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Internet Access Comes With Soldiers

The new Turkmen president is keeping his promise to open up this isolated country – with a new take on the concept "Internet security." by EurasiaNet 12 March 2007 Turkmenistan’s new, government-sponsored Internet cafes were initially hailed as a potentially important step away from the repressive policies of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov. But less than three weeks after their official opening, the centers are stifled by erratic connections, heavy fees, and most discouragingly of all – soldiers at the doorways.

In the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, the Turkmen Internet Café, located across the road from the bustling Gulustan bazaar, promises an unfiltered connection with the outside world.

The reality proves somewhat different. Inside, two Turkmens stare somewhat blankly at the blue screen of one of the cafe’s eight computers, while the cashier ponders the question of whether or not there will be a connection tomorrow.

Few Turkmens are aware of the cafe’s existence and fewer still believe they will be able to afford it. The cafe’s hourly rate is a stiff 50,000 manats: just under $10 using the official exchange rate, or about $2.50 using the black-market exchange rate.

"I know there is an Internet cafe near here, but I haven’t seen it," one stallholder in the nearby market said. An assistant in a neighboring post office recommended trying one of Ashgabat’s many four-star hotels; dead-end directions for Turkmen nationals as only hotel residents are allowed to use the facilities, primarily intended for foreigners.

Turkmenistan’s new president, Kurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, made improved Internet access a key part of his election campaign. Ashgabat’s two new Internet cafes opened within days of his 19 February inauguration; an additional 15 have been promised, along with Internet service for every school in the country.

The idea was to speed up modernization of this reclusive, gas-rich Central Asian state. But, in reality, that desire for modernization has to do battle with the government’s long-ingrained desire for highly centralized control over information.

Turkmenistan plans to hire Chinese technical specialists to install networks and monitor Internet usage in the country, reportedly. The move may be designed to protect Turkmens from pornographic and gambling sites, or a deliberate maneuver to prevent access to sites authored by Turkmen political refugee groups, human rights organizations and media outlets critical of the Turkmen regime. (EurasiaNet.org is currently inaccessible through Turkmen hotel Internet connections.)

The technical and security issues surrounding Internet access will be a measure of the new government’s actual commitment to implementing promised educational and social reforms, said Erika Dailey, director of the Turkmenistan Project at the New York–based Open Society Institute (OSI). (EurasiaNet, like the Turkmenistan Project, operates under OSI’s auspices).

"There has been a lot of hopeful rhetoric and encouraging remarks from President Berdymukhamedov, but these have mostly concerned economics and a few social reforms," Dailey said. "The Internet is a test of how far the government is willing to go."

According to the United States Department of State’s 2006 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, the government-run Turkmen Telecom, Turkmenistan’s sole Internet service provider, has not set up an Internet account in Ashgabat since 2002.

Cable television has been banned since 2002; satellite TV has become an increasingly popular way for Turkmens to gain information about the outside world, though the relatively high cost of antennae has limited use outside of Ashgabat. State-run television and radio channels and newspapers largely dominate the remaining choices; some international radio broadcasts are reportedly available through shortwave or satellite.

Statistics about Internet usage in Turkmenistan are dodgy at best. In 2005, some 36,000 people, or just 0.7 percent of the country’s estimated total population, had Internet access, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

"Some people have regular easy access to the Internet but that’s because they work at foreign firms," commented one Ashgabat city resident. "Even then you would never use it for anything really personal or controversial. Everybody knows it is monitored."

The soldiers stationed outside Ashgabat’s Internet cafes only underline that situation. Said the OSI Turkmenistan Project’s Dailey: "It sends a clear message to the public about what the government wants: They don’t want people using the Internet."
This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.
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