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February 13 2014

Did Turkmenistan Get Cold Feet Before the Sochi Winter Olympics?

There were many plans to send a team from Turkmenistan to the Winter Olympics 2014 in Sochi, but none of them materialized.

“We will certainly take advantage of the Russian invitation to take part in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, for which it is necessary to begin the appropriate preparations already today,” President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov said back in 2007. 

In the event, Turkmens awaiting the appearance of their national team in Sochi saw only their president at the star-studded opening ceremony. 

CA all

President Berdymuhamedov (top left corner) greets Kazakh athletes.
Caption from BBC coverage of the opening ceremony.

Turkmen netizens have been fairly active in their discussion of the Sochi Olympics. On etir.com, a micro-blogging service, many expressed a sense of envy towards the President, as well as surprise not to see a single participant from Turkmenistan. ‘A MEMORY' comments [tr]:

Ýa nesip!

Lucky him!

Berdymuhamedov, who has taken a back seat in the sporting stakes ever since an infamous face-plant took the sheen off an otherwise uncontested victory in a horse race back in Ashkhabad, pleased many by attending the games in a business suit rather than a sport suit. NepesX joked [tr]:

yarysha gatnasmasa bolyala

as long as he doesn’t participate in the race, it’s alright

At the same time visitors to the opposition website chrono-tm stressed the deterioration of the country's youth as the main reason for the absence of Turkmen athletes at the Olympics.

‘Sochustvushii’ [Сочувствующий] comments [ru]:

А кого посылать вся молодёж сидит на норкате тесты на употребление допинга из туркмении никто не пройдёт

There is no one to send [to the Olympics]. All young people use drugs. No one in Turkmenistan will pass the doping tests.

Turkmenistan had built a fine winter stadium in 2011, and seemed on the cusp of entering their first winter games, so their non-entry is even more perplexing.

Jorabay asked [ru] hopefully:

Pochemu turkmenskix hockeistow ne otpravit’ w sleduyuschiy raz — w 2018 godu?

Why not send Turkmen hockey players for next Olympics in 2018?

And ‘lale' took solace [ru] in the country's hotter climate:

Zima y nas teplaya …vot pochemy nety spotsmenov k zimney Olimpiade,

Our winter is warm…this is why we have no winter athletes.

‘Anonim’ [Аноним] disagrees:

скоро подрастут фигуристы и хоккеисты …. а так больше не вижу ни в каких вида спорта переспектив

 Soon our figure skaters and hockey players will come of age…Other than that I don't see any other promising types of sports [for us].

Turkmenistan has a sport and health-oriented public policy. The country is preparing to hold the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games and is building an Olympic Village. The country’s ambitions also include hosting the Asian games and Olympics in 2023.

These occasions would certainly give the country with the fourth largest gas reserves in the world a chance to show off its wealth, but one gets the impression that for all the records he has won in his own country, what President Berdymuhamedov craves more than anything else in the world is that elusive Turkmen Olympic medal. So far the republic's forgettable record at the games reads: Entered 5, Won 0. 

August 12 2013

Turkmenistan's “Book of the Soul” Facing Difficult Times

Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's first President-for-Life, once suggested that reading his “Ruhnama” (“The Book of the Soul”) three times would be enough to guarantee a person's place in heaven. But with the isolated republic now ruled by a different strongman, eager to put his own stamp on Turkmen life, the Ruhnama's place in society is looking ever less prominent.

Despite Turkmenistan having an 80% Muslim population, the Ruhnama, a book on public mores that Niyazov, who died in December 2006, supposedly authored, was once promoted by state officials as being an equal of the Holy Koran. Mass media regularly quoted the book, as did schoolchildren, foreign investors and anyone that wanted to pass a driving test.

President Niyazov (right) authored the Ruhnama, but the book seems to be getting in the hair of President Berdymuhamedov (left), despite Berdymuhamedov kissing the text at his inauguration. Remixed image published on the Turkmen Chronicles news blog.

When it was first published in 2001, the book was portrayed by the government as a source of spiritual guidance and national identity for a society still struggling with the ideological vacuum left behind by the Soviet Union. As its role grew, however, it quickly came to be viewed as just another cog in Nizazov's personality cult, a personality cult that rivaled Stalin's, Mao's and Kim Jong-il's in pomp and audacity.

