How Farid Tuhbatullin Tells Turkmenistan’s Story

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How Farid Tuhbatullin Tells Turkmenistan’s Story

An interview with the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights’ Farid Tuhbatullin, who works to draw attention to the troubles in his homeland.

How Farid Tuhbatullin Tells Turkmenistan’s Story

A man casts his ballot at a polling station during presidential elections in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Saturday, March 12, 2022, with the portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov in the background.

Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Vershinin

Turkmenistan is not a country many know well. While it sits near North Korea on various rankings (such as press freedom, political rights, and civil liberties), and could also be described as a “hermit kingdom” for its isolationist approach (branded as “positive neutrality”), Ashgabat often escapes notice. It’s a country that rarely breaks into international headlines, and when it does it is often for the sheer absurdities of the leadership’s behavior. Turkmenistan is not an easy country for media to cover, but that’s not to say there aren’t those who work tirelessly to tell its stories.

Farid Tuhbatullin is one of those people. Tuhbatullin is the chairman of Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, which monitors minority rights, freedom of association, freedom of speech, child labor issues and the education system in Turkmenistan. He also edits the website Chronicles of Turkmenistan, which attempts to bring attention to conditions inside the country. Working from exile, after serving time in prison in Turkmenistan for his environmental activism, Tuhbatullin knows well the challenges faced by Turkmen citizens at home and abroad.

In the following interview with The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz, Tuhbatullin outlines the most pressing issues in Turkmenistan, comments on the country’s close partnerships with Russia and China, and explains that highlighting the absurd in the country draws attention to it and that’s better than nothing. And finally, although the situation is difficult at present, Tuhbatullin says, “I am an optimist by nature. And I hope that better times will come in my country.”

Can you describe, briefly, how you came to become an activist in Turkmenistan? What were those early years of independence in the country like?

I was born and lived in the north of Turkmenistan. This territory is included in the Aral Sea’s zone of ecological catastrophe. During Perestroika, it was officially recognized that we had the highest child and maternal mortality in the USSR. Together with like-minded people, we created an NGO, the Dashoguz Ecological Club, and carried out educational work in the field of ecology, nature protection, and sanitation.

At the beginning of Turkmenistan’s independence, there was hope for a better future – the situation was not ideal, but the population’s near universal literacy rate and the country’s ready-made infrastructure, plus its huge reserves of gas and oil inspired hope. There was a feeling that we had gotten rid of colonial dependence. But rather quickly, a person who grew up on the ideology of sole control came to unlimited power in the country. As a result, instead of living in a “better future,” there was a need to deal with human rights.

But this activity of mine led to my conviction in 2002 and a three-year prison sentence. After a big international campaign in my defense, I was released and left my homeland.

After leaving Turkmenistan, you founded what’s now called the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and the Chronicles of Turkmenistan website. What are the most pressing human rights issues in Turkmenistan today?

There are no points in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that are not violated by Turkmenistan. We are unable to cover all issues. Our main focus is on forced labor, including child labor in the cotton harvest, on the rights of women (the authorities have imposed many restrictions on them, referring to national traditions as justification), on the right to free movement, on the right to receive and disseminate information, on the right to housing, on the rights of national minorities.

Turkmenistan’s closest partners are Russia and China. How do Moscow and Beijing influence Ashgabat? Is there room for alternative powers whether closer geographically, like Uzbekistan or Turkey, or farther afield, in Europe to exert influence on the country?

Yes, Russia and China have a great influence on our country, politically (more Russia) and financially (more China). In my opinion, they both ensure the stability of the ruling regime. Turkey, so far unsuccessfully, is trying to bring Turkmenistan into the Organization of Turkic States as a full member. The Turkmen authorities also have to take into account the country’s long borders with Afghanistan and Iran. The “West” (Europe, U.S., etc.) has certain leverage, but at this stage they are not being used.

Attempts to put pressure on the regime for the purpose of democratic reforms are carried out by international organizations — the U.N., the EU, the OSCE,  sending messages in the form of concern or recommendations on various issues. Some of them Turkmenistan takes into account. And this is the only real tool that is in the arsenal of Turkmen human rights activists and which we use when cooperating with these organizations.

