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Soviet Behavior Threatens Turkmenistan's Civil Society


(Washington, DC -- July 18, 2004) Turkmenistan's fledgling civil society faces collapse because the country's government increasingly uses repressive measures learned during Soviet rule, said Erika Dailey, the Turkmenistan Project Director of the Open Society Institute and Gavin Helf, former Central Asia Regional Director of IREX. Dailey and Helf spoke during a July 15 briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office.

The Open Society Institute has worked on education and health issues in Turkmenistan as well as provided support for local NGO's (non-governmental organizations). Dailey said that the people of Turkmenistan need "special attention" now because "their [social and political] situation is deteriorating." Although the Niyazov regime can behave in "unplanned and eccentric" ways, according to Dailey, it "is not unpredictable" because "there is an internal logic." She recommended that it is time to "go back to basics" to support civil society in Turkmenistan, "using traditional tools" that have been used in the past in dealing with Soviet regimes.

Helf, who has extensive field experience in Turkmenistan, observed that although the "authoritarian-corporatist" government has defined its scope in society as "maximalist," there is a "lack of capacity" within Turkmenistan that has resulted in the "state's inability to deliver on promises to the population."

Helf agreed with Dailey that when the government, last fall, adopted a new law requiring NGOs to re-register, it "led effectively to the collapse of civil society in Turkmenistan." The new registration procedure for NGOs, Helf said, is "expensive--you have to pay to register--and there are onerous reporting requirements." In the capital, Ashgabat, civil society is "frightened, harassed, and discontented," he said, and the government views community or civic activists as "dissidents." Both Helf and Dailey agreed that there is a "KGB-ization of the regime," with security forces becoming increasingly influential in governing Turkmenistan. At the same time, parts of civil society have strengthened, Helf said, as people in rural and outlying districts rely on self-initiative to substitute for the failure of the central government to deliver needed services.

Dailey and Helf agreed that the Niyazov regime is interfering with international organizations trying to provide humanitarian aid in Turkmenistan. "The Foreign Ministry now wants to approve monthly work plans" of foreign aid groups, Helf said. Both speakers urged international organizations and governments to do more to support the fundamental human rights of the people of Turkmenistan, particularly by use of "targeted leverage" to hold the Niyazov regime accountable for its human rights abuses.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service broadcasts six hours of programming a day to Turkmenistan, produced in Prague and transmitted to listeners via shortwave, mediumwave and satellite broadcasts. Turkmen Service programming is also available via the Internet, at www.rferl.org and at the service's website www.azatradio.org.

To hear archived audio for this and other RFE/RL briefings and events, please visit our website at www.regionalanalysis.org.
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