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Turkmenistan: RFE/RL's Turkmen Service -- Where Talking Is Prohibited

By Mohammad Tahir --> (RFE/RL) ASHGABAT, July 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The tightly controlled Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan is among the least accessible countries in the world. Authorities are stingy with visas for official visitors and tourists. Still, with perseverance or as part of official delegations, it is possible for foreigners to visit Turkmenistan. Faizullah Qardash, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, was recently in Turkmenistan along with an official delegation from Kabul.

Qardash said of his first impressions in the Turkmen capital: "This country is developing very quickly. Since my last visit to Ashghabat around 10 years ago, this time I've seen an entirely different city -- its beauty and modern installations are no doubt comparable with Dubai."

Early impressions emerged shortly after Qardesh landed at Turkmenbashi International Airport, as he drove along the "Turkmenbashi" highway to the Hotel President.

Turkmenistan, home to the fourth-largest natural-gas reserves in the world, was ruled by President Saparmurat Niyazov for two decades before his death on December 21, reportedly from heart failure.

New Leadership

Niyazov -- known as "Turkmenbashi," or "father of all ethnic Turkmen" -- developed an extensive personality cult. State and public life in Turkmenistan revolved around his persona. In the immediate aftermath of his death, it was entirely unclear which direction the political system that he created would take in his absence.

Qardash says he was able to get a sense of how the succession of power in Turkmenistan is proceeding. He attended one of the few public appearances of the new president, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamadov, who came to power immediately after Niyazov's death.

Qardash says he was impressed by the speeches and stated future plans of the president.

"It's hard for new leadership to break with a former chapter of history so quickly, but the style of the new leader, his way of talking and his ambition to break [Turkmenistan's] isolation has impressed me," Qardash says. "I think reforms in education and the pension system are just the beginning of further changes."

...But Old Habits?

At the same time, nongovernmental groups continue to express concern over official practices concerning freedom of speech, press, and movement. [Editor's note: Since this report was filed, Turkmen authorities have announced an end to internal travel visa regime that has long been a fixture of life for ordinary citizens.]

In a recent statement published by the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative, the group says that the "hope of positive development after [the] death of Niyazov so far have not been borne out, but, on the contrary, pressure on the relatives of human rights activists has intensified."

Qardash says he witnessed cases relevant to the freedom of press and expression during his short trip.

"I think that the issue of press freedom is something that remains unchanged," Qardash says, adding that he witnessed situations that could spawn doubts about the nature of the Turkmen press. "Aside from covering stories about official meetings, I also wanted to interview Turkmen officials. But, interestingly, none was prepared to say a single word -- even about nonpolitical issues.

"All attempts at informal, introductory discussions with Turkmen journalists also failed -- they said they were simply not allowed to talk with us."

Limited Movement

Qardash says he and other journalists within the visiting Afghan delegation were not allowed to leave the hotel during his entire stay.

"I don't know, maybe it was because I was part of the official delegation, but our escort did not let us to leave the hotel, even to go shopping," he says. "When I suggested going out, they said it's not allowed."

Turkmenistan's record in dealing with foreign journalists and a state-dominated press inside the country have been criticized in the international community.

Press freedom groups regularly list Turkmenistan near the bottom in global surveys on rights and related areas. Independent voices have been systematically eliminated from the public discourse, and state-run media never venture far from their political masters.

Qardash says that while he was not allowed to meet with ordinary people in Turkmenistan nor permitted to leave the hotel, he was impressed by the apparent observance of traditional dress.

"During my two-day visit, I did not see a single women wearing Western clothing, all were in their traditional Turkmen dress," he says. "I don't know if it's because of their respect for their culture or a lack of choice and communication with outsiders."

Berdymuhammedov first took the reins as an interim leader and was later elected president in an election on February 11 that Western critics regard as fundamentally undemocratic. He now appears intent on building closer ties with the Turkmenistan's immediate neighbors.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is part of a growing list of nearby leaders who have paid official visits to Turkmenistan since Berdymuhammedov took power. Some observers argue that those visits are part of an effort to influence Turkmenistan's newly elected leadership and secure energy interests in this energy-rich country.

RFE/RL's Broadcast Countries

A boy sells balloons in Kabul because he is unable to go to school (epa)

A BLEAK PICTURE: Below, HRW experts comment on the human rights situations in some of RFE/RL's broadcast countries.

Human Rights Watch's Asia Research Director Sam Zarifi, speaking about Afghanistan:

"The Taliban have been using increasingly brutal tactics such as suicide bombings and attacking soft targets, such as health clinics and schools. The attacks on schools have been particularly vicious. More than 200,000 children who were in school last year have not been able to go to school this year. We've seen over 130 schools attacked. The resulting fear, of course, has caused a huge amount of resentment, especially in southern Afghanistan, because ordinary Afghans feel that President [Hamid] Karzai and his international backers are not able to support them and provide them what they need.
Basic reconstruction and development throughout the south has essentially come to a halt in many areas. The situation is not just bad in the south, however. In the north and in the west of the country, warlords -- many of them ostensibly allied with the government - have also used the threat of the Taliban and the weakness of the international community and President Karzai to re-entrench themselves and so Human Rights Watch has been documenting numerous instances of land grabs, political oppression and rampant human rights abuses by these warlords, many of whom are also involved in the drug trade."

Giorgi Gogia, of Human Rights Watch's Caucasus Office, speaking about Georgia:

"Georgia, in late 2005, announced a reform of its criminal justice system and started a rigorous fight against organized crime, particularly against the power of organized crime bosses. While this move is certainly commendable, this had some negative consequences, particularly overcrowding in prisons and abuse of power by some police or law enforcement structures. Overcrowding is particularly a big problem in Georgian prisons, considering that they are very poorly ventilated, filthy, and prisoners very often receive inadequate nutrition and substantive medical care."

Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Kyrgyzstan:

"In September, Human Rights Watch released a report that documented the poor state response to domestic violence and bride kidnapping for forced marriage in Kyrgyzstan. Our main finding, which I think is consonant with the conclusions of Kyrgyz human rights organizations, is that the authorities just allow for impunity for domestic violence and kidnapping for forced marriage."

Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Turkmenistan:

"Turkmenistan is one of the world's most repressive and closed countries. The authorities severely suppress all forms of dissent and they absolutely isolate the population from the outside world. The president, who just passed away on December 21, President Saparmurat Niyazov, had declared himself president for life. He presided over a massive and grotesque cult of personality. This year, due to international pressure, the government reduced some harassment of followers of minority religions; they released several people from psychiatric institutions, where they had been forcibly detained as a measure of punishment. And they allowed one dissident to travel abroad. But otherwise, 2006 was as disastrous as every other year for human rights in Turkmenistan."

Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Uzbekistan:

"2006 was one of the worst years for human rights in Uzbekistan in the 15 years since Uzbekistan's independence from the Soviet Union. There has still been no justice for the massacre that happened in May 2005 in Andijon, in Uzbekistan, during which government troops fired on mostly unarmed protestors -- no justice for that whatsoever. And the Uzbek government has continuously rejected all efforts to have an international, independent investigation of the massacre. The government crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political activists, is the fiercest we have ever seen in Uzbekistan, since independence."