In the last few months, there have been some government changes that seem to put Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov back on top, though his son Serdar remains president. What do you think motivated these changes? What does it tell us about the nature of government in Turkmenistan?

The regime has tried and is trying to create a legal basis for its actions in the process of transferring power from father to son, while leaving the mechanisms of governing the country in the hands of the elder Berdimuhamedov. Before the presidential elections were held in 2022, in which the younger Berdimuhamedov was elected, the Constitution and laws were changed in one direction – such as the 2016 lowering of the minimum age to be elected president to 40, which Serdar was in 2022 – and after the elections they were changed again. Now the elder has received the status of “Leader of the Nation” and the highest authority in the country as the chairman of the People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty), which was elevated to the country’s highest body. The new law spells out his rights and spells out the obligations of the state to the leader. But there is not a word about the leader’s obligations to the state and the people.

The younger Berdimuhamedov, who has been heading the Cabinet of Ministers for more than a year, has not made any new ministerial appointments. Several leaders, such as the minister of national security and the minister of internal affairs, who were appointed by the new president, are henchmen of the elder Berdimuhamedov and have previously worked in high positions. The new 40-year-old president did not bring with him a new generation of country leaders, as had been hoped. Not a single person!

Perhaps the father considers his son insufficiently experienced and takes care of him, fearing that sudden movements could bring down the existing pyramid of power. He will oversee the son until he is sure that the son himself will be able to correctly (from the point of view of the father) govern the country, while remaining the main person in the country. Or until he dies.

Often when we see reporting in Western media about Turkmenistan there’s a heavy focus on the absurd things like Berdimuhamedov lifting a golden bar or former leader Saparmurat Niyazov’s gold statue of himself. On the one hand, this draws attention; on the other, such reports can seem very trivial. What do you think about this kind of reporting? What would you like to see more of in international media in regard to Turkmenistan?

Turkmenistan is a small country that does not attract attention to itself. Few have heard of it. And in such circumstances, trying to convey to the international community information about the total violation of the rights and freedoms of the citizens of this country and draw attention to these problems is not realistic. Nobody will hear you. And if he hears, he will not understand where all this is happening and whose fault it is.

That’s why we decided to draw attention to our country through the purposeful demonstration of the absurd actions of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Let people see the “crazy dictator,” as he was called on the internet after the publication of some of our videos. Let them see how he rides a horse, shoots a pistol, drives a truck, exercises, sings songs, writes several dozen books a year. Let it be seen. At least now many people know that there is a country called Turkmenistan and that it is ruled by a dictator.

It doesn’t matter if he is crazy or not. It is terrible that this dictator perpetrates a system of governing the country in which citizens are deprived of the most basic rights and freedoms. Where for any criticism of the government a person goes to jail. Where the internet is blocked. Where there is no opportunity to read the foreign press. Where it’s almost impossible for women to get a driver’s license. Where people cannot freely leave the country and return to it without fear. Where there is no freedom to do business. Where everything is riddled with corruption.

We are therefore forced to use every opportunity to tell the world about the lawlessness that is happening in Turkmenistan and the complete disregard for the rights of the citizens of this country.

Finally, if I may ask: Do you have hope for a better future for Turkmenistan? What do you hope for?

I had to leave my homeland 20 years ago. That first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, was much older than me. And, of course, there was hope that after his death, I and my comrades in misfortune would be able to return home. But after him came another dictator, a younger one. And there was less hope for a return. And now a third dictator is undergoing an internship under the guidance of his father.

But that doesn’t mean that hope is lost. I am an optimist by nature. And I hope that better times will come in my country.

In the meantime, my colleagues and I are helping the people of Turkmenistan, who are forced to live under the yoke of despotism, as best we can. It is very difficult. Our work takes a lot of strength and nerve. To keep yourself in working condition, sometimes you need to be distracted. Hobbies help. I ride a bike, photograph birds, write this and that. As a result, I’ve written a manuscript and I hope I will be able to publish a book. This is non-fiction in the historical and ethnographic style about the times of the colonization of the Turkmen by the Russian Empire, which was replaced by the “colonization” of the Turkmen by its own dictator. And also about the attempt of a small group of oppositionists who tried to overthrow him, and with whom I happened to spend some time in prison.