Although many historians dispute the accuracy of the book's vision of Turkmen history, the message from President Niyazov on the inlay leaves little room for interpretation:

The Ruhnama has absorbed the five thousand year history of our nation, the pearls of its wisdom, philosophy, mentality, its dreams and aspirations, unique culture and lifestyle, as well as its rich inner world.

The Rise and Rise of the Ruhnama

Within a couple of years of the Ruhnama's release it had become national dogma. Vilages and streets were named after the text, and a large statue of the book was built in the center of the capital, Ashkhabad. Every Saturday was proclaimed the day of Ruhnama and September 12 was celebrated as Ruhnama Day, one of the most important in the pantheon of Turkmen public holidays.

Furthermore, foreign investors such as DaimlerChrysler, Siemens and Bouygues International began promoting and translating the Ruhnama into foreign languages in order to curry favour with Niyazov and gain access to the Turkmen market. The producers of Shadow of the Holy Book, a 2007 documentary on the Ruhnama, asked the same question to several of the world's largest multinational companies: Why support a dictatorship by translating a book that oppresses its own population? [Watch full documentary here]. The book has now been translated into 41 languages.

Schoolchildren and university students in particular were forced to study the Ruhnama every day. As Surat Ajdarova recalled in an opinion piece on Fergana news:

It was mandatory to read the Ruhnama in schools, universities and governmental organizations. New governmental employees were tested on the Ruhnama at the job interview and even at [their] driver’s tests.

Is Turkmenistan waving goodbye to its soul?

Copies of the Ruhnama are still widely available in Turkmenistan, but as Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, Turkmen president since Niyazov's death and self-appointed “protector” of the Turkmen people has sought to bolster his own public profile [GV] the Ruhnama is no longer the omnipresence it once was. In 2011, for instance, Eurasianet.org reported that the Turkmen government had decided to remove the requirement to pass an exam in Ruhnama knowledge for secondary school students.

A statue of the Ruhnama in  Turkmenistan (Wikimedia commons)

While at the beginning of this month, The Times of Central Asia reported a further blow to the book's status:

A new curriculum prepared by the Turkmen Education Ministry for secondary schools for the coming school year does not include the study of Ruhnama…It means that from September 1, Turkmen school students will no longer study the “sacred book” written by Saparmurat Niyazov, late President for Life of Turkmenistan.

For the most part, the news was received positively by commentators on the diaspora-run Turkmen Chronicles News blog, a reader called Turkmen rejoicing [ru]:

Слава Аллаху!!! Хоть что-то полезное от Аркадага!

Praise Allah!! This is at least one thing that The Protector has got right!

Another user, Leto, waxed philosophical [ru] over the possible legacies of personalized rule in Turkmenistan:

как потом нашим потомкам изучать эпоху туркменбаши? или ее не было? или стыдно будет перед потомками что вообще такое было и теперь продолжается

How will our descendants remember the era of Turkmenbashy [Father of the Turkmen - Niyazov's favourite title]? Or perhaps it never happened? Or will we be ashamed before our descendants that such [an era] even existed and that it continues on to this day?

Anonymous suggested [ru] sarcastically that a host of recently published books connected to the current president could soon be appearing on school syllabi, reflecting the transition from one cult of personality to another:

будут изучать «Верный сын Родины. Дело всей жизни Мяликгулы ага», «Педагог, воин, гражданин. Жизнь-подвиг Бердымухамеда Аннаева», «Имя доброе нетленно», «Ахалтекинец — наша гордость и слава», «Туркмения — страна здоровых и высокодуховных людей»

Now they are going to learn “True Son of the Homeland. The Life Works of Mayalikgul Aga” [a biography of President Berdymuhamedov's grandfather], “Teacher, Soldier, Citizen, The Life of Burdymuhamed Annaev” [a biography of President Berdymuhamedov's father], “A Good Name Doesn't Perish” [a novel purportedly written by Berdymuhamedov], “Akhal-Tekke Horses – Our Pride and Salvation” [Berdymuhamedov's book on the famous horses that hail from his home region], “Turkmenistan – a Country of Healthy and Spiritually Advanced People” [Berdymuhamedov's Ruhnama-like treatise on Turkmen culture and traditional knowledge].

