Corrupt Security Agents Take Control of Turkmenistan’s Internet
The former head of Turkmenistan’s Cyber Security Department, Maksat Geldiyev, has offered to pay turkmen.news to take down an article describing him as responsible for blocking the Internet in the country. He is trying to play the victim before his bosses and claims he is being targeted by detractors. Meanwhile, the Internet in Turkmenistan remains blocked to an unprecedented extent, while Geldiyev and his colleagues continue to make money on bribes. One of the Cyber Security Department’s employees has been demoted, but hasn’t lost his influence on restricting the Internet.
For ten years Maksat Geldiyev was in charge of the National Security Ministry’s Eighth Department and when cyber security was hived off to create a separate department he was appointed its head. He was later brought back to the Eighth Department but as its deputy head. We published the official’s cell phone number (+99365702777). This is the number that we soon received messages and calls from. Geldiyev warned us in our written exchange that such publications only made the blocking more severe. Then he offered to pay money for the article to be removed.
Like Geldiyev, Didar Seyidov also takes bribes to whitelist IP-addresses. In effect, these people have turned cyber security into a profitable business and make money on blocking the Internet. Seyidov is the only person to have “suffered” following the publication. He was transferred from the Cyber Security Department to the protection regiment and sent to the security details, i.e. to lead the soldiers that protect various state facilities. This is formally a demotion, but in reality Seyidov has retained his influence and continues to issue orders to block the Internet. He and his colleague Serdar Nurliyev (known as Atajan) block the Internet with one hand while taking hefty bribes for free access to the World Wide Web with the other.
Since there is no public data about the profits of national telecoms operators and certainly none about income from corruption, we will try to make theoretical calculations. The maximum tariff for wire access at home is 280 manats a month for 6 MBps. The subscription pays for installation and servicing of the infrastructure and the wages of numerous employees. And a tidy profit remains after that.
As for the employees of the departments creating the blocks, they have no infrastructure costs. However, their income from each “subscriber” is 50 to 100 per cent higher, according to rates at the start of the year. Sources familiar with the situation say that every employee of the Cyber Security Department, including the lower level employees, can make up to several hundred thousand US dollars on whitelisting servers.
The total Internet shutdown in Turkmenistan is, therefore, not because of politics but of corruption.
The blocking of the Internet inside a country is usually a political decision motivated by wars, unrest, demonstrations, and revolts. There is nothing of the kind in Turkmenistan, just as there has not been a political decision on a total shutdown. But access to the Internet in the country is paralyzed. There is only one explanation for this — a band of highly placed rapacious people want to create a need for VPNs and to whitelist servers for serious money (starting at $2,000).
Even in the toughest dictatorships and countries at war Internet censorship has never reached these levels. In war-torn Syria or unstable Afghanistan access to the Internet is free and not highly censored. There is no register of banned or permitted sites in Turkmenistan at all. Practically the entire Internet is blocked, period.
Many people hoped that with the arrival of the new young president, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, Internet blocking would weaken if not stop altogether. But the reverse happened — near paralysis of the Internet began during his presidency.
Turkmen.news sources think this is because the people involved in blocking the Internet have decided not to hold back as they consider the new president not very competent in modern technology.
Sources stress that the restrictions in Turkmenistan are a constant feature, which is often not understood abroad. The country lives in a regime of uninterrupted shutdown, as it’s impossible to enter the majority of sites worldwide from Turkmenistan. Regular free VPNs, such as those that allow access to blocked Instagram in Russia, do not work in Turkmenistan. People have to find contacts and to pay those who in turn give bribes for whitelisting. And you have to pay separately for a VPN on each device. The overall sum comes to several thousand manats a month, which is several times higher than the official tariff for Internet services.
The situation gets worse whenever there is an emergency in the country or abroad. For example, during the 2020 hurricane in Lebap and Mary regions, which was covered up by official media, people could not discover the fate of their loved ones. The same thing happened in February 2023 during the devastating earthquake in southeast Turkey. It didn’t occur to anyone to unblock the Internet so that people could find out if their relatives in Turkey had survived.
At the same time the block on the Internet remains an instrument purely to enrich the corrupt and not a way to ensure security (as understood by Turkmen defense and security agencies). What security can there be if a potential “enemy of the regime” can access any site simply by paying for it? Ordinary people cannot find several thousand manats a month for the Internet access necessary in the modern world. The average monthly salary in Turkmenistan is 1,500-2,000 manats.
Employees of the National Security Ministry’s Cyber Security Department, as shown in the exchange with Maksat Geldiyev, are used to thinking purely as businessmen. From their point of view, any information is published for money so it can be withdrawn for money too. This was the justification made by Niyazly Niyazlyev, who was dismissed as head of the Turkmenhimiya state concern after a series of exposés.
Citizens’ access to the Internet, which in the 21st century is just as important as electricity or water, does not matter to these officials. They are interested only in their own illegal earnings. But, and this is something that the highest authorities may not understand, they are equally indifferent to the country’s ill-founded cyber security.
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