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Turkmenistan: Clock Ticking As Ashgabat Refuses To Budge On Dual-Citizenship Ban

  • Farangis Najibullah

Turkmenistan's unilateral termination of an agreement with Moscow on dual citizenship and the fate of thousands of Russian-speakers in the country are making headlines once again in the Russian media. A recent visit by Russian officials to Ashgabat failed to convince the Turkmen leadership to reverse its decision and allow dual citizens to hold on to their passports.

Prague, 11 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow says it does not recognize Ashgabat's unilateral decision to abolish its dual-citizenship agreement with Moscow.

A delegation from the Russian Foreign Ministry visited Turkmenistan last weekend to discuss the issue with their Turkmen counterparts, but apparently walked away empty-handed.

Turkmen officials continue to insist on a unilateral withdrawal from the agreement and have proposed setting up a special commission to oversee the termination of dual citizenship.

Ashgabat's decision to terminate the dual-citizenship agreement was announced in April during a meeting between Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian-speaking residents of Turkmenistan holding dual citizenship were given two months to choose which passport they would give up. Hundreds of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers have been seeking advice from Russian consulates in Turkmenistan ever since. The deadline falls on 22 June.

After their failed meeting with Turkmen authorities, the Russian Foreign Ministry officials reassured the country's Russian-speakers that "nothing extraordinary" would befall them after 22 June.

Observers, however, say that Russian-speakers are growing increasingly anxious as the 22 June deadline nears.

Anatoli Fomin, the former head of the Russkaya Obschina (Russian Community) group in Turkmenistan and currently working for the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, told RFE/RL that Turkmenistan's dual citizens have been left in a no-win situation.

"If you give up your Turkmen citizenship, they will not allow you to sell your flat, you will get sacked from your job. In Russia, people can at least find a source of income by growing potatoes. But that's impossible in Turkmenistan; there's only sand everywhere. Ethnic Russians live only in cities. They don't have land in rural areas. They would die of hunger if they lost their jobs," Fomin said.

Fomin said Russian-speakers will be treated as second-class citizens even if they decide to give up their Russian passports and continue to live in Turkmenistan as Turkmen citizens.

"If you decide to give up Russian citizenship, the Turkmen authorities will send your application to the Russian Embassy, and the embassy will dissolve your Russian citizenship. You will still be sacked from your job, but in this case you will have nowhere to complain," Fomin said.

Filip Noubel, an International Crisis Group (ICG) observer based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, confirms that Russian-speakers -- including thousands of Turkmens -- are facing a tough choice, because they will simply be cut off from the outside world if they decide to retain their Turkmen citizenship.

"I don't think we are exaggerating at all, because the dual citizenship was a sort of hope for many people and they knew that if the situation gets worse [in Turkmenistan], they could always leave for Russia. It was also good from an economical point of view; many people conduct businesses between Russia and Turkmenistan, many people study in Russia. It was an important channel of communication with the rest of the world. Now all of those channels will be cut and Turkmenistan will be even more isolated than ever," Noubel said.

Many Russian speakers gathered around the Russian Embassy in April, after the initial announcement by the Turkmen government. They said they do not want to stay in Turkmenistan forever, but are not sure they will be able to settle in Russia. Tens of thousands of Russians who left the former Soviet republics in the 1990s have had difficulty finding proper employment and housing in Russia.

Vyacheslav Mamedov, who heads the Flamingo nongovernmental organization in the Turkmen town of Krasnovodsk, told RFE/RL that many Russian-speakers in his neighborhood have decided to leave the country.

"Since many dual citizens have relatives in Russia, the decree makes it difficult for them to communicate with their relatives, and of course they are worried about it. After the decree was issued, even those Russian-speakers who wanted to stay in Turkmenistan for ever have started to think about packing and emigrating to the Russian Federation, because they have lost their hope for the future," Mamedov said.

The Turkmen Foreign Ministry has played down such concerns, saying only 47 people in the country hold both Turkmen and Russian citizenship.

But Russia estimates that at least 100,000 Russian-speakers live in Turkmenistan -- a number confirmed by the ICG's Noubel.

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