reality, it cannot even be analyzed.”
This is how a kiosk with the local press looks:
Look closer, do you see something odd? Yes, all newspapers must have a picture of the national leader on the front page. No exceptions. Moreover, the pictures are always distributed by an official source, and thus are the same on each newspaper. Based on this image, one can deduce how fresh the newspaper is, and Turkmens can play “Collect All the Presidential Portraits!”
Recently the leader of the nation decided to forbid smoking and masked the decision as being done for the benefit of national health. According to this crafty plan, by 2025 there should be no smokers left in Turkmenistan. Initially, new taxes and dues were imposed; then cigarettes virtually disappeared from stores and became extremely expensive ($10 per pack). But later it became clear that the government had actually decided to take control over the country’s tobacco industry. Now cigarettes are sold only in the “right” places, and they cost about $3 per pack.
But even if you buy cigarettes, it will be difficult for you to smoke them. Smoking is prohibited almost everywhere. You cannot smoke on the street or in a car; even hookahs are forbidden.
Newlyweds must take pictures with a portrait of the president in the background. There must be at least three pictures with Berdimuhamedow in their wedding album. There is no formal rule for this, but officials in the registry’s office say that it is required.
What’s interesting is that Turkmens can’t even be left to work in peace. Recently, residents of nearby regions to Ashgabat were prohibited from working in the city without a permit from the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of Turkmenistan, thus equating their rights with the rights of foreigners. Berdimuhamedow’s bylaw has not yet been published but is already being executed: regional residents are evicted from rental apartments and essentially forced to leave Ashgabat.
Additionally, there is no freedom of photography in Turkmenistan. It is prohibited to take pictures of airports, train stations, government buildings, marketplaces, and people in uniforms. Since there are as many uniformed people in Turkmenistan as there is sand in a desert, it is virtually impossible to take pictures of anything. The mere sight of a camera terrifies Turkmens, especially near government buildings.
Surprisingly, photos of many Turkmen landmarks cannot be found on the Internet! There are no rubberneckers due to the forbiddance of photographing policemen; if an accident occurs, no one films it on their cellphone, and no one posts it on YouTube, since YouTube is banned as well.
During my stay in Turkmenistan, I never once saw a homeless dog or cat. Every dog was on a chain behind a fence. There were no cats to be seen at all. According to the media, homeless animals are not coddled in Turkmenistan. For instance, before the visit of Berdimuhamedow, the cities of Balkanabat and Turkmenbashi conducted a round-up of homeless dogs and cats to kill and dump in the city landfill. One of the residents of Ashgabat said that sometimes people will steal pets to demand ransoms.
A house cat fell out of the window of a house in Turkmenbashi... Hopefully, she was able to climb back before someone snatched her.
The war against animals began during Niyazov’s presidency, as he allegedly hated dogs. Rumor has it that strays acquired the leader’s disfavor when a homeless dog once found himself stepping on the prohibited territory of the presidential palace. And yes, even pedestrian movement is restricted in the center of Ashgabat so that their gloomy shadows won’t shade the leader’s golden palaces.
To live in Turkmenistan one has to learn how not to cast a shadow.
When you talk about Turkmenistan, someone would always shoot in “Pfft, whatever, but they get everything for free!”. Indeed, a possible explanation is that the Turkmen traded some personal freedoms in exchange for freebies, that for many years were the dream of the suffering Soviets. Turkmenistan did manage to enact communism (partially), but even in their case, this construction did not last long and started falling apart pretty quickly. All those fairytale freebies are a thing of the past today.
For quite some time Turkmenistan could boast of virtually free utilities. As a consequence, even now people do not have a habit of saving electricity, water or gas. A Turkmen could easily leave the gas on so as not to waste a match to light it later! Since 1993 all Turkmen citizens have free gas, water and electricity, thanks to
Niyazov's initiatives. In Turkmenbashi's time, the utilities' prices were negligible to the point of the bill for said services arriving yearly.
But the free utilities had a flip side. Electricity, gas and water weren't always «on». Electricity was periodically turned off in several districts, hot water was notoriously simply off or it was available only during certain hours. Most families had an electric cooking plate as a fallback. This tradition continues to exist under Berdimuhamedow's rule: in rural districts it's quite typical to have the electricity off for several nights during a week. In some cities there are giant water barrels in the backyards in case the water is turned off.
In the beginning of 2015, the utilities prices jumped up, on average around 12-15 fold. E.g. an owner of a 2 room flat in Ashgabat used to pay 9 TMT yearly (that's around 2.57USD at today's rate!), but now the very same property is billed 133 TMT yearly (38USD).
Since February first 2015, the structure of the utilities bill is as follows: 0.2TMT for 1sq.m. of the property, 0.2TMT for heating for every 10sq.m. of the property, 0.05TMT for the water infrastructure (per registered inhabitant of a flat), 0.2TMT per 10cu.m. of water consumed above a preset limit. But still, the final bill is so small that people haven’t really noticed the change.
The electricity has its own price structure and is billed separately. The preset norm (since 1993) was 35kWh per person per month, but in 2013 it was reduced to 25 kWh. The only utility remaining entirely free is gas.
In 2006, shortly before his demise, Niyazov signed a decree which provided the Turkmenistan population with free gas, electricity, water and table salt until 2030 and which froze the prices for petrol and diesel.
It looks likes this decree will be repealed in its entirety in the near future. According to Berdimuhamedow these measures “are economically unsound” and “they hinder the transition to the market economy as well as drain state funds.”
To prevent a public outcry against these measures, the exalted leader secured the support of the elders. In November 2015 the Elder council of Turkmenistan in Awaza proclaimed that the Turkmen people live well enough as it is under the glorious shine of sunlike Arkadag [“Protector”, Berdimuhamedow's title] not to be bestowed free gas.
