Berdimuhammedov’s suspicious plan for telecommunication privatization
Business and Economics, Media and Internet, Turkmenistan6 Comments
Editor’s note: The Turkmen government has announced plans to replace MTS with three supposedly private, independent telecoms, but both opponents of the regime and simple logic make the project seem highly dubious, reports neweurasia’s Annasoltan. “We might be seeing Evgeny Morozov’s thesis in ‘The Net Delusion’ confirmed,” she writes.
The suspension of operations at MTS (read here and here), the largest mobile phone service provider in Turkmenistan, on 21 December, has created a huge vacuum in the mobile phone service industry. Upwards to 2,5 million mobile customers, or roughly half of the country’s total population, have been without telephone, sms and internet services.
No official explanation for the closure has been given, but unconfirmed reports say that Ashgabat wanted to have a 51 percent stake in MTS, which the company simply could not do. There may have also been some ambivalence over foreign involvement in domestic affairs, some observers believe. Indeed, last week the president gave orders to officials to open at least three private national mobile phone service companies.
According to officials, Berdimuhammedov wants these new companies to be created jointly with more famous international telecommunications companies. At the same time, though, the “Turkmen people” must maintain over 50% ownership. Moreover, each company should operate under conditions of “market economy competition”, Turkmenistan’s reputation as a high risk state for foreign investors because of its lack of economic reforms and transparency notwithstanding. The president has dubbed this as-yet conceptual company “Galkynysh” (
Development Revival*) — a curious name for an ostensibly private business.
Is Galkynysh even feasible? Farid Tuhbatulin, the head of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, remarked to me that between the policy of nationalization and the huge amount of money needed to pay corrupt officials and security forces in order to keep business going, foreign companies would barely make any profit.
I think foreign companies will see that what’s going on behind the scenes of Galkynysh is a game Berdimuhammedov’s been playing since 2007, namely, shuffling his relatives into various lucrative business and governmental positions. “Niyazov was a lone leader. Berdimuhamedov has many relatives. Therefore, he would want to create more income [and it] doesn’t matter whether it’s a big or small company anymore, just more income,” says Tuhbatulin.
Still, those who are waiting impatiently for the return of their mobile and internet services have taken the president’s plan as a good sign, so long as it also brings about real improvement, an old demon of Turkmen telecoms. Skeptics, however, are concerned that the government may actually use these new companies to enact Draconian controls over the general population:
“MTS was an independent company following certain conditions and business practices that fell outside of the Turkmen government’s control,” Nurmuhammed Hanamov, the former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey and Israel, explains to me. “The new company is going to be different.”
“MTS brought many conveniences to the people’s life by offering a relatively high quality service and decent internet service. This brought some ease to the people’s lives, which the government didn’t like,” Abdulaziz, a member of Turkmenistan’s Islamist community, says to me. “The government wants to keep the people unaware of what’s happening in the world.”
“If a foreign company stays for a long time, the employees of the company would make contacts with the local population, which is unwanted by the government. And people who are interested in the internal situation in Turkmenistan may have benefited from the services of such a foreign company,” Abdulaziz adds.
With all that in mind, it seems the best case scenario is that these new companies just end up being cheap excuses for private, independent business, like the Rysgal for news. At worst, we might be seeing Evgeny Morozov’s thesis in The Net Delusion confirmed…
*Author’s update: “Galkynysh” should be translated as “Revival” instead of ” Development”, sorry. Moreover, “Galkynysh” is actually a slogan used by the government, e.g., “Galkynysh eyyami” (the Era of Revival) to explain Berdimuhamedov’s policies, which is why the name makes this plan even more suspect.