In yet another move that can be perceived as aiming to dilute the influence of the Ruhnama, Berdymuhamedov has repeatedly stressed Turkmenistan's debt to Magtymguly Pyragy, an 18th century poet and spiritual leader born in what is now northeastern Iran. Commenting under an article about the president's promotion of Magtymguly over the Ruhnama on RFE/RL's Turkmen service, a user called Rayat welcomed [Tkm] the “rotting away” of a text that once dominated everyday existence in the country:

Fa$istba$ynyñ absurt ruhnamasyda ozi yaly cüyräp gider. Halk hakykaty bilyar.

Fascist-bashi's [reference to Niyazov] absurd Ruhnama ideology is rotting away just as he himself decays into the ground. The people will discover the truth.

 

July 22 2013

Turkmenistan's Internet Blues

Turkmenistan is infamous for its tightly controlled media, and is one of the world's greatest Internet Enemies by Reporters Without Borders’ estimations. With the average Turkmen finding his or her Internet access intermittent, slow, and tightly circumscribed, it is perhaps unsurprising that cyber-optimism among Turkmen internet users is running at an all time low.

Turkmenistan has had official access to the Internet since 1997. Non-mobile internet services are dominated Turkmen Telecom, while mobile services are provided by Russian mobile operator MTS and its Turkmen competitor, Altyn Asyr. (A host of smaller independent Turkmen Internet Service Providers were strong-armed out of the market at the turn of the century). Altyn Asyr and Turkmen Telecom are both overseen by the Ministry of Communications, and are thus unflinchingly loyal to the country's body politic. Censorship is ubiquitous and extensive across the country.

Those lucky enough to have access to Altyn Ayr's service consent tacitly to blanket surveillance and selective access to non-Turkmen websites. Reporters Without Borders conveys [ru]:

Оппозиционные сайты, такие как XpoHo.tm и Gundogar, а также региональные информационные сайты по Центральной Азии – Ferghana или EurasiaNet.org – заблокированы. Доступ к YouTube и LiveJournal стал невозможен в конце 2009 года, с целью помешать туркменам вести общение в блогах или отправляать видео за границую Facebook и Twitter до сих пор заблокированы.

Opposition websites such as Chrono-TM and Gundogar, and regional news sites covering Central Asia such as ferghana.ru and Eurasianet, are blocked. YouTube and LiveJournal were rendered inaccessible late in 2009 to prevent Turkmen from blogging or sending videos abroad. Facebook and Twitter are also blocked.

Under a Voice of America article about censorship in Central Asia in November last year, Аноним [Anonym] vented [ru]:

Цензура в Туркменистане это вообще полный крах. Закрывают не только сайты новостей, но закрыты: ютуб, фэйсбук, а также все распространенные месенджеры. На сегодня закрыты: whatsapp, Jabber (все что работают на его протоколе), Viber, iMesege и куча других. А потом удивляются что так хреново развивается интернет в стране… Да нафиг он кому нужен если там ничего не открывается и не работает?

Censorship in Turkmenistan is awful. Not only [independent] news sites but YouTube, Facebook and all the usual messengers are closed. Nowadays whatsapp, Jabber, Viber, iMessage and others [are closed]. And then we wonder why the internet that develops in the country is so shitty… who needs it at all if none of these things work?

In fact, YouTube, and the Russian social network Odnoklasniki are two sites that Turkmen netizens can currently access, but the slow speed of the average Tukmen internet connection renders this “access” hypothetical. Another anonymous commenter complained on fergananews [ru]:

Все равно ютуб со скоростью 33-44кб/с невозможно смотреть.

Anyway, YouTube at 33-44 Kb/s is impossible to watch.

What’s up with netizens?

State censorship over the internet is cynical, but not shocking to most Turkmens. The regular internet using demographic is school teenagers and university students who study both inside and outside the country. Thoughts and comments expressed on most Turkmen websites regarding the internet are usually negative. Some users such as as muslimah, writing on a privately owned forum Ertir.com, conceive the internet as an infectious disease, and are actively looking for a remedy to recover and be well again [tm]:

 Salam,shu internetden nadip ayrylyp bolyaray?ine okuw bashlandy,okap bashlamaly welin hich internetden ayrylyp bolanok,erte okarn diyyan her gun,ka wagt bolya yarym sagat oturayyn diyyan welin ondan buna girip butin gun otyranyny bilman galyan :(

Hi, how can I set myself free from the internet? A semester starts, and I have to study, but I cannot separate myself from internet, it is an obstacle and addictive that I spend my whole day without knowing the passage of time :(

First-graders

First graders risk “Internet Disease”. Photo form Golden Age of Turkmenistan (state-controlled media) shared via Eurasianet.org's Sifting the Karakum blog.

