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Central Asia Report: June 12, 2003


12 June 2003, Volume 3, Number 20

ASHGABAT AND MOSCOW AT AN IMPASSE AS DUAL-CITIZENSHIP DEADLINE LOOMS... In the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, officials from the Foreign ministries of Russia and Turkmenistan met last week in an attempt to resolve a dispute, verging on a crisis, about how to phase out their countries' 1993 dual-citizenship agreement. The 22 June deadline set unilaterally by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov -- the date by which holders of dual citizenship residing in Turkmenistan must decide which passport they want to retain -- is approaching fast, accompanied by reports of panic among the country's Russian population. Last week's talks to address the situation proved inconclusive. As a measure of the distance dividing the two sides, they not only disagreed about whether a crisis was looming, but whether their negotiations to avert it had been successful or not, with Russia calling the talks a failure and Turkmenistan saying they were a step in the right direction.

Niyazov and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to revoke the dual-citizenship agreement on 10 April, when the two leaders met in Moscow to sign a major gas deal (see "Turkmenistan: Niyazov Seals Energy, Security Contracts With Russia," rferl.org, 11 April 2003). Niyazov subsequently issued a decree on 21 April abruptly ordering holders of Turkmen-Russian dual citizenship to renounce one or the other within two months. A political scandal ensued in Russia, with accusations flying that Putin had sold out Turkmenistan's ethnic Russians in a "gas-for-people deal" (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 1 May 2003).

At the end of April, the Russian Foreign Ministry publicly slammed Ashgabat for unilaterally terminating the bilateral treaty on dual citizenship. The ministry said Niyazov's decree violated the understanding he and Putin had come to, that dual citizenship would be phased out over time. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko repeated the point on 4 June, telling journalists that Turkmenistan had acted "against the provisions and procedures stipulated by the protocol [signed by the presidents in April]," Interfax reported. Therefore, Yakovenko said, the agreement on dual citizenship was still in effect as far as the Russian Federation was concerned. (In any case, the Russian Duma, or lower chamber of parliament, has not yet ratified the protocol on revoking dual citizenship with Turkmenistan. Turkmen lawmakers ratified it promptly in April.) Furthermore, Yakovenko emphasized that the protocol "has no retroactive force," meaning that people who already have dual citizenship cannot be stripped of it, as Ashgabat is intending to do. Finally, the spokesman promised that Moscow was taking active measures through diplomatic channels to ensure that the rights and interests of its compatriots in Turkmenistan were not being infringed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 June 2003).

The Russian Foreign Ministry then dispatched a delegation to Ashgabat, led by Director of the Consular Service Department Vladimir Kotenev, to try to hash out a solution with their Turkmen counterparts on 6-7 June. The latter made their negotiating position clear with a 6 June press statement from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry that reaffirmed its withdrawal from the dual-citizenship agreement as "logical and legitimate." On the first day of talks, the Russian side strove to convince the Turkmen that their action contravened the norms of international law, ITAR-TASS reported. The Turkmen side responded with assurances that the rights of Russian citizens in the country would not be infringed, and that deportations or a mass exodus of Russian citizens from Turkmenistan were "out of the question." Yet the second day of talks brought no breakthrough. In lieu of any progress to report, the two sides announced they had agreed to the Turkmen initiative to set up an intergovernmental commission to address the citizenship issue. But Kotenev admitted in a press conference that he did not know if the proposed commission would even be in place by the 22 June deadline, AP reported. The proposal "should be studied carefully, and only then can its activity be scheduled," he said. Russian sources duly described the discussions as a failure. Turkmen sources, however, were upbeat and touted the commission as a positive outcome (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 June 2003).

As a rule, someone who thinks the creation of a government commission to examine a pressing issue is "a positive outcome" is someone who would dearly like that issue to waste away in bureaucratic limbo. Further evidence that Ashgabat is not taking Moscow's concerns terribly seriously came in a statement from its Foreign Ministry on 8 June. Implying that the whole affair was a storm in a teacup, the statement maintained that termination of the dual-citizenship treaty only affected 47 people. Moscow says there are over 100,000 Turkmen-Russian dual citizens. Ashgabat also asserted in its statement that many people, some of them criminals, have illegally obtained Russian passports.

