Christopher Benitez Cuartas
The government of Turkmenistan continues to claim it is free of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite growing backlash from opposition groups abroad and a visit from the World Health Organization (WHO). The Central Asian former Soviet Republic is one of nine nations that has yet to report a single COVID-19 case, according to ABC News. The other countries on this list include North Korea along with seven island and archipelago nations in the South Pacific, whose geographic isolation has served as an advantage. In July, a delegation of investigators from the WHO arrived in Ashgabat, where local officials denied the presence of the virus in the country, according to Radio Free Europe. Exiled members of the Turkmen political opposition, mostly based in Turkey and Russia, claim that as many as 25,000 may have died due to the virus; statistics the government is actively trying to suppress, Radio Free Europe continues.
The international delegation was led by Catherine Smallwood, a regional official of the WHO for Europe. In an interview with BBC News, Smallwood stressed the need to, “build dialogue” as opposed to, “make statements that may not in fact lead to the type of actions that we would want to see.” Nonetheless, Smallwood states that, “from the scientific point of view, it’s unlikely that the virus is not circulating in Turkmenistan,” according to Radio Free Europe. The Regional Director Hans Kluge landed in Ashgabat in November 14 to follow up on the visit, stating on Twitter that one of his goals is checking for full international health regulations compliance.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has been in power since 2006 and has led a regime that many in Central Asia and the West characterize as authoritarian and autocratic, Reports of COVID-19 in the country were dismissed by Berdimuhamedov as “fake” and a result of political mudslinging. The initial justification for the biosecurity measures, such as mask-wearing, in place was for “deadly dust from the Aral Sea,” which was addressed in an open letter to the WHO by Turkmen dissenters.
Turkmen and Russian state security are believed to be working together to silence key dissenters. Coda reports that Rozgeldy Choliev, a Turkmen student and online anti-Berdimuhamedov activist in Russia, was apprehended in a Moscow airport after arriving from Istanbul. Berdimuhamedov is also known to run a personality cult, erecting a giant statue of himself on horseback in the capital of Ashgabat, prohibiting people from dying their hair grey in certain provinces and government posts, and promoting bicycle rides, according to Radio Free Europe. One of those rides broke a Guiness World Record in 2019, in an attempt by the president to gain attention on the world stage and distract from a rather dire human rights situation.
The image of a healthy nation is a constant in the Turkmen propaganda program, according to BBC News, with a state-sponsored exercise video being mocked online. BBC News continues that the regime saw its ‘healthy image’ tarnished last year when a Turkish diplomat fell sick while in the state. Instead of providing the necessary medical attention, Turkmen authorities delayed transporting him to a medical facility in Turkey until shortly after the diplomat died, an incident that both Turkmenistan and Turkey have largely ignored.
Turkmenistan is currently distributing SputnikV, Sinovac, and Sinopharm vaccines to its citizens, with 7 million inoculated, according to the country’s self-reports to the WHO. This figure contradicts the population estimated count of 6.2 million. Radio Free Europe explains that a recent mass exodus from the country means that currently, less than three million people may actually be living in the country.