Feya gives a prescription [tm]:

Internet keseli mana-da on degdi, hiich ayrylyp bilemmokdum. indi beyle dal. Men pikirimcha hemme zat adamyn ozine bagly. Bir zady chynyn bilen islesen shony basharyp bolya. Internede girmejek bolsan gyzykly kitap oka, wagtyny bashga zada sowjak bol son owrenship gidersin, we mohum at dal bolup galar.

Once I was also infected with internet disease, i couldn't get well for a long time. Now I have recovered. Everything is in your hands, you can do it too. Read some interesting books, and do some other activities. Then, the Internet would seem not such an important thing in your life.

For females, internet-use can be regarded as immoral and against Turkmen tradition. Another internet user, posting as Skynet on RFE/RL's Turkmen service,  expressed [tm] his thoughts under an article ‘Internetde oturýar’ adyny alasym gelenok [I do not want to be called an "internet user"]:

Internet gyzlary sheylebir uytgetdi edil oglanlary uytgedishi yaly.erbetlige tarap uytgetdi.hazir yashlar inet bn dem alyalar.ahli adamlar internet kerebine(shol sanda menem) cholashyp chykyp bilenoklar.adamzadyn ahli dunyasi,ekonomikasy,politikasy,medeniyeti,mashgala durmushy yitip yok bolmaga bashlady.munun dine bir gunakari bar olam internet-skynet

Internet also changed our girls as it previously did boys. and it changed them in negative way. They breathe through the internet. Now all people are trapped in the internet's web (including me). It starts eradicating all our social, economic, political, and family life. So we do not need it.

Turkmenistan's internet blues can be attributed partly to the limited and “homegrown” nature of the Turkmen internet and partly to a lack of education about cyberspace and technology as a whole. Although the government marked the first day of the 2012 school calendar by giving free net-books to all first graders, there is an acute shortage of tech-savvy teachers to help them use their new toys.

Ruslan T, a blogger and journalist at the independent, diaspora-run Turkmen Chronicles news website wrote in a blog titled “Useless Gift”:

It should be noted that the majority of elementary school teachers have attended training sessions at computer centers and acquired [basic] computer literacy skills. However, only a few of them have managed to pass these skills on to their students. It is just [not within] the professional competencies of teachers.

July 05 2013

J. Lo’s Performance at Birthday Bash Prompts Criticism of Turkmen President

Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov got a fine 56th birthday present at the end of last month in the form of a concert starring Jennifer Lopez held at Turkmenistan's $2 billion state palace. But many ordinary Turkmens registered disgust at the display of opulence in a country where the average salary hovers around $200 per month.

Turkmen singers also performed at the June 28 concert. Performers thanked the leader for his tremendous accomplishments and the refrain “Arkadaga şöhrat!” (Great Majesty Protector!) was repeated again and again during the celebrations. For her part, J-Lo screamed “TURKMENISTAN” into the microphone and sang Happy Birthday Mr. President. Several outlets reported that her presence was paid for by one of China's leading energy companies China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) in their attempts to woo the gas-rich republic. Lopez later denied knowledge of Turkmenistan's appalling human rights record via her publicist.

 

 

Among commentators on the Turkmen Chronicles newsblog, a site run by Turkmen exiles, the harshest criticism  was reserved not for J-Lo but Berdymuhamedov and his alleged use of public assets for personal pleasure.

Pippa commented [ru]:

Гореть этому Чурбангулы в огне за то,что ворует народные деньги.А певцам продажным эти деньги счстья не принесут…

That Gurbanguly should burn for stealing public money. And this stolen money will not not bring happiness to these singers…

Another commentator, “halk” expressed indignation [tm]:

halkin sheydip dashari yurtlarda sürenip yör sen utonman doglangünü lopezi çagir . eşiden üssünden gülyar görümsüz . sen utanmasanam men utanyanm sen hakinda gürrün edilende.)

