On January 30 members of the district election commissions in Turkmenistan started house-to-house canvassing to distribute invitations for the presidential elections to be held on February 12. All invitations are personalized and contain a person’s name, date and time of the elections, personal number in the electoral register, number of the polling station and its location. The back side features instructions about how to mark off the candidate, fold the ballot paper and put it into a ballot box.
And even though long before the elections and vote count it is obvious to many that the current president will be far ahead of the other eight candidates, ATN asked local activists to hold a pre-poll, covering as many categories of citizens as possible. But since such campaigns are risky in Turkmenistan, and also because most citizens live in fear and never voice their opinions on any subject, ATN interviewers have mostly surveyed their friends, colleagues and family members. They asked only one question: “Will you vote for Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov?”
From 20 January to 1 February a total of 216 people took part in a survey held in all five regions of Turkmenistan, and in Ashgabat. Among the respondents were people with different backgrounds: pre-school educators, teachers, officials from public institutions, pensioners, workers from the oil-and-gas industry and agriculture, market retailers, taxi drivers, housewives and unemployed men.
Approximately one-fifth of the respondents (43 people) reported that they would vote for Berdymuhamedov. They mostly explained it by saying “it has long been decided for us,” although some of them had solid reasoning.
“During Niyazov’s rule, I lost two sons, – said a worker from the “Ashteplo” enterprise from Ashgabat. – Heroin took them both away from me when they were still very young. I will be forever grateful to the president for eliminating drugs in Turkmenistan.”
“Other candidates could be nice people, but I have never heard about them before, and neither have other people. Had it not been for the elections, I would have never learned about them. Everybody has kind of got used to Berdymuhamedov, besides, he at least restored pensions to the elders,” – said a female worker from the oil and gas “Lebapneftegazstroy” enterprise.
An official from the Prosecutor’s Office in the Dashoguz region clarified: he and his colleagues were told to vote only for the main candidate, “otherwise you’ll be considered a traitor.” According to him, orders to vote for Berdymuhamedov were also given to all employees in the regional and municipal departments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Half of the potential voters (108 people out of 216) responded that they intended to avoid “this political game they call elections.” They were certain that “all the ballot papers will anyway be placed in ballot boxes by members of the voting commissions, and not by the citizens who came to vote.”
A taxi driver who serves on the route between the region of Mary and Ashgabat has a personal reason not to vote: in protest against the presidential order banning entry into the capital city for vehicles with the regional license plates.
“He made second-class citizens out of us, regarding our capital city. We, citizens of Turkmenistan, are not allowed to enter the city, being rudely kept out, as if we carry infections and spoil the white-marble view of Ashgabat, – he said. – As a countermeasure, taxi drivers won’t ever vote for him.”
This was echoed by a 37-year-old man from the Gubadag village in Dashoguz region: “He promised us employment in our local districts. And? Instead, he has built the stadiums that are always empty, race tracks, theaters, museums, libraries and the Ruhyyet Palace, while people here cannot find jobs and have to relocate to Balkan region or Turkey to find employment. Two times I was deported from Ashgabat where I worked as a bricklayer on a construction site. And you think I will vote for him after that?”
Personal reasons to avoid elections were reported by a number of respondents. A pensioner from Turkmenbashi made the following point: “For the sake of cheap popularity and the praise from the World Health Organization, the President has started a kind of experiment on people who smoke, leaving us without access to cigarettes. I’ve been smoking for more than 40 years, tried to quit many times, but was not able to counter my addiction. And if we believe our newspapers, there are 8% of people like me in Turkmenistan. So it’s easy to calculate how many people he has left suffering without tobacco…”
Respondents who decided to vote against Berdymuhamedov tried to find their own reasoning, and this is what they said.
“During his 10-year reign, the prices for food, medicines, transport and communal services have increased manifold,” – says a villager from the Dashoguz region.
A respondent from Turkmenabat argued: “For his own protection, he has expanded the security services and vested them with full power over the society. They can do whatever they want now. They can throw anyone behind bars based on false testimonies, and there’s no one to complain to. Not a single prosecutor, not to mention judges or governors, is able to stop arbitrary actions of the unscrupulous MNS officers, because they all know that one day they could get into their grip themselves. Letters and wires addressed to the President are just sent down the chain of command and end up in the same institutions that you complain about.”
Similar response was given by a citizen from Lebap region. He thinks that MNS officers, simulating tireless activity, have imprisoned tens of innocent young people who had actually intended to live an upright life and keep a good conscience. “My nephew was one of them. We haven’t heard anything about him for four years.”
“It had not been easy during Niyazov’s rule, but it has become much worse under Berdymuhamedov. Nothing is simple anymore, everything is bustle or stress. Sending money to a student abroad – difficult. Getting money from abroad – much more difficult. Privatizing an apartment, re-issuing property documents, selling a house – everything is one big problem that you won’t resolve without proper connections or bribes,” – an Ashgabat resident said.
“He had promised us cheap and accessible internet. And what do we have now, 10 years after he was elected in 2007? The quality is still horrible, connection is unstable, providers don’t help you, the cost is already high, but they keep increasing it. Many of the interesting sites and social networks are blocked, and even VPN is out of reach now, meaning that you can’t bypass internet censorship anymore to read what other media write about Turkmenistan. All mobile communications are tapped and read by security services. A friend of mine had been active online, and her access to internet was blocked in November. She has been lodging complaints to various agencies for three months, to no avail. They have been giving her runaround answers – nobody is brave enough to say that MNS has just blocked her communications,” – a librarian from Ahal region said.
The survey showed that during Berdymuhamedov’s presidency the number of people who supported him has reduced in comparison to previous elections.
An Ashgabat entrepreneur is disappointed that the government had promised support to small and medium-sized business, while in reality they had been cutting off oxygen for any entrepreneurship: “If you have a ‘roof’ in law enforcement or you are related to Alexander Dadaev [Chairman of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs], or, better still, to the family of the President, your business will flourish, otherwise you just have to pay everyone and be happy with whatever piece of pie you can seize.”
Other respondents said about their reasons not to vote for Berdymuhamedov, but almost everyone mentioned the increased levels of corruption. More reasons included: “The healthcare system is in decay, you cannot find good specialists,” “If you are not a Turkmen, your child won’t be accepted in a higher education institution,” “They raise your salary by 10%, yet the prices grow much faster,” “Working on a farm won’t make you rich,” “It has become problematic to get in and out of the country,” “The rich get richer, while ordinary people live below the poverty line,” etc.
A market vender from Bayramali was even surprised to hear a question about his participation in the upcoming elections: “12 February is Sunday, it’s a big market day for us, and I’ll be sweating my guts out. Do you think I’d be wasting time on finding my voting station and trying to elect someone? No way, not a single tradesman would leave their spot to attend elections!”
Information collected by ATN cannot reflect the whole spectrum of social opinion before the presidential elections in Turkmenistan. However, it gives some indication about the general mood of the citizens. It would be naïve to hope that the electoral choices will be adequately reflected in voting results. Like Joseph Stalin once said, “It’s not the people who vote that count, it’s the people who count the votes.” Judging by the results of the previous elections, when Berdymuhamedov won more than 97% of the vote, Stalin’s words remain relevant to this day in Turkmenistan.