Staunton, October 11 – Ashgabat had imposed such tight controls on the population that participating in any protest can lead to prison and will cast a shadow on those who do for the rest of their lives. But because roughly half of Turkmens live outside of their homeland, they can protest against the regime and home and are increasingly doing so.
Olga Charyyeva, one of their number, lives in New York, works as a supervisor at a social security agency and as a nurse. She left 20 years ago, has since married an American, and has worked to get her family members out. But she finds time to organize protests by Turkmens at the UN and other venues (turkmen.news/spotlight/olga-charyyeva-turkmen-protest-leader/).
“One should not expect that people inside the country will come out to protest. Fear has been too strongly impressed on their minds, Charyyeva says. Therefore, “I consider that the wisest strategy now consists of our protests abroad.” Only in that way can we hope to change the situation at home and save the Turkmen nation.
“Let our compatriots inside the country see what we are doing, let them gradually learn to take from us an example of how to act. I am against calling on people to organize actions inside the country right now. For their fears are not without foundation: those who participate in a meeting once will be marked until the end of their lives.”
At the same time, Charyyeva says, “our activity abroad is gradually leading to the creation of cells consisting of our close friends and relatives … among those who will not betray each other. And gradually, the entire people will begin to think differently and recognize that it is possible to overcome fear.”
Turkmens recognize that no one is going to help us – “not Russia, not Turkey, not other countries. Everywhere rule the very same kind of dictators. I consider,” she continues, “that any president who remains at his post for more than one term will become a dictator.” Only Turkmens in the emigration and at home who recognize this situation can change it.
Many young Turkmens know no other life than the one under which they have lived, but the emigration can provide instruction that other and better ways of organizing politics and society exist, ways where “no one asks whether you are a woman or a man or what your nationality and religion is.”
Charyyeva says that ever more Turkmens in the United States are taking part in protests she is involved with organizing. Many are using the Internet to stay in touch, to maintain their language and culture. And she expresses the hope that “every Turkmen émigré who loves his motherland will become involved in this work.”
There are three aspects of this situation that make her comments noteworthy: First, with regard to a country as repressive as Turkmenistan, only those who have managed to escape have a chance to express how people feel and thus provide a window into how those who can’t express their positions really feel.
Second, because that is so, the Turkmen emigration more than any other from the former Soviet space merits the attention of people concerned about the countries from which these emigres come.
And third, Charyyeva highlights something else: the way in which emigration can change social roles. She is one of several women now taking part in the émigré protests, yet another example of the emancipation of women as a result of moving abroad and a confirmation that when change comes at home, it is likely to be the women who lead it.
Nearly 50 years ago, American scholar Gregory Massell described Bolshevik hopes that women could play the role of what he called “a surrogate proletariat” and lead to revolutionary change in Central Asia. The Bolsheviks didn’t succeed, but Charyyeva’s actions show they were on to something.
In the past, women in the region and women in Turkmenistan in particular have been the most traditional and deferential – Charyyeva herself refers to her mother’s warning not to protest or otherwise call attention to oneself – but now they may very well be on their way to being the most revolutionary and challenging part of the population.
In any case, their activities merit close attention.