5 reasons for the government of Turkmenistan to stop fearing the freedom of movement.
International travel stopped in Turkmenistan in March 2020 and the country closed its borders for all means of transportation (planes, railways, cars, and even border crossings by foot). Officially, it is due to COVID-19 that the citizens of Turkmenistan can neither leave the country nor travel back home. Turkmenistan has not reported any COVID-19 infections or deaths to WHO since the start of the pandemic. Progres.online has written how these unwritten (communicated orally, as “orders sent from above”), unjust and restrictive policies and their arbitrary implementation impact all spheres of life of Turkmens including medical tourism where the issue can be a matter of life and death.
The government established the Extraordinary Commission on combatting the spread of diseases in January 2020. This committee meets on a weekly basis and decides on pandemic-related restrictions as well as for deciding who can enter or leave the country. Its decision-making mechanisms and guidelines are not publicly reported in the state media. There are a lot of rumors and unverified information around how this committee works. Although the government is not communicating its logic and reasons publicly for such an extended closure of borders and extensive travel restrictions, the public discussions pick up on governmental fears.
In this article, we are addressing the government’s possible fears based on information we see on social media. That the government will finally open borders and allow its citizens to travel freely is a dream that is being articulated by Turkmens on a daily basis over the last two years. The hope is still there considering that Turkmens are resilient, patient, and always hopeful.
Fear 1: COVID-19 will be brought from other countries and the Turkmen healthcare system will be overwhelmed.
Never fear: the government of Turkmenistan should not fear that because this has no precedent in other neighboring countries where travel is less restricted. Other Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan did not completely close their borders to their own citizens but put some restrictions on the tourism-related travel of foreigners by requiring PCR tests and vaccinations before the travel. Citizens of these Central Asian countries are allowed to enter and leave the country without any special permission from the government, other than related to COVID testing and vaccination status.
Fear 2: Turkmens with different ideas about “stability” might travel to the country that can potentially threaten the survival of the current government.
Never fear: there are no political opposition groups or civil society organizations inside the country, which makes it almost impossible to organize and rally around any one idea. Moreover, the internet is heavily restricted and there is no civic culture of trust and communication among the people. Trust and solidarity are completely erased from the social fabric of the Turkmen society by years of repression. Any criticism of government policies can only be made by individuals. Therefore, they pose little to no threat to the government. Nevertheless, border closures have torn apart many families, children are growing up without their parents, sick people cannot get emergency medical care abroad, students cannot study abroad, people had to miss the funerals of their loved ones and it left many people angry and resentful of the government. Based on our observations on Turkmen social media, people have never been so angry before at the government for such unjust rules for travel. Therefore, the longer the borders are kept closed preventing the public from travel, the higher the anger will grow, which can ultimately increase the likelihood of “negative” consequences for the survival of the current regime.
Fear 3: A lot of people will leave the country once borders are open.
Never fear: There is no evidence from the history of Turkmenistan or from neighboring countries of such precedents. Population of Tajikistan (10 mln) and Kyrgyzstan (6.7 mln) is on a closer range to Turkmenistan (6.2 mln) and their economies are not doing well. Their political systems are not free either. Despite that, there has not been any mass emigration out of these two countries. There are labor migrants from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan working in other countries, yet they have been sending remittances back home, which in return greatly contributes to their countries’ economy. Moreover, in the Turkmen culture the institution of family is the most valued institution in Turkmenistan. Thus, not many people are ready and willing to leave their extended families and culture behind and go to other countries in mass numbers to face uncertainty.
Fear 4: Government employees responsible for granting permissions for international travel during the border closure have allegedly amassed thousands in bribes. They might lose the revenue stream if the border is opened.
Never fear: Government will gain the new source of the revenue by publicly communicating the rules and prices in a transparent manner. For example, it can be done by introducing exit fees. (We are not advocating for this). When corruption becomes endemic, it creates a vicious cycle in which everyone must pay bribes for the most basic activities. It is easy to forget but it is a fact of life that those who take bribes to stamp travel permissions in the immigration office, the ministry of foreign affairs, and at the consulates, sooner or later will need to pay bribes themselves for their children’s university admissions, for getting qualified medical help or for obtaining a driver’s license. Every citizen of Turkmenistan will be worse off in the long run if the high levels of corruption were to stay with us.
Fear 5: The 2022 census is happening in December. What will happen if many people leave the country? Never fear: There is fear that once borders are open and travel is not restricted, many people will leave the country and it can reflect poorly on the population numbers on the census of 2022. Results of the 2012 census data have not been released publicly to this day and nobody knows the exact number of people living in the country at the moment. Therefore, given the nature of non-transparent data collection and absence of public communication, we believe easing or restricting travel will have little effect on the results of the 2022 census. The government can successfully continue its non-transparent, unaccountable practices by not releasing any data. International community in Turkmenistan is not going to say anything about this.