The new government seems intent on boosting Turkmenistan's dismal Internet penetration. But is it just a ruse to catch dissenters in a digital dragnet?
It's a philosophical riddle as old as when humanity first learned to harness the power of fire: Will technology bring freedom or slavery? Lately, observers of Turkmenistan find themselves asking that very question about the Internet.
Turkmenistan has one of the world's lowest rates of Internet penetration: According to Internetworldstats.com, a website that measures global Internet access, a meager 1.4 percent of Turkmenistan's population is wired, putting the country in 216th place out of 226.
However, two years ago, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, recently ascended to the Turkmen presidency, vowed to expand the Internet in his nation. Speaking at Columbia University in September 2007, he remarked, "Let me tell you frankly that the atmosphere today in Turkmenistan is just incredible. Our children feel such a strong and intense yearning for knowledge that we just can't fail and let them down."
At the time, writing on neweurasia.net, a TOL-affiliated site, the pseudonymous blogger Conquistador noted that the speech was accompanied by a presentation showing young students typing on new laptops. In light of the paranoia that marked the previous regime of Saparmurat Niyazov – during which Internet access was sequestered to a tiny elite – the images were a bold statement.
"Will any of this emerge?" Conquistador asked. "That remains to be seen." Yet, remarkably, it seems that the Berdymukhammedov regime is actually intent on keeping its word.
In September Turkmenistan hosted an IT-themed exhibition called Turkmentel 2009 and a scientific conference. Berdymukhammedov personally addressed the audience, saying "We are doing our best so that every citizen of Turkmenistan has access to the Internet and modern communication technologies."
Subsequently, the government declared its intention to launch Turkmenistan's first ever communications satellite.
BIRTH OF THE TURKMENET
Another neweurasia blogger, Annasoltan, has been monitoring the rise of what she calls the "Turkmenet" – the Turkmen-language online community. Although minuscule, it is energetic and growing rapidly.
The Turkmenet's appearance has already seen the rise of diverse phenomena, ranging from the dissemination of political hip-hop songs in the Turkmen language to Islamic revivalism on Facebook.
A salient moment came on 12 September, when riots erupted between Turkmen and Chinese workers for a Chinese energy company in the Samandepe region of eastern Turkmenistan. According to RFE/RL, the Turkmen workers had complained of poor working conditions and wage discrimination.
"Although, as usual with such situations, the incident was completely unmentioned by the tightly-controlled Turkmen media, news of it still reached the Turkmenet," Annasoltan reported. "[It] quickly sparked a vibrant and very public discussion.
"The riot has been particularly disappointing to those already embittered by the government's constant refrain that it is defending the interests of the Turkmen population. Many are interpreting the incident as proof that the Turkmen government has sided with foreigners – in this case the Chinese – over its own citizens. One user even compares the Turkmen to the Uighurs of China."
Remarkably, the Turkmen government did nothing to stop the criticism. In fact, the opposite happened: Ashgabad.ru, a very active online forum where residents of the Turkmen capital comment about their city which was mysteriously shut down in June, was abruptly reactivated.
Several of the forum's topics are openly critical of the government; one topic even asks expatriated Turkmen, "Do you ever want to return?"
"Something is brewing online," Annasoltan observes.
We should first consider the possibility that the government is actually being sincere. It may envision a steady and controlled increase in Internet access as necessary for the country's development. Certainly, this interpretation seems consistent with what the government itself has said, including a 20 September statement that connected the planned satellite launch with catching up with the "critical role that telecommunication systems [have] played in the modern world."
There has obviously been no mention of the Internet's potential use for dissent. Yet, a certain tolerance for criticism would also be consistent with a policy geared toward long-term development.
However, given the government's consistently grievous track record on human rights and democracy, the idea that the authorities may actually envision a free and unfettered Internet as useful to the country's development strains credulity.
Another possibility, along the same lines, is that the government is naïve, incompetent, disorganized, or some combination of the three. The authorities may simply not yet understand the anarchic effect of the perceived anonymity that comes with the Internet – a social phenomenon known all too well in the wired West. Similarly, the government's online expansion may be outpacing its own ability to police the new cybernetic spaces its decisions are creating.
Yet, the mental image of the government somehow being caught off guard by the Internet, much less its own policies, seems highly unlikely. In fact, previously the authorities have demonstrated a very high aptitude in regulating the Internet.
A more frightening possibility, then, is that the authorities actually want digital dissent. They may be confident in their policing abilities to the extent that they don't feel a need to obsessively squash online dissent because they see it is as limited to an observable few and easily stoppable.
Conversely, the authorities may find digitalized dissent useful to vent discontent. Indeed, they may be seeking to lure out malcontents in order to catalog them for future elimination. It's an Orwellian proposition, yes, but Turkmenistan wouldn't be the first totalitarian regime to try it.
As always with this shadowy government, it is impossible to know its motivations. But one fact is clear: Turkmenistan has embarked upon an odyssey that could have major consequences for its future political and cultural life.
Recent events in Iran have shown that the Internet, once unleashed, is infectious and resilient. It carves out new and ever-shifting spaces of personal freedom too slippery for state control. It is within these spaces that dissatisfaction finds its voice. Dissidents, newly cyberized, discover that they are not alone and that there is strength in numbers, even binary ones.