Turkmenistan: Global Village or Village Behind the Globe?

Turkmenistan is known as one of the most secretive and isolated countries in the world. Foreign presence in this country is limited to a few diplomats and branch executives of a couple of large energy or construction companies. [All links are in Turkmen].

In this sense Turkmenistan can be called a global desert. A recent conversation titled ‘The Americans in the villages‘ on newly opened Turkmen language chat forum ertir.com is illustrative of how Turkmenistan’s isolation has influenced the mentality of the people.


Tending the city park in the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat. Image by Mirka Duijn, copyright Demotix (24/09/2009).

Tending the city park in the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat. Image by Mirka Duijn, copyright Demotix (24/09/2009).

Turkmenistan is a country of 5 million people, rich in hydrocarbon resources. Having witnessed the Tsarist conquest in the nineteenth century and consequently been incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1924, sandwiched between Iran and Afghanistan, the fear of the powerful neighbors and big powers in Turkmenistan is all present.

Nationalism has just begun to grow after 20 years of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. The unpredictability of a dictatorship adds to the popularity of ‘spy’ scenarios or ‘conspiracy theories’ circulating among the population.

The government maintains secrecy in its policies and public discussions on political issues are considered a taboo. The heavily censored and state controlled media only reports official news; consequently the people know or understand very little about the government’s policies. Statistics and a variety of information that is available freely elsewhere is considered a state secret in Turkmenistan.

Therefore, an American’s presence in a Turkmen village can cause a real surprise and lead to all sorts of curiosity and speculation among the population. But like a Turkmen proverb is saying the “there is a logic in the crowd,” the conversation that took place on 10 September, 2011, has brought some clarity to the issue.

‘The Americans in the villages’

Görogly who opened a conversation titled ‘The Americans in the villages,’ wrote:

I don’t know whether you have also a similar situation in the area you live but in the neighboring village an American is working as an English teacher. It is obvious that they [the American teachers] aren’t coming here because of the salary of a village school. At the celebrative ‘toy’ events he is filming everything so that some aunts (elder women) from the village started to swear: ‘The haram who should be swallowed by the earth’ [a Turkmen expression meant for someone who is wished to disappear]. He is exhausting our patience by using his camera. What are your views about them? What do you think they are doing in Turkmenistan?

Turkmentalyp was first to share his opinion:

Of course it is not a coincidence. They have institutions for learning about people. They are learning the economic, political and social aspects of the [Turkmen] people. Hence, they are constructing a ‘vicious’ strategy. In short they learn the anatomy of the people, they learn the strengths and the weaknesses. Like in a struggle they use the opponents’ weaknesses.

Görogly joined the discussion saying:

During the era of Güljamal Han they were also living among the population and they came with Skobelev [the Russian army general who defeated the Turkmen at Gökdepe fortress]. Who knows what their aims are. We should fear them.

Abadan added:

They want to learn the Turkmen traditions.

Gudrat agreed:

Yes, sure they want to learn our culture. Do you sincerely believe that a spy would film with a camera? If he were indeed a spy you wouldn’t even know that he’s an American.

Kural had the following to say:

What are you talking about people? The human being is curious, he wants to learn about other cultures, wants to teach his own culture, wants to gather experiences… Wasn’t that an American girl who died under the Isreali bulldozer? [Reference to Rachael Corrie, an American activist killed in the Gaza Strip by an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) bulldozer]. If I had traveled to a foreign country, even if it were in Africa, I would take my camera with me.

We are not going to villages in the holidays to teach what we know. The people need someone to teach them. They don’t know what’s right or wrong. If one is afraid of the camera, he should correct it. The [Turkmen] government which did not accept the Israel’s two diplomats credentials, should be able to manage that.

Senem disagreed with Kural:

But Kural, it is America. We shouldn’t be expecting anything better from America.

Kural responded:

Senem, to be honest, I have seen all of the difficulties in my life in Turkmenistan. I got past it. But even if the people are being beaten or reprimanded, they are soo content with the government. One shouldn’t be afraid but act boldly. They shouldn’t come to teach us, we should teach the people.

Abadan asked:

Why is there a sign on the wall of the American Embassy showing that taking photos are banned? Every time I go past I am wondering. There is nobody here taking a photo to stage an attack.

Senem responded:

They think that everybody is like them.

Leo Messi said:

If I go out of the country I film everything that I am not used to see. I film the taxis, the restaurants, even when the people are talking. Now, am I a spy? LOL to you. Is the dead village a military or strategic point worth of filming? Are you comparing Skobelev’s period to our time? Once more LOL to you. The technology has progressed now the spy info is being obtained through cyber spies not by sending one of their citizens to a dead village. Besides not all Americans are bad. If instead of America, Turkey or Russia were the superpowers they would be worse. I don’t see anything bad what America is doing. They are trying to clean countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan from dirt. America forever.

Turkmentalyp insisted:

They have finished the Iraqi state calling it democracy. To clean up the dirt we don’t need America. It would be better for them not to get their nose into the affairs of others. To learn the people’s opinions is a large information. It also includes learning the traditions, But to invade a country there is not only military information necessary. The media and the disputes that derive from the thinking of the people are also important. To make it perfect, learning the traditions is a must.

Leo Messi replied:

Turkmentalyp, to learn the thinking of the people they have special services. Besides there are no Americans working in these services. The people of the country under study are passing it. For example, on Turkmenistan, it is azatlyk.com’s workers find for them.

Halasgär sounded pessimistic:

Their goal is not only to spy but also to find young collaborators for the future. To raise people like Sylapmen [a Christian turned Turkmen]. One should be very careful. May Allah not separate the people from their belief, their beautiful life, and their homeland. Omin.

Heromant joined saying:

I am currently working in the Azatlyk Farmers Union in Yoloten. I am video taping whatever I see because here it looks like Afghanistan. Am I also a spy? LOL to you. Go to see America as well, to see their villages with cameras. You won’t be called a spy. Learn and let your thinking progress. Rather than gossiping about America let your thinking grow.

YaSwami opined:

In my opinion they know what we the Turkmens don’t know, in politics they know that we are the ass cleaners of the Russians. God knows what you are trying to hide from the cameras.

Belulym said:

Who has appointed him as a teacher? It is unlikely that he who came from America would become a teacher in a village. If anything, he would come to work in the cities. Hmm, it’s a highly suspicious situation.

Mylayym explained:

The English teachers are being sent by the Peace Corps. Likewise, our people are being sent to the States for learning English. There is nothing to be afraid of. Our people can also video tape there. I have seen with my own eyes that how many of them have been taught English. If my family had allowed me I would have brought a girl to live with us if we were a family but the relatives at home didn’t allow and the Corps said that they don’t locate their people in Ashgabat. When I asked why they said to teach the village people English and second they said it is easier to learn the Turkmen language in the villages than in the cities. Not only in Ashgabat but in all the U.S. Embassies taking photos is not allowed.

Explorer had the last word on the issue:

You are behaving like if you were living in the 18th century. Let them video tape if they want. Are our villages also a state secret now? Don’t let foreigners listen to what you’re saying cause you will make them laugh about you. This is a mentality issue. The issue about not believing that one person can indeed travel into another country to learn the culture and its people. Because our computers don’t have such a code in their BIOS. It should be a spy or an enemy or the like. Consequently he should be hanged, stoned to death or extradited.


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