Turkmen Activist Seeks Asylum in Sweden

Nurmuhammet Annayev, a citizen of Turkmenistan, became a blogger and activist out of necessity. Before the pandemic he worked for private companies in his native Mary region of Turkmenistan, but found himself stranded abroad when flights were cancelled. He is one of thousands of migrants from Turkmenistan, who have been forced to live abroad for nearly two years now, and he has observed their difficult and sometimes tragic stories. Living in other countries has opened his eyes to many things, and now Nurmuhammet livestreams on social media on economics, politics, and human rights, and has thousands of viewers.

Nurmuhammet Annayev

Last year Nurmuhammet and likeminded friends set up an Association of Oguz Culture, Cooperation, and Education in Turkey. In October 2021, he was attacked along with a colleague and a visitor as they left the organization’s office in Istanbul. Annayev’s arm was hurt and his bag with his telephone and papers was stolen. The two other victims were also beaten. One theory was that the organizers of the attack wanted to stop Annayev attending a session of the OSCE’s Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on October 14-15 in Warsaw. But he still managed to go and talk about the problems of Turkmen migrants. He then decided to apply for political asylum in Sweden. The activist has told his story to turkmen.news.

Nurmuhammet, tell us about yourself: where are you from? What did you do in Turkmenistan, and what are you doing now?

– I’m 40 years old and I’m from Vekilbazar district in Mary region. I’ve worked for the Yoloten gas refinery, foreign companies Petrofac and Hyundai Engineering, and most recently have held various positions in private firms.

I went to study in Turkey in 1999. Ten years later I returned to Turkmenistan, served in the army, and got married. I have three young children. From 2010 to February 2020 I lived and worked in Turkmenistan. I frequently travelled on business to Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and other countries, but I never intended to stay away for long.

I should say that my income at these firms depended on sales. The more you sell, the more you earn. During my time working for private companies I saw that it’s difficult for businessmen and the state does not support them. For example, I found a major client for our pipes in Kyrgyzstan, but we could not obtain the raw material to manufacture the pipes, although the country is awash with it, we extract it ourselves. We have propylene, but it’s not sold on the domestic market or very little is sold. Practically all of it goes abroad. So we sweet-talked our client for a month until we lost him.

Then I understood that there’s no way out. They are killing enterprise, and there’s no peace for ordinary people anywhere: not from the cash-hungry traffic police on the Mary – Bayramaly highway, or simply on the street when the police can stop you and ask what you’re up to, walking through your own town.

In February 2020 I left to work in Dubai. We recruited general laborers from Turkmenistan, arranged their visas, and bought their tickets, but they could not come because of the pandemic, while I couldn’t return to Turkmenistan. We approached the consulate in Dubai many times and the embassy in Abu Dhabi too, but received the same response everywhere: we don’t know anything about flights.

Dursoltan Taganova and Bayram Allalyyev

The job didn’t work out in Dubai so I decided to submit my documents to move to Canada on a work visa, but at the last moment, realizing that I would be going thousands of miles away to another continent and breaking off ties with my homeland and family, I decided not to make the trip. In January 2021, I moved to Turkey where I embarked on this venture with my associates Bayram Allalyyev and Dursoltan Taganova.

Dursoltan Taganova is a native of Lebap region. Because of the lack of work in Turkmenistan, she had to follow her husband and mother to Turkey, leaving her two-month-old son with her mother-in-law. In spring 2020 she began to take part in protests and to publish videos about the difficult situation of Turkmen migrants. Since summer 2020 she has frequently been detained by agents of the special services and threatened with deportation to Turkmenistan. At meetings of public service employees in Lebap region Taganova has been compared to the leader of the Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Bayram Allalyyev and other Turkmen migrants took it upon themselves to arrange the funerals of Turkmen citizens who died in Turkey in spring 2020 as a result of counterfeit alcohol. Together with other activists he provided resources from the Voice of the People Fund to help migrants struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After this the National Security Ministry began to threaten his relatives in Mary region. They were told that Allalyyev is “a terrorist and traitor” and will be killed if he doesn’t stop his public activity. In fall 2021 Allalyyev was arrested in Istanbul. According to human rights activists, his name is on a list of some 20 “suspect” migrants, drawn up by the Turkmen special services.

What are you doing now?

– While I was still in Dubai, I began to watch broadcasts by Turkmen opposition activists. I sometimes took part in them myself too, giving my point of view on social and other issues, but without showing my face. Then there was a split amongst the opposition, and I thought, why should someone else have to do this for us? Why can’t I do it? I’m a Turkmen too, and have my ideas about how things should be and can answer any questions from my fellow countrymen.

So last year in Turkey we set up the Association of Oguz Culture, Cooperation, and Education. Its aim is to provide advice and assistance to our compatriots who are in difficulties. For example, at Kurban Bayram [Eid al-Adha] we brought together some 300 Turkmen, celebrated the holiday, and provided food. You see we have people here, but no community, no civil society organization where people can support one another. It’s everyone for himself, everyone survives as best they can – life has made us that way. We wanted to bring people together, so that they’re not left to face their problems alone at the toughest time in their lives, so that those for whom things are going well at the moment can help those for whom they’re not. You might be the one who needs help one day.

