OFFICIAL VERSION “I am in favour of creating new political parties and organizing independent media.” (January 2012)
REALITY Berdymukhammedov has talked of reforms ever since taking over as president in December 2006 but the gulf between discourse and reality could not be bigger in what is one of the world’s most totalitarian regimes. On paper, the one-party system has been scrapped and two new parties have been formed, but in reality both are government creations and their existence did not prevent Berdymukhammedov from being “reelected” with 97 per cent of the votes in 2012.
In January 2013, Turkmenistan finally gave itself a media law, which, officially at least, proclaims freedom of expression and bans censorship. Berdymukhammedov ordered the national newspapers to no longer name him as founder and owner. But it is just window-dressing. The state still reigns supreme over all the Turkmen media, using them to relay its propaganda and punishing the least deviation from the official line.
Radio Azatlyk reporter Ogulsapar Muradova’s death under torture in 2006 has not been forgotten. The exact number of journalists and human rights defenders detained in prisons and psychiatric clinics is not known.
OFFICIAL VERSION “Satellite dishes spoil the appearance of our cities.” (May 2011)
REALITY Berdymukhammedov declared war on satellite dishes in 2008. Ever since, he has often called for a reduction in their number, for the sake of “urban aesthetics.” In practice, Russian, Turkish and Arab satellite TV stations offer the Turkmen public one of the only ways to escape the state media’s stifling propaganda. Even Russian broadcasts that are retransmitted in Turkmenistan are vetted first.
A handful of websites based abroad, including Khronika Turkmenistana, Gündogar, Fergananews and Radio Azatlyk, are the only ones that provide uncensored news. But they are inaccessible for most of the population, whose only online access is through Turkmenet, which offers a totally expurgated Internet. The cost of an ADSL subscription is prohibitive and a close watch is kept on the handful of Internet cafés that recently opened.
The only hope is the spread of mobile Internet, which allowed ordinary citizens to learn about a deadly explosion at an arms depot in a suburb of the capital in July 2011. But the authorities cracked down hard on those who circulated the information.
OFFICIAL VERSION “The confidence of society, citizen activism (…) respect for freedoms and human rights are not only crucial conditions for the development of civil society but also essential premises for the creation of a real democracy.” (January 2012)
REALITY At least Berdymukhammedov recognizes in passing that Turkmenistan does not yet have a “real democracy.” But he seems in practice to be more interested in reinforcing his personality cult than in allowing criticism and has dashed the hopes raised by the suppression of the more eccentric aspects of the reign of his predecessor, Saparmurad Nyazov, also known as “Turkmenbashi” (Father of the Turkmens), whose official dentist he was.
The days and months are no longer named after members of the Nyazov family but the new president has himself officially called “Arkadag” (Protector). His smiling portrait has replaced his predecessor’s everywhere, his books are bestsellers and his father is glorified for having brought up a man who is “infinitely loyal to the people.”
The local media are without doubt impatiently awaiting the next “holy book” which Berdymukhammedov is supposedly working on at the moment. It is meant to replace “The Rukhnama,” the collection of precepts by the late Nyazov that is obligatory reading at all school levels. Such is the “Era of supreme happiness” that Berdymukhammedov proclaimed at the start of his second term.