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Turkmenistan: Opposition Leader On U.S. Tour Continues Criticism Of His Government

  • Michael Lelyveld

The leader of Turkmenistan's opposition movement charged that the government has falsified statistics and exaggerated economic growth. Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov also said Ukraine has stopped paying for gas supplies, raising doubts about Turkmenistan's most important trade.

Boston, 7 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's former foreign minister kept up his attacks on President Saparmurat Niyazov on 3 May, accusing him of spreading false information about the country's gas exports and the economy.

Speaking at Harvard University, dissident Boris Shikhmuradov criticized his former patron for using statistics that have met with skepticism among Western analysts. "Now, he speaks his mind, whatever he feels like saying about so-called economic accomplishments of Turkmenistan. There's no way to check."

Such charges have been common during Shikhmuradov's U.S. tour in the past week, as Niyazov's one-time trusted aide has tried to rally opposition to his regime under the recently formed People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan.

During appearances here and in Washington, the exiled diplomat who served as foreign minister from 1995 to 2000 has derided the leader known as Turkmenbashi, or head of the Turkmen, in far-from-diplomatic terms.

On 29 April at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Shikhmuradov accused Niyazov of "lying" about economic conditions in Turkmenistan and "embezzling from the government." At Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he said that Niyazov's "clowning had resulted not only in a loss of prestige but also in a loss of economic power and complete destruction of the economy of the country."

Although Shikhmuradov speaks English fluently, he spoke largely in Russian through an interpreter, interrupting to correct or add to the translation at several points.

Shikhmuradov broke openly with Niyazov and left his last post as ambassador to China last October. In November, the government issued an arrest warrant, charging him with stealing $25.2 million in state property. Shikhmuradov has denied the allegations.

But Shikhmuradov has drawn audiences not to hear whether he has any new insults to hurl at Niyazov but, in part, to find out whether he has new information about one of the most closed countries in the world. Although Turkmenistan's human rights problems have been widely reported, little can be verified about the economic condition of the nation, which has one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas.

The Niyazov government has claimed the strongest economic growth rate in the CIS over the past three years, although Turkmenistan refuses to provide data to the CIS Statistics Committee. According to the government, the country's gross domestic product soared 20.5 percent last year, after growing 17.6 percent in 2000 and 18.5 percent in 1999.

But in its most recent edition of the World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund reported no data on Turkmenistan since 1998.

Shikhmuradov offered no growth estimates of his own. But he derided a claim made by Niyazov in February that per capita GDP had reached $3,000, saying, "We actually believe in our democratic center that the actual per capita income is from $70 to $100 per year."

He denied Niyazov's assertion that the average life span had risen from 60 to 66 years under his rule, saying the real figure is only 52. Although Niyazov announced record harvests of cotton and grain last year, Shikhmuradov said the government had sent officials to procure those commodities from Moscow and Kyiv because the harvests were only 40 percent of the declared amounts.

Likewise, Shikhmuradov gave much higher figures for Turkmenistan's foreign debt. Last May, Niyazov said the country owed $1.6 billion, after denying some years earlier that it had any debt at all. Shikhmuradov said the debt stands at $5.2 billion. If true, the burden would be crushing for a country that has no support from international finance institutions.

Shikhmuradov said his estimates are backed by economists in the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan. The group includes Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former deputy prime minister in charge of finance and central bank chief, who joined the opposition in February.

Shikhmuradov's most debatable charge may concern Turkmenistan's gas exports to Ukraine, which have come to represent the country's economic mainstay. Most recently, Niyazov's government stated that Turkmenistan will supply Ukraine with 40 billion cubic meters of gas this year.

But Shikhmuradov said: "In fact, this is not happening. The gas is not going to Ukraine. Even if it did, Ukraine would not be able to pay for it with guaranteed payment for this gas. And meanwhile, there is no gas going to Ukraine, no money coming back."

There has been little evidence to support the allegation that Turkmen gas has stopped flowing to Ukraine. Kyiv has not complained of any shortage of fuel. But during President Leonid Kuchma's visit to Ashgabat last week, reports hinted that Ukraine has not kept its payments current, as promised.

According to an ITAR-TASS report, Niyazov and Kuchma instructed an intergovernmental commission "to resolve problems over payments...for gas supplied this year." The statement seems to support at least a part of Shikhmuradov's charge.

Ukraine reportedly owes Turkmenistan more than $281 million for gas received from 1993 to 1994. Kyiv is obliged to pay for only half of the current deliveries in cash.

So far, there have been no reports that Niyazov has ordered a suspension of the country's crucial exports to Ukraine. But if Shikhmuradov is right and Ukraine has been delaying payments, Turkmenistan's troubles may be even worse than previously thought.

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