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Turkmenistan: Security Service Purge May Serve Many Purposes

  • Bruce Pannier

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov recently purged many members of the country's National Security Committee. The move was surprising, given that many outside Turkmenistan assume the committee is one of the pillars propping up Niyazov's rule. Niyazov leveled many accusations at officials of the committee, including torture, rape, drug trafficking, and bribery. Analysts say there may be reasons behind Niyazov's decision other than a desire to clean up a corrupt bureaucracy.

Prague, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The National Security Committee (KNB) has long been one of the most feared state bodies in Turkmenistan.

The KNB has a long reach and big ears that hear everything, or so many Turkmen citizens believe. In the more than 10 years of Turkmenistan's independence, the KNB -- working with the country's Interior Ministry -- has crushed opposition to the government and sent many a would-be opponent fleeing across the border to avoid arrest and certain imprisonment.

The activities of the KNB have reminded many of the worst days of Stalin's Soviet Union and the purges of the 1930s that detained so many -- guilty and innocent -- in an attempt to secure the government's hold over the country. But the KNB itself is now the target of a purge being led by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Niyazov pointed to widespread corruption and abuse as the reasons for his campaign, but analysts say there may be more to the story.

The cleansing of the KNB started last month when Niyazov sacked its chief, Mukhammed Nazarov. Dozens of other KNB employees also lost their jobs. Niyazov described on state television some of the reasons for the purge.

"There are many cases where young women were brought to the offices of the KNB and raped. The chairman of the KNB (Nazarov) and his deputy forced young girls into the rooms of the KNB to have sex with them. How can the parents of these girls have any confidence in the government?"

Niyazov also leveled other charges against the KNB: "The KNB themselves started to sell narcotics. Nazarov opened a section for protecting the security of the KNB [against discovery]. Such a section in the Cabinet of Ministers or the presidential apparatus or in any ministry does not exist. But he, in secret action, misusing the peace in the country, started this section to cover up the illegal deeds of the officials of the KNB."

Niyazov did not stop there. He accused the KNB of torturing suspects, sometimes to death, or of accepting bribes from suspects for their release.

Human rights groups have aired similar charges against members of the KNB in the past. Observers found it surprising, then, to hear the same accusations coming from the man who had personally approved their hiring. Niyazov did not restrict his dismissals to the KNB. He also sacked many people in the country's Border Guards Service for abuse of their posts.

Steven Sabol is an assistant professor at North Carolina University who teaches Russian and Central Asian history. Sabol is also a specialist on the affairs of Turkmenistan. He told RFE/RL that Niyazov's crackdown may not be part of an anticorruption campaign. He said there are other potential motives for the sudden wave of dismissals, especially since Turkmenistan, which borders Afghanistan, is receiving much more international attention due to the campaign against terrorism.

"I'm a little bit doubtful that it's an anticorruption campaign. It would have to be far more widespread. I tend to think that there's a bit more scrutiny being placed on the government, and so individuals who are beginning to question Niyazov and his rule are falling out of favor. And the opportunity now, I think, exists for some of these individuals to form some sort of loose organization that can perhaps oppose Niyazov."

Such rumors are circulating in Turkmenistan, particularly after several highly placed officials defected to the ranks of the opposition in exile in the last six months. In fact, Sabol said part of the reason for the purge of the KNB may be charges made by one of these former Turkmen government officials, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, about illegal dealings in the Turkmen government. Shikhmuradov charged that Niyazov himself is involved in the shadowy trade coming out of neighboring Afghanistan.

"One of the opposition leaders had come out recently and said that Niyazov is guilty of trafficking in drugs, and maybe these individuals [in the KNB] have some information that could be damaging to the regime."

Sabol said Niyazov could be playing a dangerous game by removing, even temporarily, an obvious pillar of support to his regime. Niyazov seriously curtailed the abilities of the intelligence service by ordering members not to arrest anyone or search anyone's home without his consent.

However, Niyazov did leave a standing order that anyone trying to enter the country "to create chaos or disharmony" among the Turkmen tribes or with the intent to disrupt the government should be dealt with immediately.

This is, at least, food for thought to opposition leaders outside Turkmenistan, who have been calling attention to the fact that presidential elections had once been scheduled for this year. But that was before parliament named Niyazov president for life in late 1999.

(Rozinar Khoudaiberdiev and Naz Nazar of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)