As of 5 May 2020, nothing has happened in Turkmenistan. On 26 April, the annual National Horse Day show was held near Ashgabat and was a great success. Other than that, people go about their normal business, as productive members of a thriving economy.
This is what the Turkmen government would like you to think. In fact, not only are the tendrils of coronavirus slowly tightening their grip on the country of nearly 6 million people, but a hurricane ripped through its eastern provinces – one of the country’s worst natural disasters in 10 years. The hurricane affected the provinces of Lebap and Mary, which were already struggling with food shortages. Prices of staple goods including bread and flour are inflated even in state-run stores, forcing people further into poverty. In addition to this, reports are circulating concerning an increased police presence to stop people from documenting the destruction caused by the hurricane.
According to the Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens, a Prague-based action group, 30 people were detained for two days accused of sending footage “abroad.” A further 19 women were held in the same way in Turkmenabad, the capital of Lebap province. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights has reported that police are watching people filming the damage from their cars. Although difficult to confirm, it is estimated by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that at least 30 people have died, including children. They also claim that the government was warned about the impending hurricane, but did not disseminate this news to the local population.
In terms of press freedoms, Turkmenistan and North Korea are locked in a race to the bottom. According to Reporters without Borders, Turkmenistan ranks 179 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index. As its Central Asian neighbours began to open up following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan tightened its grip not only on the press but personal freedoms.
Internet use is minimal, NGOs are only permitted to operate under impossibly strict government guidelines, and tourists are rarely admitted to the country. In usual circumstances, no one outside of Turkmenistan believes what the government tells them. But last month, Turkmenistan missed out on millions of euros of coronavirus aid from the European Union. The reason was that Turkmenistan’s officially declared average income puts it in the “upper-middle-income bracket,” according to the World Bank, meaning it does not meet the EU’s criteria for aid.
But of course, there is no coronavirus in Turkmenistan – so no need for aid. And there is more good news too. At the National Horse Day show, after a long discussion, the most beautiful horse was announced as Gyrsakar, a horse from the president’s collection. His trainer, Mammetmyrat Gazakov accepted the prize on behalf of the president – the keys to an Audi A8 Sports Crossover.