Just before Christmas, 2.5 million (80% of all users) mobile phones stopped working in Turkmenistan. Why? The government decided to “switch off” the operation of Mobile Telesystems (MTS) – a privately owned Moscow based phone operator. This left millions of citizens unable to communicate internally or internationally. This is just the latest in a line of obscure human rights violations to have occurred in Turkmenistan.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power in Turkmenistan in 2007, with a promise to up-hold human rights. On paper it looks as if some progress has been made, but, in reality the legacy from dictator for life Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) lives on. Niyazov was the guy who:
- Niyazov banned lip-synching, car radios, beards, and the playing of recorded music at weddings
- Citizens with gold teeth were told to have them extracted
- He shut rural libraries, saying that people in villages did not read
- Opera was banned in 2001 as Niyazov declared: “Who needs Tosca or La Traviata any more?”
- All hospitals outside the capital Ashgabat were closed and about 15,000 doctors were dismissed in 2005
- Compulsory education was cut by a year so that students could not qualify to study abroad
To name but a few of his eccentricities.
It was hoped when Berdymukhamedov came to power he would move away from Niyazov’s cult of personality. We can see however that not only is his human rights record appalling (see here for Human Rights Watch letter to him on this issue from last year), but it appears it is erratic as his predecessors.
In a recent wikileak Berdymukhamedov was described as “vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager, and a bit of an Ahal Teke “nationalist.” from the US embassy. Later in the same leak it states “Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people.”
It looks as though Turkmenistan, with Berdymukhamedov at the helm is moving further and further away from the “west” and closer to isolation. There is no real sense of accountability. No one questions why the former Dentist operated on a patient to open a new hospital (no joke – see here). No one questions his legitimacy to do any of the things he has done. This is not good for Turkmen citizens, and it is not good for the international community.
Although I have highlighted some of the more bizarre aspect of modern Turkmenistan, it is important to remember it remains one of the oppressive countries in the world.
The question then remains, how do the international community try and engage with rogue leaders who shun all traditional forms of diplomacy? For this, there is no easy answer.