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How Turkmenistan Citizens Bypass Authoritarian Internet Censorship

Turkmenistan is a country that has essentially been conquered for the entirety of its existence.

First by the Persian empires, then Alexander the Great, then several other people.

Turkmenistan eventually found itself in a love/hate relationship with Russia, and from 1924 until 1991 became part of the USSR. It still hasn’t recovered since.

Turkmenistan formally started its “independence” with a “President for Life” that went by the name Saparmyrat Nyýazow (the former Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR).

He died in 2006, and since then it has been formally cemented as an unofficial dictatorship with Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (former deputy under Nyýazow) firmly securing power to this day.

He won universally recognized questionable elections in both 2012 and 2017 (with over 97% of the vote in both instances). In 2022, he “stepped down” allowing his son Serdar Berdimuhamedow to take over.

By the way, it’s important to note that Turkmenistan (like many other countries formerly in the Soviet Union) is rich in natural gas. A large majority (more than 70%) of that goes to China, with a minority going to Russia and Iran.

And well… whoever is at the top of the government of Turkmenistan controls pretty much the entirety of the economic output (natural gas) of the country. You sit at the top and choose who gets to share in the profits. Usually those close to those in charge.

You don’t want to give away your control, power, and influence, so when faced with universal criticism (such as a 2/100 freedom rating from freedomhouse.org) over the legitimacy of your elections, you prop your son up and carry on as normal. Seems legit.

Anyway, of course, as with any authoritarian regime, you want to control the internet & press to be able to control the narrative.

The best way to maintain control and power over any group of citizens is to control the information they can access to form their own educated opinions.

If you keep your citizens in the dark, ignorant, and stupid; they can’t rebel against your greed. It’s simple.

The problem is once your citizens are already intelligent enough to know how the internet works and how to bypass censorship; it doesn’t work quite as well as the Soviet Union era.

What is the solution, you ask? We’ll get to that…

But first, we need to talk about where you go to find the solution:

All Roads Lead Back to LowEndTalk

A Turkmenistan citizen from Ashgabat who goes by the username @Gprsky posted a thread on LowEndTalk asking for “a VPS provider with unblocked services in Turkmenistan.”

It prompted me to reach out privately and ask a couple of questions directly to an active Turkmenistan citizen:

(I received permission to publish the following, by the way.)

SirFoxy: “Do you live in Turkmenistan? Could you give me some background on the IP blocking policies and circumventing censorship?”

Gprky: “Yes, I currently reside in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Regarding IP blocking policies, the government here implements stringent controls over internet access, which leads to a number of websites and online services being blocked. As such, many users resort to VPNs and proxy services to circumvent censorship and access restricted content. The specific criteria for blocking IPs are not transparent and can be quite broad, affecting various services. That’s why I’m looking for a VPS provider with a history of avoiding these blocks, to ensure uninterrupted service for my needs.”

SirFoxy: “So are you just installing WireGuard and rotating IPs when Turkmenistan flags it then? (Or what are you using?)”

Gprky: “Check this: Bypassing Turkmenistan Censorship

I am currently utilizing V2Ray, which is configured to connect through Cloudflare, and from there to the Fastly CDN. This setup helps in circumventing IP blocks because even if the VPS IP is flagged or blocked, the traffic is rerouted through CDN networks, which makes it much harder to detect and block. The use of CDNs like Fastly can effectively disguise the nature of the traffic, leveraging their robust network to maintain connectivity.”

SirFoxy: “Thanks for the insight. What is your government’s reasoning for blocking all of these sites? How do they explain the need to block all of these sites, etc?”

Gprky: “The government’s official stance on internet censorship is generally centered around preserving cultural values and national security. However, the implementation appears to be broad and indiscriminate, often blocking access to a wide range of content without clear or consistent reasoning. Many believe it’s an attempt to control the flow of information and restrict digital freedoms.”

It was at this point I grabbed a link from Reddit on r/Turkmenistan comparing Turkmenistan to a government like North Korea and asked how relevant the observations clearly made by a foreigner are today.

Namely, this comment:

“Also- Officially, university is “free” in Turkmenistan. However, this is not true and you have to pay a very expensive bribe to get into a Turkmen university. I think the last I heard it’s at $10,000 USD, but it’s probably more now. Remember, Turkmen average salary is $1,200 a year. So AFTER you get your degree, you now need to bribe to get a job. So that will cost you anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. So you spend $15,000 to get a job where you probably make $100 to $200 a month. That’s not worth it so maybe you should start a business. You can’t really have a business because the President’s family wants to monopolize all sectors. So there are zero good options to make money inside the country. Why not go work in another country? Well that’s what most Turkmen’s do. About half of the Turkmen population lives outside of Turkmenistan. However, the Turkmen government is now starting to close the borders on it’s citizens. There is really no country you can go to without needing a visa that costs $500. Turkey used to be visa free, but the Turkmen government told the Turkish government to impose a visa on it’s citizens. 🇰🇵=🇹🇲”

Here’s what Gprky responded:

“The situation described in the comment has deteriorated. Now, to gain admission into prestigious universities like the Institute of International Relations, a bribe of at least $100,000 is required, plus the average salary remains low, at around $150 per month. 1 usd = 19.40 TMT.”

The Current Situation and Future of Turkmenistan

So, currently in Turkmenistan all the wealth goes to the top, directly to those closest to the gas money, and in return, these Turkmenistan citizens receive censored internet (and press, etc.) because these authoritarian governments want to keep their citizens poor and in the dark.

Citizens don’t even have access to higher education, and $150 USD per month certainly isn’t a livable wage. Plus, it makes no sense why Turkmenistan is building a $5 billion dollar shrine (funded by natural gas) dedicated to Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov when its citizens can’t even afford to access higher education. Very much North Korea vibes there.

Clearly some money exists. It just doesn’t go back to the people.

But, nonetheless, the current solution to internet censorship in Turkmenistan is rotating unblocked IP subnets through V2Ray, along with Cloudflare and Fastly.

Thus, the wave of requests to hosts for random IP addresses in specific subnets from Turkmenistan users. They’re actively trying to bypass authoritarian internet censorship.

However, the reality is that the IP probably won’t last very long. A week or so, and then it’s on to the next.

Censorship in the digital era where everyone is somewhat intelligent is never not going to be a game of cat and mouse.

Where one side wins, the other comes up with a solution.

The real question is:

How long can the current regime hold on to power? How long will these policies last?

Usually not very long, but nearly 20 years is a fairly long time as is…

P.S. Know of any IPs unblocked in Turkmenistan?

Have some better advice, or a better solution?

Send @Gprky a message on LowEndTalk here, or post a comment on their thread here.

Sir Foxy

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