We managed to establish ourselves quite quickly. We held various events together last year, and if anyone was arrested, our guys would be on the case right away, finding lawyers and getting them released. None of our activists are imprisoned in Turkey at the moment, and no one has been deported to Turkmenistan. This is the result of a strong, cohesive civil society.

But the conditions for such work in Turkey have become more and more restricted recently. The local authorities put pressure on us, as they don’t want to spoil relations with the Turkmen authorities. The Turkmen have openly demanded that the Turkish migration services and other bodies (our lawyers managed to obtain a copy of one such letter) send me and dozens of other activists back to Turkmenistan, although this is illegal. All my papers are in order. We don’t interfere in Turkish politics, and all our work is designed to tackle social problems in Turkmenistan and to help our citizens abroad.

Allegedly Turkmen citizens following Annayev in Istanbul. Later he was attacked by these men.

Major problems include the extension of passports, the opening of borders, and the resumption of flights. We are planning protest actions in Istanbul on January 15. Many people want to join us, because the problem of closed borders affects everyone. I haven’t seen my family, my children, for two years now. The pandemic has gripped the whole world, but only Turkmenistan has shut itself off from everyone, including its own citizens. Dozens of people have died and been buried in a foreign land, but this is of no concern to our authorities.

Dozens of people are close to death and are begging the government to send them home. They would at least like to see their children before they die, and if they are to die, they would like to do so in their own land. But nobody hears the Turkmen. We are promised charter flights, but the plane tickets are too expensive for people.

We want to call for the opening of borders. That’s our main aim. It’s not politics. We want to raise an acute social issue.

The authorities in Turkey are very well informed about our work and goals, but they’re always putting pressure on us all the same. Now that I’m in Europe, I’m continuing my broadcasts on TikTok and YouTube. Thousands of people watch me. Judging from the analytics, the majority are users from Turkmenistan. Every day I receive messages of thanks from people and requests to cover specific topics.

– What are your broadcasts about?

– For example, I talk on air about why there is no political opposition in Turkmenistan, why no one questions the decisions of the president and government. ‘Is what I’m doing right? Does this decision benefit the people?’ Unfortunately, our authorities do not ask themselves these questions and do not want to hear the answer either.

My colleagues and I also discuss the daily news; for example, the decision to hold an extraordinary sitting of the Halk Maslahaty [People’s Council] in early February 2022. Why is this being done? What are the aims? We have discussions on social topics. We talk about inequality and injustice in the country, about corruption, about the latest alcohol-related deaths of our compatriots in Turkey, about the Turkmen student in Belarus who killed herself at the beginning of the year.

This is of concern to all of us Turkmen. Who is to blame for these things? Who bears responsibility for these incidents? How have the people ended up in this state? These are the things we discuss, and more often than not we reach the conclusion that the incompetent management of the country and its economy are at the root of all the problems. Generally, crimes and theft occur because of the harsh economic situation. This is at the bottom of all the people’s problems. What’s the reason for the state of the economy? Incompetent management. Justice and respect for freedom of speech are needed if the economy is to improve. 

How did you get to Europe?

I went to Warsaw in October last year to take part in a session of the OSCE ODIHR. A couple of days before my trip I was attacked and beaten up in Istanbul. This happened on October 11, when I was leaving the office in the evening together with a colleague and a visitor to our organization. I am sure that this was how Turkmenistan’s special services wanted to stop me attending the OSCE event. Subsequently, my lawyers and I put together a complete picture of what happened and made a complaint to the local agencies.

I went to the event anyway and spoke about the situation in Turkmenistan and the problems faced by our citizens because of the border closures. All our speeches were minuted. They even promised us that these demands and proposals would be conveyed to Ashgabat. However, I haven’t seen any real result yet, unfortunately.

The main thing is that the country’s borders remain closed, even though we heard that in March 2021 the Turkish Foreign Ministry directly asked the Turkmen authorities to open the border.

I also livestreamed from the conference, telling the viewers, look, we’re not traitors or terrorists. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been invited to such official events and wouldn’t have been given the floor.

Left to right: activists Muhammet Duyeji (Canada), Murat Kurbanov (France) and Nurmuhammet Annayev

I returned to Istanbul after the conference. I started to receive various phone calls, SMS messages, and death threats. In November I went to another OSCE event and decided there that it would be dangerous for me to return to Turkey. I took a ferry from Poland to Sweden. I applied for asylum here and was sent to a temporary camp for refugees. Since my first country of entry to the EU was Poland, they are threatening to deport me there according to the rules, but Poland is reluctant to provide asylum. The case of Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov is a clear example. After an unsuccessful attempt to gain asylum there, he had to flee to Sweden, which in the end accepted him.

We’re hearing reports from Turkmenistan of increased security measures, particularly in Mari. Will there be protests there too? Are the authorities expecting something inside the country?

I can say for sure that the authorities are afraid of protests. We have also heard these reports. This is why the Internet is turned off and VPN services are blocked. But I think these efforts are pointless. Sooner or later their deafness to the people will rebound on the authorities like a boomerang. The more you tighten the screws, the less you know about the limits of the people’s patience, about when and where it will snap. Our neighbor Kazakhstan is an example. The people stood up and achieved a reduction in fuel prices and the departure of Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Turkmen.news has sent an official letter of support to the Swedish immigration authorities, asking them to grant the application of Turkmen activist Nurmuhammet Annayev. We will follow developments in Nurmuhammet’s case.