MTS Back in Turkmenistan – But Only for Foreigners

Is Russia’s mobile company MTS back in Turkmenistan just for foreigners, or for everybody?

Rumours have been floating around for some time, punctuated by upbeat predictions from corporate executives, that MTS was going to get back into Turkmenistan after a protracted hiatus since December 2010, when Turkmen tyrant Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov turfed out the Russian cell company unceremoniously, leaving 2.4 million customers in Turkmenistan without cell phone service — and that meant Internet access as well for some.

The reason for the expulsion was in one sense straightforward — a five-year contract had come to an end and negotiations for a renewal had floundered on the Turkmen demand to get a bigger cut. There was also an assumption that with the Arab Spring and all, the Turkmen government just didn’t want 3G or 4G and further Internet expansion to come to their country. They do a good job of blocking the Internet, with all of Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites all unavailable. They also have Chinese engineers as experts and their monitoring equipment installed for a song.

Berdymukhamedov said he wanted competition to the sluggish, poorly performing sole state provider, named Galkynysh (Revival) like every other thing in Turkmenistan that is poorly performing, too. So he invited back the Finnish telecom Nokia Siemens and the Chinese mobile company Huawei and said he wanted to see even three mobile companies compete in Turkmenistan.

Not it’s not clear where those deals are going, but maybe that was a ruse and a feint to get MTS back to the table on less favourable terms. Who knows.

It’s also been rumoured that the Turkmen government would turn on MTS at first only for foreigners or only for those in the capital or for the “specials”.

Sure enough, when an orchestrated media law conference was convened in Ashgabat this week by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the foreigners who came prepared to criticize Turkmenistan even within the confines of such an exercise were then pleasantly surprised that the cell service to which they’ve become addicted to in their own countries was working.

Ali Navruzov, an avid blogger an activist from Azerbaijan (@ljmaximus) reports “MTS is just back in #Turkmenistan! I was a witness of a historic moment :) ” in reply to my query.

He was live-blogging the conference so check out his feed if you would like to see a less-sanitized version of events than you’ll get from Turkmenistan: The Golden Age. (Why hasn’t *that* been renamed Galkynysh?!)

I naturally asked if MTS was turned on just for the area around the conference with the foreigners, or for everybody all over Turkmenistan, and the next day he replied:

“As I reported yesterday, second cell phone operator in #Turkmenistan #MTS was back – today I learned it could be only for us, for roaming.”

All the better to monitor you, my dears!

As Ali reports, Turkmen officials were all for the Internet and all for universal standards, but naturally asked penetrating questions like this: “MP Kurbannov: All schools should get the Internet, but question is what kind of the Internet?”


“What kind of Internet” is a question that Dave Winer asks!

Pete Leonard did a story on the conference but didn’t address the all-important mobile issue. Mobile is how the Internet grows by leaps and bounds in these countries.

When asked why Facebook was blocked, Navruzov reports, a Turkmen Foreign Ministry official said he couldn’t answer and since the head of Turkmentelekom wasn’t present, he would have to wait to ask him. We saw that one coming!