Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Storms Spark Activism Among Turkmen Diaspora

Turkmen at home and abroad rarely protest, but botched responses to natural disasters and the pandemic have led to a surge of activism.

By Grady Vaughan for
Storms Spark Activism Among Turkmen Diaspora
Credit: Pixabay

Over the last several months Turkmen diaspora communities in Turkey, Cyprus, and the United States have initiated a rare wave of demonstrations in response to Ashgatbat’s inadequate response to a raft of man-made and natural disasters. The main catalysts for this diaspora mobilization were the devastating hurricane-like downpours that ravaged the eastern provinces of Lebap and Mary on April 27 and May 4. As residents of those regions were left scrambling for answers after suffering severe damage to their houses, Turkmenistan’s authoritarian leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov claimed ignorance, and state media refused to broadcast local pleas for assistance.

Turkmen protests are a rare occurrence both inside and outside the insular Central Asian state. The government’s repressive capacity is extensive, and the information vacuum is considerable. Security officials routinely threaten students and adults alike not to share information with the outside world on social media about crises such as this spring’s storms and potential coronavirus outbreak in the country. Moreover, any independent organizational activity among citizens and the diaspora is curtailed. Even purportedly apolitical groups such as the Turkmen Students’ Society in Turkey have found themselves in the crosshairs of the Turkmen security apparatus.

As times get harder, however, it appears as though some Turkmen are reaching their breaking point. The government’s ham-fisted handling of the storm recovery efforts became emblematic of many wider economic and political problems within the country. Food shortages, empty ATMs, increasing unemployment, and the gradual withdrawal of state subsidies for electricity and water have upended the rentier state’s social contract. This cocktail of issues came to the fore during the first protests in Cyprus on May 11. According to Vienna-based Hronika Turkmenistan, demonstrators voiced their frustration not only with the state’s glaring absence in Mary and Lebap but also with their inability to freely move between Cyprus and their homeland (without having to pay bribes) to help their fellow countrymen. Likewise, on May 2, two Turkmen unfurled posters in front of the Turkmen Embassy in Washington in memory of those who lost their lives in Mary and Lebap and asserted that Turkmen embassies were not fulfilling their duties to their citizens.

These groups of disenfranchised Turkmen abroad have overwhelmingly directed their ire at the ever-hypocritical president of their homeland. Berdimuhamedov, the self-fashioned “patron” (Arkadag) of the Turkmen people, refuses to countenance any discussion of challenges to his “era of might and happiness.” Instead of delivering goods to those in Lebap and Mary, Berdimuhamedov eagerly offered financial and logistical support to neighboring Uzbekistan after the Sardoba dam collapse. Similarly, the self-serving dictator has proffered medical equipment and food supplies to Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan to bolster these countries’ fight against the coronavirus, all the while maintaining his denialist stance and downplaying troubling reports of “pneumonia” outbreaks in his own country. To add insult to injury, Turkmen authorities confiscated around $5,000 donated by Turkmen in the United States to residents of Mary and Lebap.

This irony has not escaped the attention of segments of the Turkmen diaspora. From Pittsburgh to Istanbul, dozens of Turkmen have called for the resignation of Berdimuhamedov. In fact, they have christened him “Haramdag” (something forbidden), a play on his chosen moniker “Arkadag.”  Chants of “Güm bol” (Get lost!) have also rung out at these small-scale rallies. Attendees may only number in the dozens, but their voices are penetrating internet firewalls and emerging on social media platforms within Turkmenistan. 

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In the midst of this upsurge of activism, the Turkmen opposition-in-exile has redoubled its own efforts. Traditionally hampered by internal disagreements and personal squabbles, the Turkmen opposition-in-exile has seized on the government’s negligence to challenge Berdimuhamedov’s legitimacy. On June 6, relative newcomer Kakamurad Khydyrov announced the establishment of a new movement called Democratic Choice for Turkmenistan (DCT). In his YouTube and Facebook videos, Britain-based Khydyrov has claimed DCT’s presence in all five provinces of Turkmenistan and called on citizens within these regions to mobilize against the regime. In contrast to other more seasoned exile politicians such as Halmurad Soyunov and Maksat Saparmurad, Khydyrov views himself as being more in-tune with developments within Turkmenistan and the experiences of the large contingent of Turkmen migrant laborers in Turkey. 

It remains to be seen what the DCT’s establishment portends for future campaigns both inside and outside of Turkmenistan. In the short term, it remains unlikely that wide-scale protests will sweep Turkmenistan. As RFE/RL’s Bruce Pannier has noted, vast deserts separate the country’s major cities and policemen are usually able to nip any disturbances in the bud. Moreover, demonstrations in Mary and Turkmenabat in April and May were more focused on food shortages and power outages than political change. In spite of these obstacles, it remains likely that everyday representatives of the Turkmen diaspora and exiled opposition leaders will continue to apply pressure on Berdimuhamedov. 

Grady Vaughan is an MA candidate at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies at Columbia University.