Turkmenistan’s E-Revolution

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by Joshua Foust on 7/8/2011 · 4 comments

Over the last few months, Turkmenistan has seen an explosion of new social groups forming online.

What is really important about these sites is that they are not blocked in Turkmenistan.* In fact, their accessibility reinforces the flow of Turkmenet users, who would otherwise be disinclined to use tools to bypass censors as IWPR reported back in April.

The Turkmenet is slowly but surely blossoming. For example, http://eyesinden.com, an established e-commerce site along the lines of bestbuy.com, has 50% of its visitors from within Turkmenistan, mainly Ashgabat, according to its administrator; likewise, the technology site http://tilsimat.net/ claims 20%…This makes me think that a new opportunity for engaging my countrymen may be emerging, and with it, perhaps a new strategy needs to be developed.

This is absolutely right on. And engaging with civil society groups is one of the most reliable and long-term sustainable ways of opening and transforming a culture. However, and this is where Annasoltan and I are in violent agreement, it must be done properly. For example, many civil society programs are not engagements, but rather dictations: do this, and do that, and then you’ll be just like us. They aren’t focused on helping the local culture be more like itself, but rather more like ourselves. That’s backward. Turkmenistan, like every other country in Central Asia, deserves its own culture, and the right to choose its own destiny. Allowing that to happen would require a substantial departure from the normal methods of engagement the west tends to use.

What’s so interesting about the current flowering of Turkmenet, as it’s being called, is how effective it can be at gathering information. For example, last night there was an appalling explosion at an arms depot outside of Ashgabat. If you’re reading the major news feeds, good luck getting much information: even the European press, which covers Central Asia with a depth the American press does not, often can’t get decent first-hand reporting (the AP has filed oddly vague dispatches from the capital, while the AFP has been running much more detailed copy).

While the wires did their usual work, Neweurasia.net offers a different picture of how Turkmenis themselves were trying to cover the disaster.

What was really striking about this experience was that those who were not on teswirler during the Internet blackout had no idea about the scope of the explosion and its resulting damage, due to the typical news blackout that follows any unexpected event or crisis in Turkmenistan; all they knew through rumors was that something terrible had happened — and boy, you can imagine the terrible imaginations let loose in such a situation.

Those of us online may not have been a whole lot better informed, but the simple act of crowdsourcing and discussing helped us maintain a grip on reality. This is an example of another side of social media, one that doesn’t happen often: how crowdsourcing information can sometimes actually act as a way to calm, concentrate and even organize scared people.

To someone in the west, who’s used to watching Twitter explode with news whenever something happens, this might seem like a tiny, almost insignificant development. It may be, but in the context of Turkmenistan it’s also very important. Change starts in small places, and watching the Turkmenis try to crowdsource coverage of this horrible disaster was, in its own way, heartening.

What is interesting now is what comes next. We can probably assume the government will not lean back in its collective chair and let this kind of social organization happen. But it’s also not clear how they might stop it: censorship, IP logging, and monitoring can be effective, but unless the activists behind this movement are removed from public discourse that won’t have much of an effect. Does Ashgabat have the technical wherewithal to coopt and corrupt social media the way states like Iran and China have tried to do? It remains to be seen. Either way, it will be fascinating to watch.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 4 comments }

Catherine Fitzpatrick July 8, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Joshua,

I’d have to dispute the premises of some of your grand theorizing here — and I’d start by asking you to click on every one of Annasoltan’s links in the article you reference here about the “new strategy” ostensibly needed (which I’ve disagreed with in the comments there).

They’re all dead. They don’t work. Some of the teswiler links work, but you need to speak Turkmen to participate in that very limited social grouping for the very few Internet connected in Turkmenistan.

It’s great that there are brave people getting the story out. But it’s important to note that they’re mainly getting the story out through chrono-tm.org, the independent web site run by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, and getting it out by a combination of old-fashioned land lines and cell phones. It’s not an opposition group (as you and Richard Orange and others keep branding it) but a human rights group. There really is an appreciable distinction here.

