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Turkmenistan: Local Russians Pack Their Bags As Dual Citizenship Nears End

  • Farangis Najibullah

Thousands of Russian-speakers in Turkmenistan are leaving the country as a result of a Turkmen presidential decree abolishing dual citizenship with Russia. Russian-speakers say the decree -- issued only last week -- does not leave them enough time to properly dispose of their property. Human rights activists condemn the action, saying it is another step by the country toward complete isolation.

Prague, 28 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Prices for apartments and houses in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat are falling rapidly. An apartment that would have cost $9,000 a month ago now goes for less than $3,000.

The prices are dropping as thousands of Russian-speakers quickly sell off their property in order to leave the country in line with a new presidential decree abolishing dual citizenship. Residents who hold both Turkmen and Russian citizenship have been given two months to choose one or the other. If a person cannot meet the deadline, he or she automatically becomes a Turkmen citizen. Around 100,000 Russian-speakers are believed to hold dual citizenship.

The decree -- signed only last week and with a relatively tight deadline -- caught many by surprise. Russian-speakers gathered around the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat say they are left with almost no time to decide about their future.

"How can we make such a crucial decision in a matter of 1 1/2 months?" asked one. "We have families, homes here, we cannot just drop everything and leave with a rucksack."

"My mother lives here, and my children live there in Russia," another explained. "My mother is very ill. What should I do?"

Vyacheslav Mamedov, the head of "Flamingo," a nongovernmental organization in the town of Krasnovodsk, told RFE/RL that the situation is the same in other cities. "The reaction of the Russian-speaking population is very, very negative," he said. "Many people are gathering at the Russian Consulate here in Krasnovodsk. They want an explanation for the decree that was signed by President [Saparmurat] Niyazov, Turkmanbashi, on 22 April."

The decree follows a reported agreement between Turkmen President Niyazov and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 10 April. It would revoke a dual-citizenship agreement signed in 1993.

Niyazov's motive for issuing the decree is not clear, but Russian newspapers speculate that officials in Moscow agreed to it as a condition for being allowed to buy Turkmen gas. Moscow has been trying for years to obtain a long-term gas contract with Ashgabat.

Russia, for its part, says the Turkmen decree will not become valid until the Russian Duma formally abolishes the dual-citizenship agreement. The Turkmen parliament has already ratified a protocol revoking the dual citizenship.

Foreign observers say the Turkmen action may be connected to a wider campaign to clamp down on foreigners following a purported assassination plot against Niyazov last November.

Since then, some 60 Turkmen citizens have been sentenced to long periods in jail. Turkmenistan has also appealed to the Russian and Swedish governments to hand over Turkmen citizens who according to Ashgabat were involved in the assassination bid.

Erika Dailey, the director of the Turkmen Project at the Open Society Institute, based in Budapest, explained the link: "The people who are alleged to have been behind an assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002, some of them were dual citizens. Some of them had foreign passports; they were Turks, Georgians, U.S. citizens, Russian citizens, etc. They remain beyond the grasp of Turkmen authorities. [Abolition of dual citizenship] would provide the basis for weakening any Russian resistance to an extradition request."

The decree is only the latest in a series of measures to rein in foreigners. In February, the Turkmen government set up a special state service to register foreigners traveling to and from Turkmenistan.

A special resolution on Turkmen citizens studying abroad was adopted at about the same time. According to the resolution, Turkmen students studying in foreign countries at their own initiative -- without permission from Turkmen ministries -- were forbidden from purchasing foreign currency from the Turkmen National Bank at subsidized rates.

Russian media say many teachers who graduated from foreign universities have now been fired from schools throughout Turkmenistan. Those who want to retain their jobs must first pass a test on the "Rukhnama" -- Niyazov's book on Turkmen history and culture.