“We live so well in the era of happiness and power, that the citizens of the nation could easily pay for gas, water and electricity!” stated one of the council elders.
So, it looks like a degree revoking the free gas and table salt will indeed be signed in the near future.
During the rule of Turkmenbashi 1L of petrol was 0.02USD – cheaper than 1L of regular drinking water. For more than 10 years Turkmen petrol has been the cheapest in the world.
Following Niyazov's death, the petrol prices jumped (8 fold), but from our point of view, they still remain very low. Berdimuhamedow introduced a limit for free petrol: the state handed out coupons to car owners for 120L per month, anything in excess of that was to be fully financed by the drivers themselves.
These diesel and petrol coupons were distributed once every 6 months for the entire 6 month stretch. Owners of vehicles lighter than 3.5 tonnes and fewer than 8 passengers were all eligible for the freebie. Motorbike quota was 40L per month.
The petrol coupons quickly became an informal parallel currency. People traded or sold them and you could settle your bar bill with these coupons if the barman needed petrol.
This freebie also quickly came to an end. Turkmens who did not own a car wrote a slew of complaints to the Great Leader about the unfair handout. Why was this tied to the actual ownership of a car? The situation was worsened by the all too clever “strategy” of some Turkmens, who registered multiple clunkers to their families to be eligible for the multiple coupon sets. This is more or less the official media coverage of the situation: “It is said that some individuals acquired and registered dozens of vehicles solely for the purpose of receiving fuel coupons.”
The social tensions were mounting, and in April 2014 the Great Leader shut the program down and in 2015 jacked the petrol prices up by 60%. This initiative was so unpopular that even the usually acquiescent Turkmens organized a public protest. According to some reports, about 500 drivers gathered near a local police station and started a brawl with the cops. The stand off was quashed and disbanded only when the local SWAT joined forces with the police.
Today 1L of petrol in Turkmenistan costs around 0.29USD. Even so petrol/diesel are among the cheapest in the world, only eclipsed by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Alas, the average income of Turkmenistan is incomparable to these nations.
The situation with real estate is quite acceptable, but not as nice as it used to be. Previously, the state was subsidizing mortgages. That is, one could sign up for a mortgage and half of it would be covered by the state. Now, these subsidies are extended only to a certain circle of state employees, such as those involved in the
oil&gas industry. People say that the subsidised mortgages are available to teachers and doctors as well, but I could not find a teacher who would confirm this to me.
Real estate is quite accessible to the general population, since the mortage rate is around 1-2%. On top of that the first 5 years one pays the interest rate only, so around 100USD and it's only afterwards that you start with the downpayment on the loan itself.
Additionally, that the real estate is not all that expensive even in Ashgabat. A 1room flat goes for around 50'000USD and the majority of the population makes about 400-500USD per month
There is a state sponsored real estate fund of sorts, awarding real estate (free of charge) to certain categories of the population: families with more than 4 children, the disabled, the orphans, etc. In reality, the state emphasizes the importance of large families, so most of the property recipients of this fund are families with, say, 6 or 8 children.
During Berdimuhamedow's rule “forced mortgage” became customary: state employees were forced to sign up for mortgages if their apartment’s price exceeded 65'000USD. To add insult to injury the government decided that the mortgages should be paid in full in 4 years, rather than 30. Some employees of the National bank of Turkmenistan who refused to sign up for this were dismissed.
Strangely enough, despite the popularization of various freebies, Turkmenbashi went in the opposite direction with pensions. He simply cancelled them. According to Niyazov, children should take care of their parents. Berdimuhamedow reinstated the pensions, albeit on a tiny scale. An average pensioner gets about 300TMT (85USD). If the gas, water and electricity subsidies are actually cancelled, the elderly will have it tough. The Elder Counsil, however, believes that everything is gonna be hunkydory.
There are no unemployment benefits to speak of, since the authorities try to hide the scale of the unemployment problem. Some stats put the unemployment figure at 1.5 million citizens – more than a quarter of the country's population! That's the main reason for the exodus of the workforce to e.g. Turkey.
Since the beginning of 2015 the USD<>TMT exchange rate has been fixed at about 3.5TMT per 1USD. Before that 1USD had stayed for 6 years at the 2.85TMT mark. Towards the end of 2015, the authorities introduced a coupon system for currency exchange: in order to buy USD, you first had to queue up at a bank to buy special coupons which could later be exchanged for the actual foreign currency. In January the sales of USD/EUR/etc stopped altogether. The locals fear another even more severe exchange rate dive and search the black market for currencies, where 1USD reaches 4.5-6TMT.
To be continued...
Written by Ilya Varlamov
Photos by Ilya Varlamov
Translated by Anton Dereventsov and Rachel Marie Harrison
Edited by Serdar Kurbanov, Sean Kalafut and Olga Ronchinskaya
I will publish fresh chapters of my Turkmenistan reportage every night at 0:00 AM Moscow Time (10 PM WET; 5 PM EST).
You'll learn all about:
Architecture in Ashgabat, New Ashgabat district and The biggest Ferris wheel;
The city of the living, The city of the dead and The dark side of the moon (Hidden Turkmenistan);
Awaza – the pride of Turkmenistan and The city of Turkmenbashi.
Cult of personality in Turkmenistan
Месяц назад я побывал в одной из самых закрытых стран мира — Туркменистане. Репортажи оттуда вызвали небывалый отклик и стали самыми посещаемыми в моем блоге за последний год. Так как тема оказалась интересна не только русскоязычным читателям, но и иностранным, я перевел посты на английский язык. Ближайшую неделю буду публиковать английскую версию постов про Туркменистан. А вы распространяйте ;)