I really have to chuckle when you get all indignant about “doing civil right engagement *properly*” (emphasis added) and yet rant about these supposed other oppressors doing it “improperly” by “imposing”.

I’m trying to grasp what you all are imagining as these people “telling the Turkmen people what to do”. Could you point to a link of an actual article that does this? Who do you mean? Lecturing ex CIA officials ranting on RFE/RL? They’ve all died off long ago. Angry and frustrated USAID contractors? But they’ve almost all been been forced to leave Turkmenistan, and those who remain are incredibly supine and don’t ever say a thing publicly. Hmm, some hectoring NGO types with do-good missions? They’ve all left too, long ago. So who are these imposers, Joshua? They don’t exist.

Yeah, we get it that each of these countries is a special snowflake with its own language and culture and traditions. But they also have strong uniform Soviet-era traditions of police states that persist in each one of them in nearly identical patterns that people tend to discount because they think the Soviet Union “collapsed” and ceased its being.

And you know, the tendency in the modern world isn’t necessarily favouring the special snowflakes, i.e. the European Union. And there is such a thing as universality, and international human rights, and it’s ok to insist that countries that sign these obligations abide by them without whipping up a hysteria about “Western values” blah blah.

AP and AFP and such, if they are even in Ashgabat, given how nearly impossible it is for foreign reporters to work there, are probably unable to take a step without minders, and even if they slip them, to get on the road to Abadan and try to get interviews and pictures might be a near impossibility if soldiers have set up checkpoints everywhere. It reminds me of the constant naggy whine of the NGOs and “citizen journalists” during the Iran revolution in 2009 tweeting “CNN #fail”. Um, how was CNN supposed to get out of its hotel with its heavy cameras on its back…when it hadn’t even gotten a visa yet, or if it did, its crew was blocked by revolutionary guards?! It’s not necessary to bang on established media so mercilessly just to celebrate citizens who dare to take a cell phone picture out of their window before a sniper takes aim at them. You can have both.

As for this rather fatuous piece of breathless citizen journalism:

“What was really striking about this experience was that those who were not on teswirler during the Internet blackout had no idea about the scope of the explosion and its resulting damage, due to the typical news blackout that follows any unexpected event or crisis in Turkmenistan; all they knew through rumors was that something terrible had happened — and boy, you can imagine the terrible imaginations let loose in such a situation.”

I’ll go you one better. Those who *didn’t read Turkmen* wouldn’t know about it *either*.

And in fact, a lot of people were turning on the satellite TVs that still work, and watching Russian news, that still had the story, and if they had Internet access, reading Russian language sites or chrono-tm.org which is in three languages. In fact, here’s a pretty good report from news-asia.ru which I translated from Russian which was the first to get an eyewitness report after chrono-tm.org on the first day:

http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63829

There’s a real problem here with several phenomena I see colliding here in how you communicate with a closed society and how you work toward opening it, and what forces are useful for this process:

o a new generation of Central Asia correspondents from the West who don’t speak Russian, don’t read Russian, and think Russian is an artifact of the Soviet Empire hated by the local population, and who tend to Google-translate scornfully if they really get desperate, but who generally live outside the Russian media space — a Russian media space that local populations take for granted and to some extent even benefit from.

o a middle-aged generation of really good Russian-language correspondents, many associated with NGO movements who are very critical, who write for the best of the independent press, but who are never read by these newbie non-Russian CA correspondents and don’t get the attention they deserve

o state-sponsored mainstream Russian media, especially wire services like regnum.ru or RIA Novosti that more or less report accurate news, although sometimes selectively, and of course have their obvious biases, but tend to get the story way more than anyone else does because they have contacts in the MVDs of all the post-Soviet states — but who are discounted by the first and even the second group above

o various scholars and NGOs experts in regional languages who become cultural sherpas for the media and interested stakeholder and who insist on nativism and even nationalism in the face of what they see as Russian oppression, etc. and become very overprotective of their clients

o a belief by funders, scholars, pundits, NGOs that this region is one in which young people want English to be the lingua franca and not Russian — but a belief unencumbered by the realization that people don’t learn English so quickly or in such vast numbers as imagined, or learn a little Internet English at best, and still tend to know Russian a lot better.