Meanwhile, as of 23 June, all residents of Turkmenistan entering Russia will require Russian entry visas. Consequently, in order to provide a measure of protection to Russian passport holders in Turkmenistan, the embassy in Ashgabat began issuing them entry visas this week. Several hundred people have lined up outside its doors to obtain visas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 June 2003). By Turkmenistan's reckoning, the majority of them must be thieves and forgers. More seriously, if the best protection the Russian Federation can offer its passport holders is an entry visa -- the equivalent of a one-time, get-out-of-jail-free card -- then Russians in Turkmenistan have reason to be worried.

...WHILE DUMA DEPUTY KEEPS UP THE PRESSURE. Among the Russian critics of Turkmenistan's new policy toward their compatriots, one of the most acerbic has been Dmitrii Rogozin, the head of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee. On 23 May, Rogozin, as quoted by ITAR-TASS, said that parliament members would look into "serious and very alarming information showing that preparations for a large-scale deportation of Russians are under way in Turkmenistan," and then he threw in for good measure, "and that the Turkmen administration had direct ties to the Taliban." Russian media and some Russian political figures have been investigating the relationship between Turkmenistan and the Taliban, as well as persistent rumors that Niyazov is involved in the international drug trade. Allegations that it is or has been engaged in smuggling narcotics and supporting terrorist groups enraged Ashgabat, which hit back in late May: "The Foreign Ministry of Turkmenistan is protesting the slanderous attacks against Turkmenistan circulated through the Russian media and reserves the right to act in keeping with international law," it said in a statement. Despite the threat, however, Ashgabat has never specified what action it was contemplating.

On 2 June, Interfax reported that the Duma was planning to schedule a discussion on relations with Turkmenistan and focusing on alleged human rights violations there, particularly in regard to ethnic Russians. Rogozin also suggested that the Duma Council hold parliamentary hearings on 24 June devoted to Russia's foreign policy in Central Asia. Moreover, representatives of the Turkmen opposition will be invited to attend the hearings. To explain his committee's concerns about the situation in Turkmenistan, on 9 June Rogozin met with members of the Turkmen opposition in exile in Russia including former Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Dodonov, former Oil and Gas Minister Nazar Soyunov, and Larisa Shikhmuradova, sister of former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov. Rogozin told the exiles he was concerned that the revocation of dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship meant that Russia must prepare for a large influx of refugees or deportees from Turkmenistan. He said his committee was also concerned about the overall state of human rights in Turkmenistan, and possible threats to Russian national security that might originate in Central Asia, such as drug trafficking via Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 June 2003). Meanwhile, oppositionists in exile founded the Republican Party of Turkmenistan on 29 May. According to its website, http://www.tm-republican.com, the party's platform incorporates all the most laudable aims of a modern democratic polity.

Given that Moscow has never shown much interest in Turkmenistan's domestic goings-on before, a fundamental question about Rogozin's actions is whether he is just a rogue parliamentarian with a conscience or whether he is signaling a shift in governmental policy toward Ashgabat. According to Russian journalist Boris Volkhonskii, "It is not a secret for anyone in Russia that Mr. Rogozin never makes statements on his own initiative, and he always speaks with instructions from the Kremlin." According to other analysts, however, the Duma is primarily a talking shop whose opinions are more or less ignored by the government (see "Russia/Turkmenistan: Are Tensions Growing Between Moscow And Ashgabat?", rferl.org, 30 May 2003). Rozogin's decision to support Turkmen opposition figures contradicts the line recently taken by the government, which has been to accede to persistent demands from Ashgabat that Moscow neutralize (or in some cases hunt down and extradite) Niyazov's opponents in Russia, apparently as a condition for signing the gas deal in April.

TAJIK POLITICIAN LOST, FOUND, CHARGED. The arrest of Shamsiddin Shamsiddinov, the deputy chairman of Tajikistan's opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), has awakened fresh fears of a government crackdown against its political rivals, especially groups with an Islamic coloring. The nature of Shamsiddinov's detention also raised questions about judicial procedure and human rights violations in Tajikistan.

