Turkmenistan stands out in Central Asia – and as one among a handful of countries in the world – for not having a single officially confirmed case of COVID-19 infection. While all its neighbours have been struck by the pandemic, Ashgabat claims to have kept the virus away from the country’s territory. Another Central Asian county so far holding out was Tajikistan, but on 30 April 2020 the authorities finally ended the denials and weeks of speculation by confirming 15 cases of coronavirus infection in the country’s north and capital Dushanbe. Thereafter on 11 May Tajikistan reported 20 deaths and 600 plus infected cases. The country has quarantined about 2,800 people due to COVID-19. This has raised further questions about Turkmenistan’s stance on the coronavirus situation in the country. Some experts, who have expressed doubt about the no virus claims, believe that the government is unwilling to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Turkmenistan has about 150 people in quarantine zones, most of whom were employed in transportation sectors. Media reports suggest that some people paid bribes to avoid the required quarantine period for international arrivals.
The denial, however, has not deterred Turkmen authorities from taking precautionary measures and accepting assistance from abroad. When the virus first surfaced in China, Turkmenistan took the lead in applying preventive measures against travel to and from China, quarantining passengers coming from infected countries and closing its land borders in early March. Ashgabat also cancelled flights from early February to China and some other countries where infections were reported and started directing all international flights to Ashgabat to land in Turkmenabat in the north-east, where a quarantine area has been operating. As a preventive measure, Turkmenistan is also fumigating public buildings and spaces with a local herb. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is a trained doctor and he had been Minister of Health under former President Saparmurat Niyazov. His administration has prescribed burning of the local herb harmala, which is considered to be effective against viruses.
Thus while Turkmenistan authorities undertook several measures to secure the country by insulating it from the outside world they have however refrained from taking major preventive steps inside the country. On the political and social fronts the country's administration maintained its normal functioning. President Berdimuhamedov went ahead with his planned visit to Azerbaijan on 11 March 2020, where 34 cases of COVID-19 infections and one death had already occurred. He held meetings with Azerbaijan leaders, attended public ceremonies and concluded about 20 bilateral documents.
Inside Turkmenistan situation is projected to be normal. Any discussion on pandemics in public is discouraged so much so that the term ‘coronavirus’ was removed from a health related brochure distributed at schools. Unlike people in other Central Asian republics, life of most of the people in Turkmenistan seems to be less affected by the pandemic. Eateries are operating and public social events, including weddings continue but with restrictions on numbers at weddings or at cafes. A mass cycling event marking the World Health Day on 7 April was organised where the President and hundreds of others participated. In neighbouring Uzbekistan while it is compulsory to wear face masks in public, in Turkmenistan one can be arrested for doing so. The country has also restarted its soccer season with at least 300 people watching a match in a stadium on 19 April 2020. On 25 April, the President and people participated in an annual equestrian show on the occasion of National Turkmen Horse Holiday.
Turkmen authorities are in touch with regional and international leaders on ways to deal with the challenges emanating from the pandemic. President Berdimuhamedov had telephonic talks with President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev on 18 and 27 March 2020, and again on 6 May 2020. He held talks with UN Secretary General on 22 April 2020. A telephone conversation took place with President of Iran Hassan Rouhani on 29 April 2020. The Vice-Premier and Minister of Foreign Affairs Rashid Meredov had a telephonic conversation with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif and the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs of the US, David Hale on significance of joint efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
An economy of US$ 40.7 billion (World Bank, 2018) and a population of 5.8 million, Turkmenistan is pursuing two-way aid diplomacy in the pandemic. In order to carry out tests within the country it is receiving test kits from Russia. Turkmenistan is also receiving financial assistance of about a million dollar from the US. On the other hand, Ashgabat had sent humanitarian assistance to neighbouring Iran, which was severely hit by the pandemic. Food Aid was also sent to Afghanistan, coinciding with Ramadan. It was received in Afghanistan by officials of bordering Faryab province, which has a sizeable Uzbek and Turkmen population.
Obviously, Turkmenistan is affected by the pandemic and its economic impact is going to be substantial given the hydrocarbons base of the economy. In its fight against coronavirus the country seems to be pursuing a two-pronged strategy. Ashgabat is engaging regional and extra-regional leaders on the pandemic and its fallout and is open to receiving assistance. Domestically it is trying to ensure that there are no major disruptions to the normal public life by projecting that the situation is in control and no one should panic. Amid growing number of infections across the globe it is to be seen if Turkmenistan maintains this position of exception or treads the path of Tajikistan.
*Dr. Athar Zafar is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer : The views expressed are personal.
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