First Internet cafes open in reclusive Turkmenistan

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The Independent Online

Turkmenistan's first Internet cafes opened in the capital Friday as the new president of the tightly controlled country declared that all schools soon will have Internet access.

The move comes two days after officials confirmed as president Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, who has pledged make other changes from the path set by the late autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov.

"We have opened Internet cafes in Ashgabat, and similar ones in regional centers will follow," Berdymukhamedov said in televised remarks at a government session. "Soon, each public school will have Web access."

Located in downtown Ashgabat, the two cafes equipped with five computers occupy two small rooms outfitted with plastic chairs and shabby desks - in the solemn Soviet-era Central Telegraph building and in a dilapidated telephone exchange station.

They sat empty for most of Friday, said cafe administrator Jenet Khudaikulieva, since very few people had heard about them. But she insisted that no Web sites would be blocked, and there was no visible attempt to register visitors or log the sites they were surfing.

"All Web sites are accessible," she said.

Previously, Web access was restricted to a limited few and independent online publications blocked by government filters.

It was unclear exactly how popular the cafes will be - or how accessible, given that one hour of computer time cost about US$4 (¤3) - an equivalent of five pounds of fresh beef in a country where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line and the average monthly income is less than US$100 (¤76).

"The connection speed is fantastic, but the price stinks," said Gulsar Berdyklycheva, a third-year university student who dropped in to check her e-mail.

Under Niyazov, who ruled the gas-rich nation for two decades, access to the Internet was tightly restricted to state and officially approved groups, embassies, accredited foreign journalists and international organizations.

Berdymukhamedov won an overwhelming victory over his five contenders in the presidential vote on Sunday and was sworn in Wednesday. The vote was tightly controlled and was not monitored by foreign election observers.

Unrestricted access to the Internet was one of Berdymukhamedov's election promises, which also included educational reforms, raising pensions and support for private entrepreneurship.

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