Shamsiddinov disappeared from his home in the city of Chkalovsk in Sughd Oblast on the morning of 30 May in what was initially believed to be a kidnapping. He was spotted later the same day at the airport -- accompanied, according to some witnesses, by the head of the city's Criminal Investigation Department -- being hustled into a plane, handcuffed, and with a sack over his head, Asia-Plus reported, citing IRP spokesman Hikmatullo Saifullozoda on 3 June. The authorities did not formally acknowledge that they were responsible for Shamsiddinov's disappearance until 4 June, when the country's chief military prosecutor, Major General Sharif Qorbonov, told the ITAR-TASS news agency that he had been arrested by security services on a warrant issued by his own office. The authorities vouchsafed no further information about the prisoner, save that he was suspected of "serious crimes." Their intransigence prompted the IRP to appeal to the Dushanbe offices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the UN for help in establishing Shamsiddinov's whereabouts and clarifying the circumstances under which he was detained (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 June 2003). It transpired he had been transferred to a confinement cell in the capital Dushanbe. His family and fellow party members were not permitted to see him, and he was denied access to a lawyer, the IRP spokesman told Asia-Plus on 5 June.

The following day, Qorbonov announced that Shamsiddinov had been charged with creating an armed paramilitary formation as well as involvement in various crimes including murder. The military prosecutor also rejected as untrue the IRP claim that the prisoner had been denied access to a lawyer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 June 2003). Qorbonov added that the arrest had been preceded by a long and careful investigation into Shamsiddinov's alleged activities, and that the prosecution had gathered witnesses and other forms of evidence against him. But at a press conference in Dushanbe on 9 June, IRP leader Said Abdullo Nuri declared that law enforcement officials had actually had a warrant for someone else and thus had arrested the wrong man, yet were unwilling to admit their mistake, Deutsche Welle reported. Nuri repeated the claims that the prisoner had not been allowed to see a lawyer. He also said that police had beaten up Shamsiddinov twice while in detention, once so badly that they had to call an ambulance.

Analysts speculate that Shamsiddinov's arrest may have a broader significance in the context of the government's battle against radical Islam, particularly the banned Muslim extremist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir. While the IRP is a legally registered party (the only one in Central Asia), it may be relevant that Shamsiddinov used to be party chief for Sughd Oblast, which the government of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov has long suspected of being a hotbed of potential Islamist activity in the country. In its 2003 World Report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch noted that the Tajik authorities, like other Central Asian governments, had "stepped up their repression of the group [Hizb ut-Tahrir], arresting, trying, and convincing dozens of members for distributing leaflets and other nonviolent activities" (see "Central Asia: In Tajikistan And Elsewhere, Islamic Groups Still On The Fringe," rferl.org, 6 June 2003). On 5 June, the Sughd Oblast criminal court sentenced an alleged activist of the group to 14 years in a strict-regime penal colony. Another two alleged members were sentenced to three- and five-year terms in prison on 30 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2003). Meanwhile in Moscow, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said on 9 June that it had arrested 121 illegal immigrants suspected of having ties with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Some of the arrested militants were allegedly preparing terrorist attacks against the presidents of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan (see "Russia: Security Forces Dismantle Alleged Moscow-Based Cell Of Hizb Ut-Tahrir," rferl.org, 10 June 2003). While Rakhmonov has not yet felt sufficiently threatened by Muslim organizations to launch the same kind of a comprehensive crackdown against all non-state religious-oriented groups as his counterpart in Uzbekistan, concerns have been growing that the Tajik president might soon get spooked into doing so. The IRP officially condemns the radical ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for the creation of a single Islamic caliphate but by non-violent means, and on the face of things the IRP has little significant influence on Tajikistan's politics, having won just two parliamentary seats in the (flawed) 2000 general elections. Nevertheless, observers will be watching to see if the Shamsiddinov affair is an isolated case, or a harbinger of worse times to come.

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