By Aisha Berdyeva 1/17/08
Reforms are taking a curious twist in Turkmenistan, a state still regarded as among the most repressive on earth, despite the oft-stated desire of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to "take care of [Turkmen] citizens’ well being." The president wants to give his people the ability to speed freely around the arid Central Asian nation. But at the same time, he seems intent on slamming shut Turkmenistan’s last window to the outside world.
On January 11, Berdymukhamedov endorsed a government plan to provide gas to Turkmen citizens without charge. "A certain amount of gasoline will be granted to retail consumers for free, while everything above it will have to be bought for free-market prices," according to a government statement. In energy-rich Turkmenistan, the "free-market" price remains significantly lower than elsewhere, and, in his January 1 New Year’s address, Berdymukhamedov issued a pledge to motorists to keep gasoline prices low.
The overriding concern that Berdymukhamedov shows for drivers does not appear to extend to television watchers, who constitute a much higher share of the population than do car owners. In a late November speech, the Turkmen leader revealed that he had ordered officials to dismantle all individual television dishes in the nation. Dishes are ubiquitous in Ashgabat, the capital, covering apartment buildings like fast-spreading ivy. One can also find satellite dishes even in the remotest oases in the middle of Turkmenistan’s vast desert.
Berdymukhamedov’s rationale for the move was that the plethora of dishes constitutes a blight on the country, somehow ruining the aesthetic appeal of pre-fabricated concrete, uniform-looking structures. He said that the individual dishes would be replaced by one large satellite signal receiver situated atop each building.
"Have these dishes removed, they spoil the appearance of the city," the Turkmen president told the communications minister during a televised cabinet session. "Have one powerful antenna installed and lay on a cable. Conduct negotiations with a competent major German firm. They have installed a huge dish somewhere in Malaysia, let them install it here too."
Few experts and citizens alike are buying Berdymukhamedov’s explanation. Despite the fact that for much of 2007 the Turkmen leader voiced an intention to widen Turkmen citizens’ access to information, many critics are convinced that the satellite dish decision signals a government effort to close off the last major news conduit to the outside world. Somehow, many believe, the government will be able to control programming under the new system, or at the very least, be able to drastically reduce the number of viewing options for Turkmen viewers. There is also widespread concern that the government will institute a fee for the new satellite service.
Satellite television became popular in Turkmenistan in late 1990’s, when the government of Saparmurat Niyazov cut off broadcasts of Russian news and entertainment shows – a move that left Turkmen citizens isolated from the outside world. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Private cable television channels emerged, but did not last long before being banned by Niyazov. The reason for the ban was a series of critical reports about Turkmenistan on independent Russian television station REN-TV.
Not to be deterred, citizens resorted to satellite dishes, which, until Berdymukhamedov’s November announcement, had endured as Turkmenistan’s main way of staying connected to global ideas and trends.
Accordingly, the prospect of losing their individual dishes has alarmed many resident of Ashgabat, a large number of whom like to tune in to foreign, mainly Russian-language broadcasts.
"I learn about what’s going on in the world -- even in neighboring states -- from news broadcasts on Russian channels," said one Ashgabat resident. "The four Turkmen channels broadcast all the same thing. They sing, dance or harvest all the time. Who can find that interesting? I have never seen Turkmen newsmen report from other countries. If the dishes are removed, I fear we will never learn what’s going on outside Turkmenistan. In addition, this measure will deprive us and our kids of our favorite entertainment programs!"
Tacitly acknowledging that state-controlled television lacks an ability to attract viewers, Berdymukhamedov lambasted state media executives during a televised cabinet session on January 11. "The national media still lack creative initiative in their activities," the Turkmen leader complained, adding that state broadcasts needed to show "serious and comprehensive improvement." Three days before the cabinet session, the Turkmen leader telegraphed his displeasure by sacking his press secretary and the minister of television and radio.
Amid his January 11 diatribe, Berdymukhamedov hinted that maintaining tight control of information is a pivotal component of his political philosophy. He reminded media executives that they had "a vital role in the process of forming public awareness, and the spiritual and aesthetic education of Turkmenistan’s people, and the elucidation of the state’s policy priorities." In its recent annual survey of global democratization trends, the rights organization Freedom House rated Turkmenistan to be among the "worst of the worst" governments in the world, in terms of political repression. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Editor’s Note: Aisha Berdyeva is a pseudonym for a Central Asia-based reporter who specializes in political and economic developments.