An Analysis of State Narratives on Covid-19 in Turkmenistan
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic Turkmenistan has remained part of a shrinking cohort of countries with no officially reported cases of Covid-19. While the validity of these claims is questionable and unofficial reports of cases of Covid-19 have been circulating in the country as early as March, the Turkmenistani government maintains both its commitment to its zero-case claim as well as a stubborn resistance to outside observation from organizations like the WHO. In denying outside access to the country, Ashgabat has gone so far as the block aid deliveries from other countries in the wake of a recent storm in the country’s east. This article will examine Turkmenistan’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic with a particular focus on the narrative presented by Ashgabat to the international community. This includes a close reading of Turkmenistani state media reports regarding Covid-19 alongside independent and foreign reporting on Covid-19 in Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan Before Covid-19
Turkmenistan is one of the most secretive and isolated states in the former Soviet Union. Like much of Central Asia in the early 1990s, political power in Turkmenistan coalesced around a single authority figure with previous standing in the Soviet Union: Saparmurat Niyazov, later known by the title “Turkmenbashi” (“Father of the Turkmen People”). Niyazov’s rule was characterized by the expansion of the police-state and other authoritarian policies, as well as the strict limitations of personal and political freedoms. Turkmenistan adopted a foreign policy based on a strict adherence towards neutrality. While historically countries have used policies of neutrality as a means of avoiding potential conflict when located between neighboring powers or as a means of acting as a mediator in international conflicts, Turkemenistan’s neutrality seems to be part of a wider policy aimed at securing authority around Nizayov through isolation from neighboring states and the international community as a whole. After Nizayov’s death, his nephew Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ascended to the presidency and continues to govern the country to this day. Beyond membership in the United Nations and participation in the UN’s associated bodies, Turkmenistan participates in certain multilateral organizations like the OSCE and IMF. However, due to the country’s policy of neutrality Turkmenistan is not a participant in many political integration projects or military alliances and has a limited working relationship with the Commonwealth of Independent States. Although the aforementioned multilateral organizations may have an office or representation in Turkmenistan, their overall effectiveness and access to the government is questionable. Russia is among Turkmenistan’s largest trading partners while Ashgabat and Washington have maintained some degree of dialogue regarding counter-terror cooperation in the region. Turkmenistan’s trade with China is based on the delivery of natural gas via the Central Asia-China Pipeline, which runs through Kazakhstan. Iran is Turkmenistan’s most populous neighbor and is the largest economy bordering the country, with imports from Iran to Turkmenistan totalling just over $300 million dollars worth of goods. Beyond these relationships, Turkmenistani foreign policy is mostly focused on maintaining generally warm relations with Uzbekistan and promoting security in Afghanistan.
In addition to limiting the entry of foreign nationals into the country and historically requiring exit visas for Turkmenistani citizens Ashgabat controls almost all of the international travel to and from Turkmenistan. The majority of the flights to and from Ashgabat International Airport are flown by national carrier “Turkmenistan Air” alongside limited service from Turkish Air and Lufthansa. Turkmen Rail operates the entirety of the country’s rail network, which features terrestrial crossings along the borders with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, and Uzbekistan. Delivery and courier services based outside of the country such as DHL were banned from operating in the country while TurkmenPochta maintained an absolute monopoly on delivery services — although this has changed in recent years.
Turkmenistan and the Initial Weeks of Covid-19
By January 2020, Covid-19 has spread from the Wuhan province throughout the rest of mainland China. While the virus was still largely limited to China with smaller outbreaks in the rest of Asia, Turkmenistan was already feeling an economic impact from the virus. The decline in production brought about by the public health measures in China led to a decline in energy demand and consequentially, a decline in energy prices. Considering that the delivery of natural gas to China represented a major section of Turkmenistani exports, this presented a major threat to the country’s economy. Following the wider trend seen in the international community, Turkmenistan suspended all air travel to China. The second major development related to Covid-19 that impacted Turkmenistan was the outbreak in Iran recorded in early February. Given Iran’s proximity to Turkmenistan and the possibility of movement of persons across both country’s borders, Ashgabat and Tehran closed their mutual border in late February. This was followed by the closure of all of Turkmenistan’s land borders and port on the Caspian Sea with air travel to and from Ashgabat International Airport slowing to a trickle. The Turkmenistani government implemented quarantine measures with the closure of borders in February. This included the usage of screening procedures for inbound travelers and the routing of inbound flights to the city of Turkmenabat. Additionally, posters and materials describing way of preventing the spread of Covid-19 were visible in hospitals.
