• Home
  • Turkmen Capital Removes Courtyard Benches to Prevent 'People from Getting Together'

21 February 2024

Turkmen Capital Removes Courtyard Benches to Prevent 'People from Getting Together'

Wooden benches in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan are being dismantled allegedly to prevent people from gathering, leading to criticism from the public.

Turkmen Capital Removes Courtyard Benches to Prevent 'People from Getting Together'

Image: Rosselyn/Shutterstock

(RFE.RL) ASHGABAT -- Old, wooden benches that dot the courtyards of many Soviet-era apartment buildings in the Turkmen capital have long been meeting points where neighbors gather to chat or get fresh air.

But the authorities in Ashgabat are removing the benches, depriving locals of one of the most popular spots for socializing.

Residents from several Ashgabat neighborhoods told RFE/RL that municipal workers recently began dismantling benches from their courtyards and taking them away in pickup trucks.

Authorities in the strictly controlled Central Asian state, where individual rights and freedoms are severely curtailed, have not offered a public explanation. Officials did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment.

But a municipal worker, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said one of the reasons was to prevent people from gathering in large numbers.

"The courtyards of residential buildings are the place where neighbors usually gather and talk to each other. We have been instructed to remove the benches, so people don't sit and create a crowd," the worker said on February 12.

In 2020, the authorities launched a similar campaign and removed benches and tables from courtyards in residential areas across the city.

Another municipal worker, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed the move was aimed at improving the look of the city.

In the past, the authorities have removed satellite dishes and old air-conditioning units on the exteriors of apartment buildings and ordered residents not to dry their laundry on their balconies.

The decision to remove the courtyard benches has been criticized by residents.

"The authorities are increasing their control over people, and want to prevent people from getting together," said a resident who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

Many residents of Ashgabat, a city of nearly 1 million people, live in Soviet-era apartment complexes that are locally known as mikrorayons.

'Police Eavesdrop on Conversations'

The Turkmen government has in the past two decades invested millions of dollars from its gas revenues to build marble-clad public and commercial buildings, monuments, and apartment complexes.

But the new luxury residential blocks are largely occupied by high-ranking officials and wealthy people, and are beyond the reach of most ordinary Turkmen, who struggle with rampant poverty and unemployment.

The authoritarian government in Ashgabat does not tolerate dissent, and is wary of people gathering in large numbers.

On January 27, a group of people were queueing outside a pharmacy in Ashgabat when police officers arrested a man who was allegedly complaining to the others about the growing economic problems in Turkmenistan, according to eyewitnesses.

"The man also said the government didn't care about people's problems," an eyewitness, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said at the time. The eyewitness added that the police were apparently tipped off by a passerby who had heard the conversation outside the pharmacy.

In 2019, there were reports of plainclothes police eavesdropping on conversations of people waiting in long lines outside banks and ATMs as Turkmenistan experienced a severe cash shortage.

Undercover officers have also reportedly snooped on people waiting in long lines for subsidized food outside government stores amid ongoing food shortages in the country.