The signal of freedom, part 4: Berdimuhammedov knows why the caged bird sings
Editor’s note: Turkmenistan’s Berdimuhammedov has banned FaceBook, Twitter, and YouTube. 3G access in the country is now an absurdity, reports neweurasia’s Annasoltan. “Evidently the regime is learning how the brave new cybernetic world operates,” she writes. “There is now a quiet but very real struggle going on over Turkmenistan’s digital destiny, but it’s only a matter of time before the digital and the real collide.“
Berdimuhamedov has decided that he’s not going to follow the examples of Medvedev and Putin to set up a FaceBook followers page or a fan club, tweet like Chavez, or anything else social media/Web 2.0-related. Instead, he has decided to block FaceBook altogether, and YouTube along with it, to customers of the state telecom, Altyn Asyr.
This is the latest blow to the burgeoning Turkmenet, which I’ve been covering since it began expanding last year. The launch of the country’s first telecom satellite and the expansion of wireless access seemed as though Turkmenistan was on the brink of a new era. Indeed, criticism of the government began to markedly increase on online forums, especially during the swine flu hysteria.
3G’s arrival in March seemed like the process was going to ratchet up, but so far it has actually been a disappointment. First, customers rushed to stores in their towns to apply for access only to learn that it was restricted to the capital. Then Ashgabat’s netizens complained about the slow connection speed, which fell from 3mbps in April to a meager 50 kbps in May. This has defeated the very purpose of having 3G, such as watching streaming videos.
Evidently the regime, which initially seemed either uncharacteristically sincere in its attempts to liberalize internet access or simply caught off guard by its own policies, is learning how the brave new cybernetic world operates. Berdimuhammedov et al do not like what they are discovering. There is now a quiet but very real struggle going on over Turkmenistan’s digital destiny — with very real world repercussions.
Just to review, until 3G’s arrival in March, the internet in Turkmenistan was very slowly but steadily developing. First Berdimuhammedov made his bold promise to modernize communications in Turkmenistan in February 2007. Then in 2008, the Russian company Mobile Tele Systems (MTS) began offering internet service to mobile subscribers via GPRS as well as WAP services on mobile phones. In the same year, the state-owned Turkmen Telecom began to connect private citizens to the internet for the first time.
Since August 2009, private internet users in Ashgabat began accessing the internet via ADSL; prior to then, ADSL had remained the playground of the governing elite and banks. This was followed by the launch of 3G service this past March by TM Cell or Altyn Asyr (Golden Age), a subsidiary of Turkmen Telekom, the primary provider of public telephony. Until now, it seemed that Berdimuhammedov, remarkably, was keeping his word; with each step forward he weakened suspicions of his sincerity, even my own.
So, what happened? On the one hand, I believe that Berdimuhamedov et al view the internet simply as a propaganda tool both domestically and internationally. The regime can now boast that, in comparison to the bad old days of Niyazov when internet access was an elite privilege, electronic “freedom” and “modernization” have come to Turkmenistan. But it’s all as illusory as a screen saver.
On the other hand, to paraphrase the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the regime knows why the caged bird tweets — the people of Turkmenistan are getting restless for real freedom. And indeed, the Turkmenet, despite its brief existence, has become very tech savvy. Our nation’s netizens will find ways around the firewalls and communicate with the outside world. Unless every computer and mobile phone in the country is destroyed, it’s only a matter of time before the digital and the real collide.