Narratives on Covid-19
By the end of March Turkmenistan was one of a handful of countries which reported no cases of Covid-19 — an assertion that would become the core message of Ashgabat’s signaling to the international community and continues to this day. Cabinet meetings were still occurring in person in February, while a meeting was held on preventing “The Spread of Viruses” was held on February 25 referring to the danger of the “spread of severe pneumonia caused by new corona virus”. As published by independent outlet Chronicle of Turkmenistan, the previously provided materials detailing how to avoid spreading Covid-19 were amended to avoid specifically referencing the virus. After their initial publication, the pamphlets were recalled and later replaced with materials that did not explicitly refer to Covid-19 but rather “acute respiratory infections” When looking at Turkmenistani state media we can see a conscious effort to avoid any references to the possibility of Covid-19 being in the country throughout March, as the phrases “Covid-19” and “Corona Virus” are rarely mentioned by state media — the exception being a report on Turkmenistani citizens being evacuated from abroad. While a video-conference with ministers is held on the topic of national strategy on March 20th, press releases covering the meeting seem to be primarily reference matters related to the economy, with small references to improving the country’s healthcare systems — minus any references to the possibility of Covid-19 cases in the country. As reported by The Diplomat the Turkmenistani Ministry of Foregn Affairs published a read-out of a call between the presidents of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan on March 27th which featured no references to a discussion on the topic of Covid-19, while the Uzbekistani readout explicitly mentions a conversation regarding Covid-19.
After March, a considerable shift occurred in Turkmenistani government posturing towards Codiv-19 discourse. The virus is either hinted at or referenced in passing in several government statements but only in reference to developments outside of Turkmenistan. For instance, in May it was reported that Turkmenistan sent humanitarian aid to Afghanistan’s Faryab Province and Russia’s Astrakhan Oblast. The delivery of aid to Astrakhan was specifically described as being related to treating and preventing the spread of Covid-19. While the contents of the aid to Afghanistan was not described, a speech delivered by the representative of the OSCE in Ashgabat references food security while a similar unspecified statement on humanitarian aid delivery to Iran were reported by Iranian press to in fact be protective equipment used in the treatment of Covid-19 — a detail which was omitted by the government of Turkmenistan’s statement. However, while the government of Turkmenistan referenced its role as an aid provider, state media seems hesitant to report on the receipt of aid. On April 6th the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat published a press release covering the evacuation of American citizens from Turkmenistan. The release also mentioned $920,000 of assistance funding was allocated to Turkmenistan for usage in fighting the pandemic. This assistance was later increased by an additional $500,000 and directed towards UNICEF’s activities in the country towards preventing the spread of Covid-19. Looking at press releases in the days surrounding April 6th, neither the Turkmenistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the state news agency reported on this development. However that is not to say that Turkmenistan has completely obscured its receipt of aid with other countries. During a meeting with UN officials in late April the country’s Health Minister reiterated in a that the country had no cases of Covid-19 and 30,000 testing kits with an additional 40,000 purchased from other countries. According to the Russian government, 800 testing kits were delivered to the entirety of Central Asia in early March with each kit being capable of administering 100 tests. While the percentage of the 800 testing kits designated for Turkmenistan is not described, theoretically 30,000 tests would be possible if 300 were delivered to Turkmenistan and if the health minister was instead referring to the number of tests possible rather than the total number of kits.
By May the phrases “Covid-19” and “Coronavirus” were again referenced in state media, albeit almost always in reference to outbreaks outside of the country. The Turkemnistani government published the summary of a call with the government of Uzbekistan that mentions a discussion on “coronavirus” and both countries mutual interest in preventing its spread in the region — a departure from earlier efforts by Ashgabat to limit references to discussion of Covid-19 in diplomatic calls. Another statement details again references Covid-19 in the context of Turkmenistan’s cooperation with other members of the Non-Aligned Movement in combating the pandemic.
Self Organization and Citizen Response
While the government has made questionable decisions regarding Covid-19, Turkmenistani citizens have organized and taken personal steps towards preventing the spread of the virus. One of the examples of self-organization in response to Covid-19 is seen in the activities of “Saglyk.org”, a Turkmen-language website run by a non-government, non-profit organization dedicated to improving health literacy among Turkmenistan’s population. While Saglyk was initially created as a means of improving general health literacy, the site has recently played a major role in spreading awareness of Covid-19 The content on the site is not user-submitted nor is it provided by a single author. Rather, an editorial staff organizes articles explaining various aspects of personal health and provides Turkmen translations of English articles.