The [Turkmen] people are having a hard time finding work and studying abroad, but you have no shame in inviting Lopez to your birthday. Everyone is laughing at us. If you don't feel ashamed, I will feel ashamed for you. )

One popular rumor is that J.Lo was paid $1.5 million for her short performance. Anonim posted [ru]:

1,5 МЛН.$ ЕЙ ДАЛИ ГОВОРЯТ.

It is said that she was payed $1.5 million

It has also been assumed here, here and here that J-Lo's Turkmenistan debut was sponsored by China's energy giant CNPC, a state-owned company that has already invested billions of US dollars on gas extraction in the eastern part of the country.

Jlo

Jennifer Lopez (image via wikimedia, creative commons)

While some netizens were comforted by the idea that J-Lo's performance was coming out of CNPC's pocket, rather than Turkmenistan's budget, many others felt sure that it was just a way to secure an even larger stake in the country's gas sector at a knockdown price.

Atsyz supported [tm] the decision to get J-Lo on board:

Kakoyta bir guramanyn Turkmenistana beryan bahasy hic kime gerekdal , Oz yurtlaryny onarsynlar ! … CNPC getiren bolsa name erbet zady bar !)

All these organizations that criticize Turkmenistan should focus on their own country! If CNPC sponsored [the performance], why worry – what is bad about this !)

Generalitet responded [tm]

(CNPC turkmen halkynyn etini iyyp, shol puly 10 gezek kopeldip alayr! Berdy…bolsa shona yol beryar.)

(CNPC sucks our blood, and it will get 10 times more money back! [President] Berdy closes his eyes to that fact.)

Another Atsyz got mad at what the first Atsyz wrote and tried [tm] to make it clear that in the final reckoning, the money to pay for J-Lo was still coming out of Turkmenistan:

(CNPC on ucin cykaran puluny esselap ogurlap alar. makow bolma bu zatlan name ucin edilyandigini bilenokmy)

(CNPC will get several times that money back. do not be stupid. why can't you see the motives behind this action)

George Camm, who blogs at eurasianet.org, analyzed why CNPC might offer J.Lo as a bribe to the Turkmen leader. China is enormously dependent on external sources of energy, writes Camm and Turkmenistan sits on the fourth-largest known gas reserves in the world. For Turkmenistan, China is an excellent option to diversify gas exports.

Camm added:

Importantly for Berdymukhamedov, the [CNPC sponsored] pipeline helps him diversify: Previously most of Turkmenistan’s gas infrastructure pointed toward Russia, where it was bought at discount rates.

Unlike western states, China also helps the Turkmen government by ignoring Ashkabad's flagrant human rights abuses, manipulated elections, restricted freedom of speech, and serious issues with the rule of law.

Over at the Turkmen Chronicles news blog Aman aga concluded [tm]:

Atsyzjan ilki bir sol aydymcylary arkayyn otyryp dinlar yaly dereja yetmelimika diyyan ya yalnysmyka men pikirim,hazir bize geregi yok onyaly shagalan, halk ucin edilmeli zat kop, asla aydym sazyn wagty dal)

We are not ready for listening to music in Turkmenistan right now, we have many serious issues that must be dealt with, and if you understand reality, you will know it is not a time to throw parties.

On July 4 Human Rights Watch suggested Jennifer Lopez should donate the proceeds from her part in Berdymuhamedov's birthday bonanza to charity. The singer is yet to respond to the offer.

May 10 2013

Turkmen Pop Music: Make Love, Not Politics

In Turkmenistan, pop musicians tread a difficult path between carving out a distinctive image for themselves and ensuring they don't fall foul of the state. (more…)

October 27 2012

Turkmenistan at Twenty-One: Double Holiday and Thaw with Russia

Turkmenistan marks its Independence Day on October 27. Every year, the celebrations of the country's main holiday become more and more stupendous, with the authorities eager to demonstrate the pyrotechnic and other technological advances brought to the country in the period that is officially referred to as the “Golden Age“.

Last year the government put on an impressive laser show. The nuts and bolts of the show were supplied by a Chinese company which built a huge screen consisting of 2,000 square meters of LED panels with an enormous eight-angle star in the middle to aid the celebrations (watch the video below).

Double holiday

This year, Independence Day arrived on the same day as Gurban Baýramy (aka Eid al-Adha). These two public holidays are very popular in Turkmenistan. Thus, internet users in the country were keen to exchange mutual greetings and warm wishes.  For example, akylym1990 wrote [tr] on the popular youth chat group Teswirler:

Biziñ ilde gosha baýram gosha toý! Åhli watandashlarymy ýetip gelýän baýramlary bilen gutlaýan!!!

