In the time between the death of S.Niyazov and the elections of the new president of Turkmenistan a kind of transparency and glasnost were observed in the Turkmen mass media.
Discussing the pre-election programs of the six presidential candidates, the citizens of the country had a chance to express their opinion on the burning questions for the first time since Gorbachev`s policies of perestroika and glasnost.
Newspapers and periodicals which used to be published in Turkmenistan under the personal patronage of the late Saparmurat Turkmenbashi and had differed little in their content were previously read solely due to the orders concerning appointments or dismissals of new officials, or short reports on ministers and khyakims charged with embezzlement. The situation concerning the local television was very much the same.
Under Niyazov, most of the relevant information was received by the public via satellite dishes. The number of dishes fixed on multi-storied apartment blocks showed that many viewers preferred foreign channels to Turkmen television. In the Kemine Street in Ashgabat the author of this report counted 48 satellite dishes in a five-storey house with 60 apartments alone. One can also see so-called twin antennas, i.e. a large dish tuned to the Russian Yamal satellite and next to it a smaller dish turned to the west to receive Turkish and European channels.
Another source of alternative information for the Turkmen citizens are the programs broadcast in Turkmen by the Radio Liberty Turkmen Service "Azatlyk", the Iranian Gorgan Radio and the Deutsche Welle Radio broadcasting in Russian. The programs broadcast by the Gorgan Radio are mostly of religious content, so its audience is mainly comprised of believers. However, Azatlyk and Deutsche Welle are practically the only source of alternative information for most of the listeners. While Azatlyk remains the most popular since it broadcasts in the people's native language, Deutsche Welle has become a sort of Voice of America in the former Soviet Union.
Neither the earthquake in Kazandjik, nor strikes at several plants of the textile and cotton-cleaning industry, nor the accidents at the Turkmen-Uzbek border, nor the forcible placement of civil society activists Kakabai Tedjenov and Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev into psychiatric clinics, nor the outbreak of infectious diseases, nor the lack of bread and flour and many other problems were ever mentioned in the official press during the years of the Niyazov reign. Yet, these facts were covered by Azatlyk.
The first signs of pluralism of opinion on the pages of the Turkmen press in the period of the pre-election struggle for the presidential post has raised slightly the interest of the readers in the national press. During this period of "limited glasnost" an editor of one of the newspapers confessed in a private discussion that if the issues deemed urgent for the people are continued to be covered so openly, no one would listen to the programs broadcast by foreign channels.
However, the pre-election struggle came to an end and the Turkmen mass media returned to their usual duty – praising the new president who is a "worthy continuer of the course of the Great Serdar".
It became immediately clear for the people that the period of "temporary glasnost" had ended as fast as it had unexpectedly started. So the Turkmens continue to listen Azatlyk and Deutsche Welle and to watch the Russian, Turkish and European television channels.
The audience of the Azatlyk radio is rather diverse. The most popular are the daily programs "Turkmen gundeligi", "Turkmenchilik", weekly "Adam hukuklary" (Human Rights), "Zenan funjasi" (Women's World), "Round Table" on Sunday and others. Public interest in the Radio Liberty Turkmen Service is on the rise since once people hear interesting information on the radio they hurry to pass it to the others, and the latter in turn are motivated to purchase a broadcasting receiver in order to get the first-hand information. Radio technicians buy up the broken radio receivers, fix them and put them on sale. According to the seller of old radio receivers at the Turkmenabat market "Dunje bazary", receivers of the mark "VEF" and "Okean" which receive Azatlyk and other foreign radio stations are in particular demand. Recently, the radio market was filled by inexpensive Chinese radio receivers which can be purchased at a price of 100,000-120,000 manats ($4- $5). TV dishes directed toward the western satellites also ensure good reception of Azatlyk.
As the new president of Turkmenistan stresses in his speeches, he is going to follow the ways of the "Great Turkmenbashi". As of today, it is hard to say which policies of Turkmenbashi are most likely to stay in force. However, the contours of G.Berdymukhammedov`s policy have been already shaped. For instance, he seems to have chosen another path by re-introducing ten years of secondary schooling and reforming the pension system. At the same time, following the practice set up by Niyazov, he continues to give out 5-10 thousand dollars to the singers and musicians who greet him at the festivities. The mass media has started a campaign of singing praises to the new leader. As local experts assume, the previous course will remain the same as far as developing the new personality cult and toughening control over the mass media are concerned.
Since 20 February, following the celebration of S.Niyazov`s birthday the line "Founder – President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Turkmenbashi" was removed from the first and last pages of all Turkmen newspapers. The editors of the Turkmen mass media are the same cautious. If it continues like this, the number of satellite dishes as well as the people who buy cheap radio receivers of Chinese production will further increase.