Saglyk maintains a section dedicated to Covid-19 related information and translates content from a variety of reputable sources, including Johns Hopkins University. The Covid-19 related entries cover topics ranging from how to properly quarantine, how does Covid-19 compare to SARS, and why it takes so long to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Saglyk.org not only provides a valuable collection of Turkmen-language resources for concerned Turkmenistani citizens, but also provides a reputable source of information on a topic that is particularly vulnerable to misinformation. During the pandemic, texting platforms like WhatsApp and traditional SMS messages have become a means of spreading dubious and false information on Covid-19 and governments’ protective measures. This has lead to a response by digital platforms and international organizations like the WHO to prevent the spread of misinformation. With these factors in mind, Saglyk.org fulfils the role of both a provider of crucial health information in the midst of the pandemic as well as a buffer against misinformation and potential misunderstandings of the virus. Recently Saglyk has published a series of recommendations for the Ministry of Health aimed at improving accessibility to Covid-19 related information, along with an op-ed that emphasizes both the severity of the threat of Covid-19 in Turkmenistan and the necessity for the Turkmenistani government to properly address this public health crisis.
Business as Usual and the Disappearance of Persons
Despite multiple countries cancelling public gatherings over concerns of spreading Covid-19, Turkmenistan has made no effort to cancel large public events or place limits on the size of gatherings. Sporting events and grand displays of coordinated physical activities such as the riding of bikes in formation on world bicycle day continue as usual. Alongside the Turkmenistani government’s questionable management of Covid-19 information, a more concerning trend has emerged. Individuals suspected of being infected by Covid-19 have been relocated to temporary three “quarantine zones” located near the city of Turkmenabat. These areas are suspected of being makeshift hospitals for persons with Covid-19 as part of an effort to keep infected persons out of sight from any international observers in the country and the impending visit from the WHO. In late April, approximately 400 persons were moved from these quarantine zones into smaller medical centers located in rural communities. Many of the individuals relocated have lost contact with their families and society, with news of their whereabouts mostly circulated by anonymous sources in the Ministry of Health. In response to a message posted by the U.S. embassy in Ashgabat regarding the potential for American citizens to be subjected to indefinite quarantine, the Turkmenistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered a press release formally denying the accusations referenced in the embassy’s announcement and referred to the claims as “informational fakes”.
Belarus and Turkmenistan
In many ways the actions and posturing towards Covid-19 seen in the Turkmenistani government mirror those of another former Soviet republic — Belarus. Broadly speaking, both countries share a similar information environment in the sense that freedom of the press is limited and state-run media is the main provider of information (although Belarus is considered more free than Turkmenistan). This limited information environment means that when government officials and state media dismiss the health threat posed by the pandemic as “psychosis”, mislabel deaths likely due to Covid-19 as Pneumonia, and refuse to acknowledge the public health crisis brought about by Covid-19, society in both countries may be left considerably more vulnerable to the disease. Just as Berdimuhamedow recommended the burning of herbs to protect against Covid-19, President Lukashenko of Belarus has recommended a series of questionable folk medicine treatments as a potential means of fighting the virus. Like Turkmenistan, Belarus avoided instituting any major closure of public places but established a quarantine period for inbound travelers. Both also countries commemorated May 9th — “Victory Day” — with large military paradeswith 2020 marking the first Victory Day parade held in Turkmenistan.
However, there are some nuances that separate both countries’ response to Covid-19. The WHO has visited Belarus and provided recommendations towards the country’s response to the pandemic — although Lukashenko dismissed the recommendations and the “politics” behind the WHO’s operation. This contrasts with Turkmenistan, which has not been hostile or antagonistic towards the WHO, but instead be evasive to WHO inspection and deny the organization a visit to the country. Inbound and outbound terrestrial travel from either country is nearly impossible. However, a major difference separates both states’ border troubles: Turkmenistan had unilaterally closed its borders to its surrounding states, whereas Belarus is surrounded by neighbors that have closed their borders as a protective measure (including Russia, although some Russian citizens have bypassed their closed borders and used Belarus as a means to circumvent air travel restrictions). Additionally, despite the earlier mentioned sentiments from Lukashenko, the government of Belarus does maintain statistics on Covid-19 cases in the country. While the accuracy of these numbers could be debated, they are likely to be a far more realistic figure compared to those officially reported by Turkmenistan.
It is uncertain when the WHO observers will be granted access to Turkmenistan and how long Ashgabat can continue its assertion of zero Covid-19 cases in the country. However, similar developments elsewhere in Central Asia may shed some light into the end result of Turkmenistan’s Covid-19 posturing. Like Turkmenistan, Tajikistan reported zero cases of Covid-19 as late as April 27th. As the Tajikistani government maintained its zero infection figure, journalists felt intimidated by Tajikistani authorities after questioning statements from the Ministry of Health during a press conference. The WHO mission was not due to travel to Tajikistan until April 30th — the same day that the first 15 cases of Covid-19 were officially recognized in the country. It is likely that Ashgabat’s acknowledgement of Covid-19 cases in Turkmenistan will come hand-in-hand with the approval for an official mission from the WHO. Until then an official narrative based on denial of the virus’ presence in the country will continue.
Digital Communication Network begins the series of publications on Digital Challenges in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis.
Author: Justin Tomczyk