Around 1,000 Turkmen citizens gathered at the Istanbul Airport on July 17, demanding the opportunity to fly home. Among those, 20 were disabled people, more than 50 were women with small children, and more than 150 were elderly. One might wonder why they decided to gather and protest at the Turkish airport instead of merely booking a flight home on their own.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 Turkmenistan completely closed its borders to anyone entering and leaving the country, including Turkmen citizens. For two years, nobody was allowed to cross the borders of Turkmenistan without the explicit permission of the government. In practice, tens of thousands of Turkmen citizens were not able to return home. At the same time, many people were not able to leave the country for education, health, tourism, or to join their families abroad.
Impact on Turkmen Living Inside the Country
One of the more concerning effects of the inability of Turkmen to leave the country was that the travel ban prevented the sick from seeking healthcare abroad. For example, in March and May 2022, there were reports that a 3-year-old, Meryem, and a 20-year-old, Ayperi, were both so sick that their families wanted to seek emergency medical treatment abroad. Due to the travel ban, the Turkmen government did not allow them to leave the country. After these reports surfaced, Ayperi was able to leave the country and receive treatment. There was not subsequent reporting about Meryem, so we don’t know her fate.
At the same time, the 1-year-old granddaughter of then-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s sister was taken by a private ambulance plane to a prestigious private hospital in Turkey to seek emergency medical care, illustrating the inequality inherent in the application of rules and restrictions in Turkmenistan.
Travel bans also left many families divided by international borders. Spouses could not see each other or their children. Young people in long-distance relationships could not reunite and get married.
Impact on Turkmen Living Outside of the Country
Turkmen who traveled abroad for tourism, health, and other reasons before the pandemic were trapped abroad when the borders slammed shut. Many were without stable housing or employment, having never intended to spend so much time away from home. Turkmen traveling abroad on tourism visas were not allowed to work in the countries where they were stuck and had to rely on their families to send them money. Those without the means were left alone and some became homeless on the streets of foreign countries.
For example, in March 2020, more than 50 citizens of Turkmenistan, labor migrants in Turkey, were poisoned by counterfeit alcohol and subsequently died. The government did not organize a special flight to bring their back bodies home and give them to their families. They were buried in Istanbul, with their families unable to attend due to the travel ban.
In January 2022, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reported that an elderly man had spent two weeks at the Istanbul Airport hoping to be allowed to fly home. The man was ill and no longer able to work in Turkey; he took to the internet to beg then-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov for permission to fly home.
And then in April 2022, stories circulated that Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey had tried to cross the borders of Turkmenistan through Azerbaijan. Their attempts proved futile. More than 70 Turkmen nationals were stuck in Azerbaijan, having spent their money on air travel from Turkey to Azerbaijan and hotels in Baku. Similar cases happened to those who flew from Turkey to neighboring Uzbekistan trying to cross the land borders of Turkmenistan.
Another complicating factor for Turkmen stuck abroad after the pandemic began is that Turkmen embassies do not issue new passports. Citizens living abroad have always had to return to Turkmenistan to renew their passports, a visit that became virtually impossible when the borders closed. Turkmen either living and traveling abroad risked having their passports expire. A year after the travel ban was put in place, Turkmen embassies began issuing stamps on expired passports with new expiry dates. However, the immigration authorities of some countries don’t recognize such stamps as valid.
The Reopening of Some Borders
Finally in June 2022, international flights operated by state-owned Turkmenistan Airlines were resumed from Turkmenistan to Dubai in the UAE and Kazan in Russia, but these flights ran only once a week. From July, flights to Moscow were added and the frequency of all three routes was increased to twice a week.
Flights to Turkey, where the majority of the Turkmen diaspora lives, are still not allowed. Leaving and entering Turkmenistan through other means of transport (train, car, bus, and by foot) is also still not allowed.
According to the Turkish Migration Management Directorate, there are 121,489 Turkmen citizens who hold residency permits in Turkey as of 2022. However, due to the visa-free regime between the two countries, according to some sources, over a million Turkmen nationals reside in Turkey, including migrant workers, students, and their family members. Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey have tried to fly to Turkmenistan through Dubai, where air travel has been resumed; however, they have a hard time flying from Turkey to the UAE on expired passports.
The Turkmen government, through Turkish Airlines, has organized charter flights around two to three times a month to repatriate citizens stuck in Turkey. However, citizens reportedly have had to pay bribes of around $2,000 to the employees of the consulate to get on those flights. Given the sheer number of people wishing to return back home, these charter flights are not enough. Meanwhile, the high cost makes accessing the flights that are arranged simply out of reach for many.
In July 2022, the consulate in Istanbul offered Turkmen nationals the opportunity to go back to Turkmenistan by bus through the Iranian border. The trip from Istanbul to Serakhs, Turkmenistan, is around 3700 km (2299 miles) and can take more than 42 hours of driving (without stops, that is).
Why Not Turkey?
Given the high demand for flights from Turkey to Turkmenistan, and the difficulty in accessing other routes home, why has Ashgabat not reopened the air route?
Perhaps the Turkmen government has not resumed flights to Turkey due to the prevalence of COVID-19 in the country. But looking at COVID-19 cases in Russia and the UAE, to which Turkmenistan has resumed flights, and Turkey, where it has not, does little to support this line of argument. Looking at data compiled by Our World in Data on new COVID-19 cases per million people, the 7-day rolling average in late May was 41.75 in the UAE, 29 in Russia, and 12.17 in Turkey. By early July, cases had risen to 190 per million in the UAE and 141 in Turkey, while dropping in Russia to 20 per million. Looking at the chart, the three countries are not radically different.
When it comes to the vaccination rates, over 100 percent of people (a figure that includes non-residents) in the UAE have been double vaccinated, while the number is 62.6 percent in Turkey and 51.7 percent in Russia. Thus, it is hard to justify the non-resumption of flights to Turkey alongside the resumption of flights to Russia, in particular, based merely on COVID-19 cases or vaccination rates.
The Rumors and Reality
Some claim that the Turkmen government is afraid of a mass influx of Turkmen migrants coming back home, which arguably would occur if flights from Turkey were resumed at a regular rate. Turkmenistan is a totalitarian country in which protests are essentially non-existent. However, over the past two years since the travel ban was put in place, Turkmen nationals in Turkey have organized dozens of protests in front of the consulate over many issues: travel bans, Turkmenistan’s COVID-19 denial, floods in the eastern regions of Turkmenistan, the dynastic succession of the regime from father to son, and many other issues. The government in Ashgabat may fear that Turkmen who have protested relatively freely in Turkey will bring their ideas back home and create a threat to the survival of the regime.
Whatever the reason, the stranding of Turkmen abroad has serious personal and economic implications for Turkmenistan’s citizens. Meanwhile, the relatives of the president were leaving and entering the country at whim, seemingly whenever they wanted to. In addition to the private ambulance plane for the former president’s grandniece mentioned above, the president’s nephews, Shamyrat and Hajymyrat Rejepov, visited Turkey and Dubai many times during the two-year travel ban period where they partied on yachts and attended sporting events. They did not even try to hide their activities, publishing pictures of themselves relaxing abroad on social media.