Turkmenistan: students throw cigarettes into kilns. Source: Altyn ASYR TV.This time last year, Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov banned the sale of all tobacco products. This move was widely praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the head of its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Unfortunately, those lavishing praise on Berdymukhammedov have failed to realise that his government is now using its new anti-tobacco legislation to stifle dissent and silence its critics.
At the beginning of December 2016, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Khudayberdy Allashov was arrested along with his mother and wife in northern Turkmenistan for possession of chewing tobacco. Allashov now faces up to seven years in prison after he “confessed” to buying 11kg of “nasvai” or “nas”, chewable tobacco. According to information received by Amnesty International, RFE/RL freelance contributor admitted the charges against him after being subjected to torture and repeated beatings.
Reporters Without Borders has called for Allashov’s immediate release, stating that he was being persecuted for his journalistic activities. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has also criticised the arrest, telling the Turkmen regime that it must guarantee journalists’ safety and free Allashov at the earliest possible opportunity.
Allashov’s arrest has come just weeks before the official start of a presidential electoral campaign which will likely result in Berdymukhammedov securing a third consecutive term as head of one of the most repressive nations on the planet.
When it comes to freedom of the press, according to Freedom House, Turkmenistan’s stranglehold on independent reporting is second only to North Korea. The state controls all media outlets and has been taking steps to remove satellite dishes in order to cut off the population’s access to foreign TV stations. And since RFE/RL is one of the sole sources of independent reporting on this otherwise information black hole, its contributors have been repeatedly targeted by the government.
Indeed, prior to Allashov’s detention, a number of other prominent journalists and activists were targeted, including RFE/RL contributors Soltan Achilova and Saparmamed Nepeskuliev. Around the time Allashov was taken into custody, the UN warned Turkmenistan that it must renounce torture, and accused the country’s government of sanctioning a programme of systematic abuse, including rape and beatings in jail, and political disappearances.
While enjoying the lowest rates of smoking in the world, the country will most likely continue using its anti-tobacco legislation to crackdown on dissidents as the election draws nearer and its economy tanks further
In the lead-up to Turkmenistan’s presidential election next month, Berdymukhammedov has been strengthening his rule by endowing more power to the office of president through a series of constitutional changes, some of which removed barriers to his lifelong rule. These amendments scrapped a law that barred anyone over 70 from standing for president, and were passed at a time when the country’s government might have been better off addressing the continuing economic decline affecting its people. Despite sitting on the world’s fifth-largest gas reserves, Turkmenistan has been experiencing massive food shortages of sugar, cooking oil and other staples. According to reports, people have to wait up to five weeks to receive supplies.
Due to low world gas prices and the country’s reliance on a single export market (China), the foundations of Turkmenistan’s social contract are increasingly under threat and could lead to an upsurge of popular discontent. If Ashgabat continues to fail to provide basic goods to its people, Berdymukhammedov’s seemingly strong rule could be cut short.
The fact that RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has been providing comprehensive coverage of the country’s failing economy for months now might explain why Allashov and his colleagues have been targeted. But regardless of the reasons behind their detention and treatment, the World Health Organization must accept some responsibility for the actions of Turkmenistan.
During a visit to the country in 2015, WHO Director General Margaret Chan praised Berdymukhammedov for the fact that only eight percent of Turkmenistan’s population smoked at the time, which was the lowest national smoking indicator in the world. On the same trip, Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, head of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), even challenged Berdymukhammedov to reduce this to five percent. Around half a year later, the country’s total ban on tobacco products was introduced (in addition to an existing ban on advertising and smoking in public places), empowering authorities to hand out relatively lengthy prison sentences and stiff fines to business owners and private individuals caught flouting it.
Soon after the law was implemented, the FCTC hosted a meeting in Turkmenistan in preparation for its summit in New Delhi — seemingly oblivious to the message it was sending about legitimising an authoritarian regime accused of torture and unabashed media crackdowns. The FCTC has a track record of courting controversy, and has itself been widely criticised for its own treatment of journalists. During its New Delhi summit in November 2016, FCTC delegates voted to ban reporters from the conference after the Framework was widely lambasted for its staunch opposition to electronic cigarettes. The WHO’s head has also been on the receiving end of flak for endorsing Philippines’ strongman president Rodrigo Duterte, while the organisation’s pursuit of tackling smoking at any cost was laid bare after it ludicrously called on Bashar al-Assad’s regime to crack down on smoking in Syria earlier in June at a time when the country was being ripped apart by conflict.
Turkmenistan should offer a sobering lesson to policymakers about the pitfalls of pursuing a one-track agenda. While enjoying the lowest rates of smoking in the world, the country will most likely continue using its anti-tobacco legislation to crackdown on dissidents as the election draws nearer and its economy tanks further. The fact that the WHO appears willing to disregard the behaviour of the authoritarian Turkmen government so long as it continues to clamp down on tobacco is an outrage, and calls the credibility of the organisation and its leaders into question.