One day, riding in a taxi in the center of Ashgabat, the driver takes a detour into a small neighborhood of older, single-family brick houses. This would be unremarkable almost anywhere else in the world. But it’s noteworthy in Ashgabat, most of which has been leveled over the past fifteen years and rebuilt as a cityscape of white marble palaces surrounded by elaborate fountains and golden statues of former president Sapurmurat Niyazov. The old neighborhood is a refreshing escape from the surrounding totalitarian fantasyland.
But my driver doesn’t agree. Unprompted, he says: "Our first president was a great president." We are about to reenter the white marble zone of the city. "Look at how beautiful the city is now. It was all old, like this, and now look at that beauty," he said, pointing ahead to one of the many marble structures ahead.
Later, I’m told about a shop where I can buy cheap watches with Niyazov’s picture on the face. I figure they’ll be good gifts for friends back home, and I head to the Univermag, the former Soviet-era department store that’s since been turned into a sort of mall where bored, heavily made up sales assistants hawk overpriced clothes to very few customers. I inquire about watches at a gift shop that seems like it might be the right place. It’s not, the saleswoman tells me. And then she wrinkles her nose, leans in close and adds: "Why do you want that, anyway? He was a terrible man."
During my time in Turkmenistan, I am not telling many people I’m a journalist. I’ve come on a tourist visa and if the authorities find out what I am really doing, I will likely be kicked out of the country. I’m relying on a few contacts I made before I came, and for them to introduce me to other people, and so on.
I don’t know how careful to be, how much I am being followed. The horrible shrieking feedback I hear on my hotel phone, presumably from sort of listening device, doesn’t give me much confidence. I hear different opinions on how much email is read – some people believe all email is monitored; some people believe the government can only get at email sent from or received by an email address ending in .tm. But generally people don’t seem to mind talking to me on the phone, or meeting me in public.
Of course, these are low standards on which to judge a dictatorship, and Turkmenistan is still quite a closed place. But everyone tells me that since the new government of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took over, people have slowly begun to feel freer to talk openly.
"When my wife and I would go for a walk in the evenings, people would disappear whenever they saw us because people had unpleasant experiences after talking with us or being seen with us," one Western diplomat tells me. "That doesn’t happen anymore."
"People are definitely more free to talk – there are boundaries and a lot of caution, but not as much as before," another diplomat says. "It’s especially easy to talk about what’s been designated for reform, like education and health care." "There’s more recognition of the rest of the world in the official news, like coverage of visiting delegations, and more official rhetoric about borrowing from the rest of the world," he says.
Like its people, Turkmenistan’s government is opening up more to the rest of the world. Its foreign policy also has become much more active under Berdymukhamedov, the first diplomat says. "There’s been about ten times the activity in the last four months than this country has seen in the last four years … Every day he [Berdymukhamedov] meets with representatives from foreign oil and gas companies. It’s a breathtaking amount of activity," he says. Underscoring the Turkmen leader’s active diplomacy, he traveled to New York in late September to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
The government has announced that it will recognize foreign university degrees and is bringing foreign languages back into the curriculum. Tour companies report that more tourists are being granted visas. And highway police checkpoints between cities have been greatly reduced.
There are reports that families of some prisoners have been able to send packages, or even visit loved ones in prison whom they weren’t allowed to see before.
But there are limits to how open people feel. I notice that almost no one refers to either the incumbent or the previous president by name, preferring terms like "the former president" and "the current president."
"It’s going to take at least a couple of years to see what kind of government this is," says one local woman I meet. "When Turkmenbashi [Niyazov] came in it was great, there were so many changes and he seemed like a liberal. And then you see what happened."
One day, I get a taxi driver with surprisingly good English. After a brief lull in our conversation, he says, "You know, I think things are going to get better here, I’m optimistic." I say that several people have told me the same thing – but that people are still wary of talking about politics. "Mm hmm, yes," he says, and then falls silent. That is apparently all he is willing to say on the subject.
Joshua Kucera, a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. He is presently traveling through the Caucasus and Central Asia to write a serial travelogue for EurasiaNet
Eurasianet.org October 9, 2007