Following the death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on December 21, his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, is carefully opening his country’s Internet access to the outside world.
Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan had long been isolated from the World Wide Web. According to the Internet World Stats directory, Turkmenistan had only an estimated 36,000 Internet users, or 0.5% of the population in 2006 (internetworldstats.com/asia/tm.htm). In its 2006 report on human rights, the U.S. State Department noted that no new Internet accounts had been registered in Ashgabat since September 2002, and the country’s sole ISP provider, TurkmenTelecom, had blocked access to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service website (state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78845.htm).
TurkmenTelecom operates under a special department of the National Security Committee and reportedly tracks all visited websites, blocking certain sites and monitoring all private and business e-mail.
While campaigning for president, Berdimukhamedov promised to ease the country’s restrictive Internet policies. During his inauguration ceremony on February 14 Berdimukhamedov reiterated that the Internet would be available to all Turkmen citizens. Two days later two Internet cafes opened in the capital, Ashgabat, one in the Central Telephone Exchange and the other near the Ak Altyn hotel under the auspices of TurkmenTelecom as part of a broader project under the Ministry of Communications. Berdimukhamedov said, “Today, Internet cafes are starting to open in Ashgabat and other cities. At this moment, we are working on a program to extend Internet access to every school.” An official Turkmen government website discussing the project observed, “From now on any inhabitant of the country can become a user of the World Wide Web” (Turkmen State Information Agency, turkmenistan.gov.tm, February 16).
The cafes offer Internet-accessible computers where files can be downloaded and burned onto CDs, as well as supporting equipment such as printers, copiers, and scanners. Visitors can also read e-mail. Fifteen more Ashgabat Internet cafes are planned, with additional cafes across the country (Turkmenistan.ru, February 16).
Even with the new government facilities Internet access remains a major problem for aspiring Turkmen web surfers. Access currently costs more than $4 an hour, a princely sum in a country with an estimated 60% unemployment rate and an average annual income of $1,340 (CIA World Factbook 2007). In 2005 the United Nations estimated that 44% of Turkmenistan’s population lived on less than $2 per day; prevailing rates would therefore deny Internet access to all but a privileged, wealthy few (United Nations IRIN, September 5, 2005).
On the same day that the cafes opened, Berdimukhamedov met with Alexei Tikhomirov, head of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The Internet was high on the agenda, as both sides discussed further developing information-communication technologies in Turkmenistan. Tikhomirov subsequently told reporters, “I am happy with the results of talks. I am confident that close cooperation between the UN and Turkmenistan will help the successful fulfillment of the large-scale tasks that the new president has set before himself and the entire nation” (Turkmenistan.ru, February 16).
Such relative openness, however limited, is a substantial about-face for Turkmenistan. Niyazov’s government earlier had an unhappy experience with the Internet, when in 1998 London-based NetNames persuaded him to sell top-level “.tm” Internet domain names for a percentage of the profits. NetNames argued that companies would rush to embrace the domain, as “tm” represents “trademark” in the West. After selling more than 4,000 domain names Niyazov pulled the plug on the project, as he was offended by certain registrations, such as “pizza,” which he found uncomfortably close to the Russian word for female genitalia (Wired, May 11, 1998; ZDNet Australia, March 12, 2003).
China will have an edge over all other trading competitors if Berdimukhamedov remains worried about the more lurid aspects of the Internet. China’s Golden Shield Project currently operates sophisticated software allowing Chinese routers to already block 750,000 websites. According to noted science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, “Turkmenistan went on the Internet and hired China to build a local franchise of the Great Internet Wall of China,” a view reportedly quietly whispered on Ashgabat’s streets by the capital’s tiny Internet-savvy minority (“Summary of the Freedom to Connect Conference by Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic,” March 30, http://www.isp-planet.com/politics/2007/sterling_tesanovic_f2c.html)
Still, Turkmenistan is belatedly giving its population a chance to interact with their peers worldwide. On March 6 Internet trackers comScore Networks announced that 747 million people over the age of 15 worldwide used the Internet in January 2007, a 10% increase over the same period a year ago (comscore.com). Hopefully the figures for 2008 will include substantially more than 36,000 Turkmen citizens.