Turkmenistan is home to one of the most repressive governments in the world.
Anti-government sentiment inside the country is not tolerated and those whose comments are perceived as being even slightly critical of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s regime are quickly silenced.
Some are never heard from again.
In recent years, however, Turkmen living outside Turkmenistan have been increasingly vocal, with some demonstrating publicly against Berdymukhammedov’s government in the United States, several European countries, Russia, Turkey, and in Northern Cyprus.
But according to some of those activists in Turkey, the Turkmen government is now trying to silence them.
Dursoltan Taganova, 30, who is originally from Turkmenistan’s western Lebap Province, has emerged as one of the most recognizable of the Turkmen anti-government activists in Turkey, and that fame has come at a price.
On September 26, “[the Turkish police] came to my flat at [5:15 a.m.] and asked where I was. On that day I was not at home,” Taganova told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk. “Then they summoned me to the police station…and I realized something was wrong.”
When she arrived, Taganova was informed she was on a list of people who were to be detained and sent to a deportation holding center.
It was not the first time that had happened to Taganova, and once again she had to worry that she might be sent back to Turkmenistan. Fortunately for her, she was released on September 29.
Taganova belongs to the Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan (TDS), an opposition group formed in the summer of 2020 by Turkmen businessman Murad Kurbanov, who now resides in France. The TDS is composed of Turkmen living abroad, mainly migrant laborers.
Taganova told Azatlyk she was one of 25 people who were on a list of people who were to be taken into custody by police and sent to the deportation center. “All of [the Turkmen] activists, the most active of them, who often speak out, [were detained],” she said.
Taganova told Azatlyk she and other dissidents had organized a daily online meeting on social networks to discuss the situation in Turkmenistan. “We express our opinion about what changes are needed, talk about persecution, lawlessness, and corruption in Turkmenistan,” she said.
Taganova said she had 20,000-25,000 subscribers to her program and that every day some 6,000 to 7,000 watch and listen to what she and other Turkmen activists have to say about their home country.
It is the sort of public commentary that Turkmen officials detest.
The Turkmen government carefully controls information inside the country, telling its citizens about what it deems the wonderful achievements under Berdymukhammedov’s wise leadership and how the world envies the Central Asian country.
Such flattering portrayals rarely reflect the reality in Turkmenistan, where people stand in long lines outside stores for bread, cooking oil, and for cash outside ATMs.
All in a country where unemployment is estimated to be around 60 percent and Berdymukhammedov’s family is alleged to be stealing billions of dollars while some people in Turkmenistan are forced to forage in garbage dumpsters to find something to sell or eat.
It is the lack of meaningful employment that has led hundreds of thousands of Turkmenistan’s citizens to leave for other countries as migrant laborers. And while Turkmen authorities can keep a lid on the opposition inside the country, dissension among migrant laborers has been growing as conditions in Turkmenistan have sharply deteriorated in recent years.
Taganova’s vocal opposition to the Turkmen government started shortly after the global spread of the coronavirus and was sparked by the authorities’ bizarre insistence that the country did not have any COVID-19 cases.
She was detained outside the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul along with 80 other activists for violating coronavirus quarantine rules on July 19, 2020, as the group protested the Turkmen government’s claim about the coronavirus not being in Turkmenistan.
All those detained were released later the same day except Taganova, whose passport had expired.
She spent nearly three months in a deportation center, and ironically may have only been saved from being sent to Turkmenistan because the government had suspended all flights to or from the country because of the pandemic.
Human rights organizations learned of Taganova’s predicament and on October 12, 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement from 11 rights groups calling on Turkish authorities not to extradite Taganova to Turkmenistan.
The HRW’s Hugh Williamson said in the statement that “Turkmenistan is known to severely harass and punish peaceful critics of the government. To return Dursoltan Taganova to Turkmenistan would place her at grave risk of persecution and torture.”
Taganova was freed that same day and was able to apply for asylum in Turkey while at the deportation center.
She is now living legally in Turkey, but since her detainment in 2020 there have been many changes in her life.
Taganova has been vilified by Turkmen authorities in her native Lebap Province. Local representatives of social organizations, women’s councils, the National Security Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the prosecutor’s office have held public meetings in Lebap’s capital, Turkmenabat, and other towns to denounce Taganova after she was released from detention in Turkey.
In her recent interview with Azatlyk she said: “Several months ago they called me to the [Turkish] migration service and warned me that ‘relations between Turkey and Turkmenistan are somewhat complicated, so stop the protests and meetings.'”
Taganova explained at the migration service that she had not been organizing any protests but did go on social media with others to discuss politics in Turkmenistan.
“They forbid me to speak out online,” she said, but adding that she continued to speak on social networks about injustice and corruption in Turkmenistan and that when she was detained in September, “there were no such warnings [from Turkish officials about online discussions].”
Taganova is not the only Turkmen opposition activist facing problems in Turkey. On October 11, three Turkmen activists were assaulted in Istanbul. Aziz Mamedov, Nurmukhammed Annaev, and a third person named only as Bakhtiyar were followed and then surrounded by five men who attacked and beat them.
The three are sure the Turkmen Security Ministry is behind the incident. Annaev told Azatlyk, “One of the attackers cursed at me in a Lebap accent.”
Mamedov suffered cuts and bruises to his face as well as a broken nose. Annaev had injuries to his left arm and Bakhtiyar to his head after being hit with an object and kicked after falling to the ground.
Annaev said the three had met with journalists from a Western publication earlier in the day to talk about their work and had done a live program on the Internet. Annaev was also scheduled to go to Warsaw for the OSCE’s annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, where he planned to criticize the Turkmen government.
In another incident, a small group of activists protesting outside the Turkmen Consulate on August 1 were suddenly attacked by unknown men who the activists claim were hired by consulate officials.
One activist suffered stab wounds to the arm and stomach while another had injuries to his ribs. Ten of the activists were taken to Istanbul’s deportation center and later released.
Turkmen activist Farhad Durdyyev was on his way to the protest on August 1, but he was intercepted by two Turkmen men about 400 meters from the consulate and put into a car “with license plates [including] LB,” as used in Lebap, and driven onto the consulate grounds. Durdyyev told Azatlyk he was beaten and threatened inside the consulate.
Meanwhile, bloggers in Turkmenistan who appear to be supported by the state have posted interviews with the family members of opposition activists living abroad. In Durdyyev’s case, one of these so-called bloggers interviewed his mother, who lamented the “errant course” her son had taken in being a dissident.
The reasons for this sudden attention being paid to Turkmen activists in Turkey are not difficult to guess. Turkmenistan is in a state of serious decay due to the avarice and mismanagement of a select few close to Berdymukhammedov. It is a situation that activists outside Turkmenistan — including those in Turkey — are accurately describing to the outside world.