Our nation has a double holiday, a double celebration! [I wish] all my fellow compatriots happy coming holidays!!!

Still, as noted by Ruslan T. on Chrono-Tm, an independent information service set up by Turkmen expatriates, preparations for the Independence Day are always fairly totalitarian in scope:

“…the number of ceremonial events is not limited to the aforementioned 70 [events announced by the government]. The number of festivities organized by local authorities in the provinces, NGOs, regional offices of ministries and agencies is countless. Mass participation needs to be demonstrated in all television broadcasts…Large-scale participation is staged by schoolchildren, students and employees of state-owned organizations, the number of which is limited. This crowd of people is sent from one event to another while TV crews make TV coverage in advance in order to show the entire country rejoicing during celebrations of Independence Day…”

“Thaw” in relations with Russia

This year, the Independence Day also comes at a time of the apparent “thaw” in what used to be “icy” relations between the gas-rich Caspian state and Russia.

Over the last 21 years of independence, the leadership of Turkmenistan has praised the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country's “liberation” from the alien values of communism. Due to Turkmenistan's stubborn insistence on neutrality (yes, there is a public holiday to celebrate that as well) in opposition to Russia's preference for close bilateral ties, relations between the two countries have often been rather tense. But as of 2011 relations have been said to be warming up again, mainly because Turkmenistan is interested in selling Moscow more of its gas. And Moscow is keen on reclaiming the status of Turkmenistan's key gas exporter.

Safe in the knowledge that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov loves titles and honours, Russian sports organizations lined up this summer to award the Turkmen president a number of medals and titles, accolades that local netizens saw as tacit political gifts from Moscow.

And, as Myles Smith writes on EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog, Berdymukhamedov returned the favour earlier this month, awarding the prestigious (in Turkmenistan) Ruhubelent state award to Dmitri Medvedev's wife Svetlana Medvedeva:

Berdymukhamedov and Putin also spoke by phone the previous week. And they spoke in July when Putin called to congratulate Berdymukhamedov on his birthday. At the time, Putin and Medvedev also sent congratulatory letters. Perhaps Medvedev’s specific reference to the grand time the two shared in Rio de Janeiro – at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June – helped land his wife the Turkmen trophy.

But beneath all the new found bonhomie, there will be much talk of who gets what, when and how, as analysts anticipate a Moscow-Ashkhabad rapprochement imminently. The relationship with Russia is hotly debated by the anonymous posters on Chrono-TM. One user, Mered suggested [ru] earlier this year that Turkmenistan needs to give up its neutrality and open up its borders to Vladimir Putin's nascent Eurasian Union:

Туркмении однозначно вступать в Евразийский Союз и открывать границы. В гордом одиночестве долго не протянем.

Turkmenistan should definitely join the Eurasian Union and open up its borders. We can’t [survive] too long in proud loneliness.

Another netizen, FE, opposes [ru] Turkmenistan's potential accession to the Putin-backed “union of states”, echoing the familiar rhetoric of ‘positive neutrality' in world politics:

Думается России больше нужен Туркменистан, чем Туркменистану Россия, из-за геополитики. Если дружба (пишем, а продажу углеводородов имеем в виду)не с Россией, так найдутся выходы на Восток (чем тебе Китай хуже РФ, или Индия…?).

I think Russia needs Turkmenistan more than Turkmenistan needs Russia, due to geopolitics. If Russia doesn't become Turkmenistan's friend (we write “friendship” but actually mean the supply of hydrocarbons), we can find [friends] in the East (is China or India anyhow worse that [Russia]?..).

For the moment, the troublesome Turkmenistan-Russia relationship appears to be improving on all fronts. Global Voices Online reported on June 13 that the scandal surrounding a popular Russian mobile operator in Turkmenistan appears to be correcting itself somewhat. So, while Berdymukhamedov receives a congratulatory Independence Day call from Vladimir Putin (the man who wishes the Soviet Union had never collapsed), the ordinary Turkmen will be able to call one another using a reliable connection to wish each other a “happy double holiday”.

