'Turkmenistan's Tsikhanouskaya': Activist Determined To Fight For Democratic Change, Says 'We Are Not Afraid Anymore'

Turkmen migrant worker Dursoltan Taganova became politically active just a few months ago when she began sharing anti-government statements on social media and attended Turkmen opposition rallies in Turkey, where she lives.

The 29-year-old native of Turkmenistan's Lebap Province became the face of the Turkmen opposition movement abroad while spending some three months in a deportation facility after being detained at a protest at the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul.

Protesters at the rally condemned what they called Ashgabat’s weak response to the coronavirus pandemic -- which officials say doesn't exist in Turkmenistan -- and called on authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to resign.

“I was in the July 19 protest along with fellow migrants to demand the Turkmen government take action to protect our people from this deadly virus,” Taganova told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service on October 30.

“The government said that there was no coronavirus in Turkmenistan while people were dying from [it]. Several of my own relatives and acquaintances died from it,” Taganova said. “People were left to deal with the outbreak on their own.”

Taganova’s comments echoed widespread anger by many Turkmen expats who staged similar protests in front of Turkmen diplomatic missions in several countries, including the United States, to condemn Ashgabat’s insistence that the pandemic did not come to Turkmenistan.

Smear Campaign

If the Turkmen authorities’ reaction is anything to go by, Taganova has become one of the Ashgabat government's most-feared opposition figures.

A smear campaign against Taganova is in full swing in Lebap, RFE/RL’s correspondents say. Her family is under pressure and was forced to publicly denounce her opposition actions.

Local Turkmen officials and women’s groups have warned people in Lebap that Taganova is a traitor who wants to organize demonstrations in Turkmenistan and destabilize the country.

They even likened her to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main Belarusian opposition leader and election rival of longtime ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the August 9 presidential vote. Lukashenka’s claim of an overwhelming victory in that election sparked unprecedented, nationwide protests against his rule that are ongoing.

Lebap officials are even organizing meetings with people to warn that Taganova has the same intentions, RFE/RL reported.

But Taganova said she doesn’t compare herself to Tsikhanouskaya because she is “just an activist,” not a “hero” like the Belarusian.

“I’m an ordinary citizen, but I realized that if we do not all stand up and take our freedom -- if we do not build a [democratic] state ourselves -- no one will give us freedom and [democracy] as a gift,” Taganova said.

Like Tsikhanouskaya, the Turkmen political activist wants a new, democratic government to come to power in Ashgabat through a free and fair election. She believes the man she calls “the illegal president” -- Berdymukhammedov -- must leave office.

"We must insist by legal means on his departure from power, and then choose a new leader through open and fair elections," she said. "We have no other choice because Turkmen citizens are in a dire situation…. We must demand our rights,” Taganova said.

Many Turkmen live in poverty despite the Central Asian’s state’s immense energy resources.

The country's vast revenues -- which are controlled by Berdymukhammedov and a close circle of the political elite -- haven’t trickled down to ordinary people.

The situation has worsened in recent years with world energy prices plummeting and the country of some 6 million people facing food shortages and price hikes.

The government has clamped down on opposition groups, independent media, and free speech and strictly controls its citizens’ movements. Many activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens have been imprisoned or placed in psychiatric hospitals for criticizing the government.

The government still insists there is not a single coronavirus infection case in the country, although medical sources claimed COVID-19 was widespread and “out of control” across the country.

Istanbul Rally And Taganova's Rise

Photos from the Istanbul rally show protesters holding a large sign that reads: “Why are doctors prohibited from diagnosing COVID-19? We demand the immediate resignation of the leadership and president of Turkmenistan which don’t care about the people's health.”

Others hold banners with photos showing Berdymukhammedov on holiday this summer driving expensive sports cars, riding a bike, and enjoying life while his people struggled with food and medicine shortages amid the pandemic.

The rally was eventually dispersed by Turkish police. Taganova and dozens of other participants were detained for violating coronavirus rules.

Within hours, Turkish authorities released all the detained protesters except for Taganova.

According to a lawyer representing Taganova, her name was specifically mentioned in a complaint filed by the consulate to Turkish authorities. The consulate alleged that Taganova and four others interfered in the work of Turkmen diplomats and threatened violence against them.

The accusation was later dismissed, but Taganova was transferred to the Selimpasa deportation center.

Myrat Kurbanov, a leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan, said at the time that Turkish authorities’ decision to deport Taganova was taken at the request of the Turkmen government.

RFE/RL cannot independently verify that claim, but authorities in Turkmenistan -- one of the most secretive and repressive countries in the world -- are known for persecuting critics at home and abroad.

Taganova told RFE/RL that Turkmen diplomatic missions routinely refuse to renew Turkmen expats’ passports. Similar claims have been made by many other Turkmen living abroad, who said authorities want them to return home.

"We, Turkmen citizens, go abroad to work because we can’t find jobs in our own country," she said. "But even outside Turkmenistan, we suffer from problems created by our authorities."

"They don’t renew passports. When a Turkmen migrant dies abroad, they don’t help transfer the body home," she added. "Even during the pandemic, they didn’t help anyone who was left abroad unemployed. They don’t help people living in the country or abroad. This is why I decided to join the [anti-government] protests.”

Taganova was released on October 12 after a group of 11 human rights organizations called on Turkey not to send her back her home country. They warned that the activist would face arbitrary arrest and torture if she is forcibly sent to Turkmenistan.

Family Pays The Price

Taganova was finally freed in Istanbul and was granted a one-year refugee visa to stay in Turkey. But in her hometown of Turkmenabat, Taganova’s family is paying the price for their daughter’s activism.

The same day Taganova was released in Istanbul, Turkmenabat police summoned her younger brother Babajan for questioning and confiscated his phone.

Babajan was told his sister is wanted by Turkmen authorities on “fraud” charges and that she will be arrested if she sets foot in Turkmenistan.

Taganova's mother, Meryemgul Baimuradova, said the family first came under the scrutiny of Turkmen authorities in mid-June when her daughter began sharing critical remarks about the government on social media.

Baimuradova told the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Memorial rights group that a local government official asked the family about Taganova’s life and work in Turkey and demanded they give them her phone number in Turkey.

The official also warned the family about the “consequences” that Taganova’s actions would have on her relatives in Turkmenistan.

According to the two rights groups, Turkmen police have questioned Taganova’s parents, brother, aunt, and uncle, as well as the activist’s ex-husband.

The relatives were also forced to call Taganova a “traitor” on a video recording.

Taganova said she is aware that her family in Turkmenistan has been persecuted and threatened by government officials.

“Of course, it affects me,” Taganova said, but she adds that she will take it in stride and continue her fight for freedom as “an activist of the Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan party.”

“We used to be afraid, but we are not afraid anymore,” Taganova said.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on an interview conducted by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service