It claims to be the Motherland of Prosperity but Turkmenistan’s economy is in chaos and its financial system isn’t working. Many Turkmen begin their day not with a cup of coffee or journey to work, but with a trip to the shops at 6 a.m. to buy a kilo of sugar, as it may disappear from the shelves later, or to stand in line outside the bank.
Last month the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan overtook North Korea to become most repressive media environment in the world, according to the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index. The media watchdog described the Central Asian nation as a news “black hole” where all media is controlled by the government and where the few independent journalists working for foreign-based news sites have been harassed, arrested, and tortured. Just 15 percent of the country can get online, and even then the version of the internet they have access to is highly censored.
The few independent journalists living in Turkmenistan are coming under continuing pressure from the country’s special services. On March 11 Soltan Achilova was detained at passport control at Ashgabat airport and told she does not have the right to leave the country, Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported. The journalist was flying via Istanbul to Tbilisi to take part in a seminar
The production and harvesting of cotton in Turkmenistan remains heavily reliant on a system of forced labor despite the use of mechanical cotton harvesters on some farms and attempts by local authorities to prevent the use of child labor in the cotton fields. Farmers put the problem down to the rigidly centralized agricultural system. It’s the government that tells the farmers what to grow; it’s the government that provides seeds, fertilizers and other supplies. The state even sets dates for the start and finish of the cotton harvest, instead of allowing farmers to decide for themselves when the crop is actually ready.
A rural development program has been in effect in Turkmenistan since 2007. The state media have given it a variety of names over the past 12 years: “the regional development program,” “the village reform program” and simply “the reform program.” It’s not in the public domain but is often referred to in the media and appears extremely significant from the volume of investment alone.
Conscripts have been harvesting the last of the cotton in at least two regions in Turkmenistan, as low pay and freezing weather put off hired laborers.
Conscripts were sent to pick cotton in several districts in the southeast Mary region at the end of November. They wore military uniform and travelled to the fields in army Ural and Kamaz trucks.
Harvesting by hand remains the norm in the cotton fields of Turkmenistan’s southern Mary region. Despite reports in the state-run media of the widespread use of cotton harvesters, observers for Alternative Turkmenistan News failed to find any evidence of the machines out in the fields. Instead, the observers estimate that some 5,600 public sector workers – teachers, doctors, cleaners and others – are forced to go cotton picking every day in the region. In addition, many workers are taken cotton picking for extended periods of 10 days or a month.
Thousands of people in Turkmenistan are again being forced to pick cotton. The autumn harvest began, however, on a positive note, with the authorities taking steps to ensure that classes of schoolchildren are not sent to the fields. Some cotton pickers in the remote north of the country even received increased rates for their work early in the season, but this soon came to an end when forced laborers were brought in
Teachers in Turkmenistan’s second largest city, Turkmenabat, are having to spend their fall break picking cotton. Schools closed on October 21st for the whole nine-day break for the first time in 15 years, and teachers and maintenance staff are having to work in the cotton fields every day.
Human rights defender Gaspar Matalaev has now spent more than two years in prison for the 'crime' of documenting the massive use of forced labour in the cotton fields of Turkmenistan.