August 31 2012

Turkmenistan: Goodbye August, Month of Melons

Turkmenistan is often said to be the country with the highest number of public holidays. Take the ‘Drop of water - Grain of Gold' festival in May, or the celebration of the cotton harvest in November as examples of very unusual holidays that Turkmenistan has. Then add a sprinkling of Soviet, Islamic and pagan celebrations to purely political days off like Neutrality Day on December 12, and it is clear that there is no shortage of opportunities to enjoy pilau outside and take part in synchronized dancing in this isolated Central Asian state.

One of the better-loved public holidays, however, is Turkmen Melon Day, an event formally marked every second Sunday of August, but truly celebrated every day of the month, as the country's expansive steppe lands yield some of the tastiest crop known to mankind.

Turkmenistan has traditionally been renowned for its melons. On this photo, melons are sold in one of the country's markets. Image by Grigoriy Karamyanc, used with permission.

‘Sweetest' holiday

The melon's official holiday was initiated by Sapamurat Niyazov, the fruity First President of Turkmenistan in 1994. Each year, the head of state makes a congratulatory speech and demands a celebration of the Turkmen melon. The belief that Turkmenistan's melons and watermelons are the best in the world goes unchallenged in the country. President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov made an address to the nation this Melon Day reminding them that “since ancient times Turkmenistan has been considered the homeland of the best melons in the world.” As noted before on Global Voices, few people ever bother to contradict him.

Turkmen Melon Day celebration in 2011. Image by the Turkmenistan International Magazine.

Traditionally, Turkmen government bestows awards upon melon growers and celebrates the harvest with concerts and dancing, as can be seen in this video. It seems that the Turkmen treated this holiday as seriously this year as in years past. Few days in advance belgiler wrote [tk] on Talyplar.com:

Ýetip gelýän gawun baýramynyz gutly bolsun!

Happy coming melon day!

Children at Melon Day celebration, Ashgabat 2012. Image by Turkmenistan State Information Service.

Several respondents used the discussion to joke about the current practice of involving students in public celebrations. Bahbit posted [tk]:

ertir ayyn 12 anfiteatrda belleyaler sagat 17:00 da. Eger howes bildiryan bar bolsa barayyn gawun iymage

Tomorrow on 12 [August], we are going to celebrate [the Melon Day] at 17:00 in the amphitheater. If you want, come and join us to eat melon.

Duygur responds [tk]:

Duygur: Yok cagyrma Önem yany zordan kanikula cykdyk. Cagyrmawersinler cäre bar diyip.

No, don't invite me. We have already attended enough events during these holidays. Let them not invite us.

Schoolchildren perform at this year's Turkmen Melon Day celebration in Ashgabat. Image by Turkmenistan: The Golden Age website.

Foreign readers also seem to be enthusiastic about this 'sweetest' of holidays, and Turkmen melons in general.

On Twitter, Katie Aune  responded to a question about the festival:

[I] wasn't there for Melon Day. But the melon was really really good! :)

Turkmen Melon Day celebration in Ashgabat, 2012. Image by Turkmenistan: The Golden Age website.

But some seem to be less enthusiastic. Nicholas Claytor said:

I have now lost 8 followers since wishing everyone a Happy Turkmen MelonDay. Again, my sincere apologies, authoritarian melon-haters.

But it all turned out okay in the end:

I have now regained all the followers I lost with my “Turkmen Melon Day” gaffe a few days back. Thanks to all those who stood with me

Turkmen Melon Day celebration in Ashgabat, 2012. Image by Turkmenistan: The Golden Age website.

A Blogger from Every Day's a Holiday described the Turkmen holiday in an ironic fashion, wishing curcurbitaceans a happy day on August 12, while one of the blog's readers made the connection between Turkmenistan's corridors of power and its famous melons:

In the book “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” the author has much to say about the craziness and hubris of former leader of Turkmenistan, Niyazov. So it doesn’t surprise me AT ALL that he would declare a holiday for the melon.

Turkmen ‘honey' melon. Image by Turkmenistan: The Golden Age website.

N.B. Tajikistan has followed Turkmenistan's suit and has been holding its own ‘Melon Day' over the last six years or so. This year, however, the authorities have decided [ru] to merge the Melon Day with the Honey Day and hold the ‘Melon and Honey Day' on September 2. BBC has this photo report from the celebration of Tajikistan's melons and honey in the country's south.

This post is part of the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Reposted byculture culture
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