The Arab Spring: The Turkmen case

We continue to wonder what is happening in authoritarian Muslim petro-nations outside the Middle East and North Africa. We previously published excerpts of Afghanistan coverage by Muhammad Tahir, Washington correspondent for RFE/RL. With the post below, Muhammad offers his take on Turkmenistan, the natural gas-rich Central Asian  republic bordering Iran, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Turkmenistan has the brew familiar to observers of recent Middle East events -- obscene volumes of hydrocarbons; a wealthy few and a dirt-poor mass; official corruption ranking among the worst on the planet, according to Transparency International; a delusional and megalomaniacal leader; and an Orwellian sense of reality created by strictly censored state media and a clamp on phone calls and the Internet. 

People have not taken to the streets of Ashgabad or any Turkmen city, but the government of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (pictured above) doesn't seem sure they won't. So there is an absolute blackout on news about the Arab Spring, and stepped-up monitoring of possible rabble-rousers in and out of the country.

In January, a Russian telecoms company named MTS lost a five-year-old contract providing cell phone and Internet service to 80 percent of the Turkmen market, or 2.5 million of the country's 4.5 million inhabitants. Turkmen authorities said the reason was that MTS was profiting too much, and sharing too little with the state in the form of taxes and royalties. But the contract suspension had a knock-on effect, which was to shut off all non-state sources of information and communication in the already heavily censored and monitored country.

The government is worried not only about Turkmen at home. It is also kept awake at night with concern over possible mischief by hundreds of Turkmen living abroad. Reports in Ashgabad are of a government attempt to pressure Turkmen students and workers overseas to return home, and then keep them there. A rumor is circulating that if Turkmen students abroad return home, they run the risk of not being permitted to leave the country again.

The government itself isn't talking about why. But one line of thinking is that these youth might have been influenced by revolutionary ideas, and that they could become further infected the longer they are away from home, and hence run the risk of destabilizing Turkmenistan.

"It's hard to predict the reason for those steps, but the timing of these rumors ...  shows level of [government] concern," said Farit Tuhbatulin, director of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.

Indeed the government isn't awaiting their return passively, but pressuring relatives at home. Government officials have been paying unexpected visits to such relatives to inquire about what they call "missing" people, requesting detailed information about their location, employment status and source of finances.

A Turkmen national living in Turkey told me that members of his family were informed that if he does not return to the country within a period of time to be disclosed to them later, he "might never be allowed to return to Turkmenistan."

If the past is any indication, these rumors should be taken seriously. In August 2009, some 150 students from the Bishkek-based American University of Central Asia were stopped at the airport in Ashgabat as they attempted to return to Kyrgyzstan after a home visit. Most of them were denied permission to leave the country, although eventually fifty were allowed to re-enroll in a Bulgarian university.

Meanwhile, there is some indication that Berdymukhamedov may be acting to forestall anyone with a palace coup in mind as well. On March 22, he publicly sacked one of his most powerful and favored deputies -- Charymyrat Amanov, his national security minister. The style of the dismissal was notable -- rather than the low-key, private method in which he has let underlings go in the past, Berdymukhamedov observed the practice of his tyrannical predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, by acting dramatically on national television. "Due to grave shortcomings, you are fired," the president said, gazing angrily upon Amanov.

Amanov's dismissal could be important for two reasons -- as with the Egyptian Army, the Security Ministry would be decisive not only in a palace coup, but in the success or failure of any public uprising. It also could serve as a warning to other senior officials with ambitious thoughts.

Berdymukhamedov is following another facet of the now-familiar Arab strategy, and that is the adoption of some concessions.

One main complaint of Turkmen youth is that for more than a decade, the country has refused to recognize any college or university degree obtained abroad. That has effectively blocked serious employment opportunities at home for young Turkmen with star-studded credentials. On March 20, Berdymukhamedov repealed this policy.  "Turkmenistan needs its skillful people to implement required reforms," he said in an official statement.

Will Turkmen go the way of Egyptians, Libyans and Tunisians? There is no way to know. Protests have broken out in the neighborhood - in Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The government isn't certain they will not erupt in Turkmenistan, too.

Eric Feferberg AFP/Getty Images