Of course Turkmenistan, with Chinese and Iranian help, can do anything they need to do technically. Good Lord, did you forget that they shut off cell phone service for 2.4 million people last December “because a contract expired”?! What’s amazing after that bloodbath there are still people in Abadan that still had cell phones connected to anything and could still take pictures and send them out. Yet few would thank the Russian MTS for converting half the country of Turkmenistan to cell phone use.

BEgenc July 12, 2011 at 2:41 pm

It’s a sad tragedy of our time that an old guard of the traditional media with a monopolistic approach is defending at all costs her own business interests and that of her allies who are certainly to lose influence if the media situation improves in Turkmenistan because their experise would not be needed as much. Whereas Joshua is saying that the Turkmen social groups should be supported in their activities you are saying no there’s no such case as a growing online community. Shame on you. You are not a good model of Americans for Turkmenistan. Too sad that you seemingly consider reporting merely as a job. What do you yourself know about Turkmenistan? Do you know the Turkmen people, speak or read Turkmen or did you learn Turkmenistan through the Soviet studies? What is the thing that you are a “Turkmenistan reporter?” Who reads in Turkmenistan your analysis? Chronicles is copied in Turkmen social sites? The opposite is the case. Listen, chronicles has only a few reporters in Turkmenistan but the social sites are full of “citizen journalists” whose reports are copied the next day in rferl and chronicles website just they haven’t told you that. Have you realized that your friends in rferl don’t dare to state their opinion on major events in Turkmenistan? They are quoting the other people but they themselves have nothing to say, just that you don’t know about it. And why do you place those news sites against the social media? Can’t they co-exist? Is there no room for both of them to peacefully co-exist? Don’t you have enough publicity but want to get more? Do you want to divide the forces of democracy and weaken them ? What is your problem??? Persecution? So you are the objective and unbiased reporter?? You never heard about bias in media?? Or is that it only exists in such places like Turkmenistan? You criticize Turkmenistan for not being democratic but you don’t want the country to open up? Do you have your own reporting or just follow other sites? You criticize Turkmenistan for not being democratic but you don’t want the country to open up? Do you have your own reporting, interviews from Turkmenistan or do you follow other news agencies?

BEgenc July 12, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Whereas you see reporting merely as a job the Turkmen youth does not see themselves as reporters but they want to help and improve their society, want to do whatever they can that the young generation gets a chance for a better life in the future and your seem to say but it is not enough good enough what they are doing

Catherine Fitzpatrick July 14, 2011 at 4:32 am

Oh, stuff it, BEgenc, I’m no “old guard of the traditional media” and I don’t have any business interests, don’t be silly. I have several of my own independent blogs, I am an early adapter on Twitter since *2007* (when’s your join date?), I run Second Life servers, for Christ’s sake. All the news services I write for are non-profit operations, not businesses, and I don’t seek profit or influence whatsoever. Do you see the world in this skewed fashion because *you* do? Neither are available in the low-paid non-profit sector I work in, trust me on this.

Impugning malign motives to someone who merely criticizes a claim of “explosions of sites not blocked in Turkmenistan” when…they all seem to be blocked now…means you aren’t really a worthy interlocutor.

However, I’m going to look over your shoulder at other people reading registan.net and neweurasia.net and go to some length to answer you on my own blog because these are very important issues, that will shape the course of events in Turkmenistan and other countries similarly living under authoritarian regimes.

http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state/2011/07/did-turkmen-social-media-or-emigre-russian-and-western-media-shine-on-abadan.html

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