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Pioneering the Turkmennet, part 3: a world of possibilities

Turkmenweb's servers. Photo from the Tmhits blog.

Turkmenweb's servers. Photo from the Tmhits blog.

Editor’s note: neweurasia’s Annasoltan concludes her conversation with Turkmen entrepreneur Muhammed Mamedov, turning to the subject of Turkmenistan’s internet environment and its authoritarian practices. “I don’t agree that the environment isn’t internet friendly, at least not for what I am doing,” he says. “I can build online communities, news websites, anything I want.”

Welcome back to my interview with Muhammed Mamedov, the self-proclaimed “pioneer” of the Turkmennet, and indeed, a man with good credentials for the title. In the first introductory part, Mamedov and I talked generally about the role of his company, Turkmenweb, in establishing the online Turkmen community. In the second part, we discussed in detail his main breadwinner, Tmhits (http://www.tmhits.com), and his plans for the future. And now, in this, the final part, we turn to what I think is the most interesting question of all — his views on Turkmenistan’s internet and business environment.

neweurasia: How would you describe Turkmenistan’s internet potential?

Mamedov: Two years ago, Turkmenistan was not even among the top 10 countries from which people were accessing Tmhits. Now it is among the top five, not to mention the Turkmens in Russia, Turkey, and the United States who are accessing it and who will occupy the top rank in a few years.

What is most essential is that the web users are increasing in numbers in Turkmenistan and that there is a new potential there. The government clearly showed that they are willing to open the society by bringing even faster internet service, opening internet cafes, and allowing almost everyone to own a cell phone now. Every cell phone has MTS 3G Internet, so virtually anyone can go online. It’s a little expensive still, but I think it will improve. [Editor's note: Unfortunately, that's not the case. Read Annasoltan's ongoing coverage of Turkmenistan's travails with 3G access here.]

Today, if you give Turkmenistan the fastest internet possible, people won’t know what to do with it besides a few who are already experienced. So, I think society should come to the internet step by step. When I go there and talk about the internet, how we pay bills online and how I buy music online, some people don’t get it. It’s understandable but in no way interferes with what I want to do.

neweurasia: Have you ever had any negative experiences with the authorities?

Mamedov: While some sites have been blocked in Turkmenistan, throughout the years we haven’t experienced such problems. [Our] Turkmenistan websites aren’t blocked and [in general] there are only very few websites that are blocked and that’s it. As you know, nothing can be blocked on the internet. There are thousands of ways getting around such restrictions. And things are getting better. The government laid fiber optic cables around Ashgabat, and they invested in infrastructure very rapidly and intensively.

neweurasia: This year, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) listed Turkmenistan once again among the worst enemies of the Internet. What do you think about that?

Mamedov: I don’t agree that the environment isn’t internet friendly, at least not for what I am doing. I can build online communities, news websites, anything I want. And once I’m back in Turkmenistan, I think the government is going to back me up. I made my internship at Turkmen Telekom when I was undergrad student, so I know that government means good on internet and communication. But of course, companies like me have a lot to do.

neweurasia: It’s hard to believe that the Turkmen authorities won’t penalize your company if they discover content they don’t like on any of your sites.

Mamedov: On Tmchat we are not doing things that the Turkmen government wouldn’t like. Sometimes in our forums people discuss politics, but we still don’t experience any problems because we ourselves are apolitical. Since we started in 2000, none of our sites have been blocked. Tmchat was the most visited place until last year — you can see how many posts are there — but [there wasn't any problems].

If the projects are good, the Turkmen government allows them. I’m more into music projects and in general we’re working on projects that will make revenue.

neweurasia: If all that’s really so, then why are there so few Turkmen blogs?

Mamedov: I think one of the reasons is that people are used to Russian content. Nobody did a seriously good job in Turkmenistan, that’s why you won’t see people in Turkmen blogs. When you say “internet”, people think of chats and mail.ru, and we need to change that. In terms of web development, we need to bring in bright people. A lot of people who study abroad don’t come back.

I think a lot is possible now in Turkmenistan. It’s not like 10 years ago. I’m looking at the bright side of it. Even in a country like the US, in some counties they still use dial-up! Can you believe that? Only big cities have good speeds here.

neweurasia: To conclude, one of my frustrations as a Turkmen journalist is our homeland’s very dark news situation. Do you have any news projects in development?

Mamedov: One of my near future projects is to fill the people’s hunger for information and news. There’s a lot lot to do there and we are working on ideas on how to make the people themselves write. Hopefully you’ll see a different Tmhabar soon, or maybe another domain name. [Editor's note: Tmhabra (http://www.tmhabar.com/) is Turkmenweb's news portal service.] It’s a world of possibilities that I am trying to bring. We’ll see.

Author’s note: I wish Mamedov and Turkmenweb luck in their endeavors!

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