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Turkmen Report: February 24, 2004


24 February 2004
NATIONAL NEWS
Turkmenistan Tells UN It Will Destroy Its Antipersonnel Mines
21 February 2004

Turkmenistan has sent the United Nations a letter announcing the country's plan to destroy some 60,000 antipersonnel mines it possesses, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 February.

The letter, addressed to the UN General Assembly, said the process of destroying the mines started on 1 February. The letter also requests that the UN send observers to oversee and verify the destruction of its mines. The letter also noted Turkmenistan is taking the step in keeping with the Ottawa Convention, which bans the use, storage, or production of land mines. Turkmenistan is among the 141 countries that has ratified the document. (ITAR-TASS)

Turkmenistan Marks Flag Day And President's Birthday
19 February 2004

Gala celebrations marked Flag Day in Turkmenistan on 19 February as thousands turned out in the central stadium in the capital Ashgabat to pay their respects to the country's president on his 64th birthday, AP reported the same day.

Some 30,000 people gathered in the new Olympic stadium where a children's chorus sang happy birthday to Niyazov in Turkmen and English. Also on 19 February, Niyazov placed flowers at an independence monument as foreign diplomats stood by watching.

Niyazov, or, as he prefers to be called Turkmenbashi, is the central figure in Turkmen politics. Statues of Niyazov are present nearly everywhere, while state farms, streets, a city, and a bay off the Caspian Sea also bear his name. (AP)

Turkmenistan To Double Energy Supplies To Turkey
19 February 2004

Turkmenistan will double the amount of electricity it supplies to Turkey, ITAR-TASS reported on 19 February. The decision was made at a meeting between President Niyazov and Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Guler on 18 February.

They signed an agreement on the increase in 2004 from 300 megawatts under the contracts for this year to 600 megawatts.

"Turkmenistan's energy capacity, which is growing every year, allows the further increase of electricity exports to Iran and Afghanistan," the Turkmen president said at the meeting.

Turkmenistan plans to produce 12.5 billion kilowatt-hours (kW/h) of energy this year. The Turkmenistan-Iran-Turkey energy bridge was commissioned on 12 December 2003, and 90 million kW/h of electricity was exported in the last two months.

The issue of natural-gas supplies from Turkmenistan to Turkey via Iran was another important topic of the meeting. Iran has imported Turkmen natural gas through the 200-kilometer Korpeje-Kurt Kui oil pipeline with a capacity of 8 billion cubic meters of gas a year since 1998. "Turkey is interested in speeding up solutions to issues related to the export of natural gas from Turkmenistan," the Turkish minister said. (ITAR-TASS)

Niyazov Denies Anti-Russian Sentiment In Turkmenistan
19 February 2004

There have never been any kind of anti-Russian sentiments in Turkmenistan, President Niyazov told visiting St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko on 18 February, ITAR-TASS reported the next day. "The people of Turkmenistan have deep respect for the Russian people," he added. "The first monument to Aleksandr Pushkin in Central Asia appeared here in Ashgabat in 1904, and its installation was sponsored by the public quarters."

Niyazov continued, "Rumors in the Russian media on alleged infringements of the rights of Russians in Turkmenistan are upsetting sometimes." He had to admit at the same time that many Russians had left his country.

As Matvienko and he met in the presence of reporters, Niyazov mentioned the plight of the country's only Russian drama theater, which was compelled to move out of its old classical building, which is being torn down, and to perform in the club of a silk factory on the city outskirts. Since the issue is stirring the Russian-speaking community, Niyazov indicated that a part of Turkmenistan's debt to Russia, now standing at $100 million, could be used to construct a new building for the theater.

A few days ago, the Turkmen Mahtumkuli theater was opened in a gala ceremony in Ashgabat. This $17 million building was built by the Turkish company Polimex. (ITAR-TASS)

St. Petersburg Governor Signs Cooperation Agreement In Turkmenistan
18 February 2004

St. Petersburg Governor Matvienko, in Ashgabat to take part in President Niyazov's birthday celebrations, signed an agreement with Niyazov on 18 February covering cooperation in economic issues, science and technology, and culture, turkmenistan.ru reported the same day.

Matvienko said the accord marks the first time that Turkmenistan has signed such an agreement with any part of the Russian Federation. The Turkmen side is reportedly particularly interested in obtaining technical equipment for the oil and gas industry from St. Petersburg.

Niyazov, who studied in St. Petersburg, recently made a large financial donation to St. Petersburg University and encouraged the establishment there of a center to study Turkmen history and culture. (Turkmenistan.ru)

FEATURES AND ANALYSIS
HIV In Central Asian Prisons Poses Threat To Public Health
23 February 2004

By Antoine Blua

Few governments in the world have acted decisively to provide comprehensive HIV prevention, care, and treatment services for prisoners.

In Central Asia, a primary hub of drug abuse and HIV infection is found behind prison walls. And every year, tens of thousands of prisoners are released from overcrowded and poorly funded jails, spreading the virus to the general populace. In this way, the region's penal systems are functioning as incubators for HIV.

Observers say prevention programs are key if Central Asia is to avoid a full-blown AIDS epidemic. Rick Lines is the executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust in Dublin. "Good prison health is good public health," he said. "The health of people in prison is very much related to community health. Therefore, governments have more than an ethical responsibility to act in the best interests of prison health."

Lines and other activists have drafted the "Dublin Declaration on HIV/AIDS in Prisons in Europe and Central Asia," a framework for mounting an effective response to HIV/AIDS in the prisons of the region. The document will be launched as representatives of 55 governments from Europe and Central Asia gather in Dublin on 23 and 24 February to discuss the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region.

The declaration recommends the implementation of HIV prevention measures such as needle-exchange programs and providing condoms in prisons. It also stresses that prisoners have the right to receive HIV/AIDS treatment and care equivalent to that available outside the prison.

Burkhanov Mamasobir heads the addiction treatment clinic in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh. He agrees that drug counseling and needle-exchange programs are very important in prisons. "The biggest percentage of drug users are criminals who spend most of their time in prison, where they continue to use drugs. And they don't have the possibility to exchange needles. Many people use the same needle and there is a danger of quick HIV spread," Mamasobir said.

Half of Kyrgyzstan's registered HIV cases are located within the prison population.

Rudick Adamian, from the UNAIDS Central Asia office in Almaty, says pilot prevention programs in prisons are now operational in most of the region's republics. But antiretroviral drug treatment -- which slows the progression of HIV infection into full-blown AIDS -- is not yet available, because of a lack of resources.

"During the past couple of years most of the discriminative approach in HIV/AIDS prevention -- compulsory tests and [isolation] -- has shifted. Four [Central Asian] countries -- except Turkmenistan -- now have well-designed strategic programs. Based on their strategic programs, [the] four countries have obtained grants from [the] Global Fund [created to finance the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria]. And it's already operational in three countries. Uzbekistan [will receive] funding in May-June this year," Adamian said.

Since sexual relations and drug use in prisons are officially prohibited, condoms and sterile injecting equipment are generally unavailable.

However, Adamian says significant efforts have been made in Kazakhstan to initiate disease prevention in all prisons, including educating prison staff and supplying condoms to prisoners.

Dmitrii Rechnov works for the AIDS Foundation East West, an international organization currently working in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. He says he believes the Kazakh leadership is politically ready to develop a good health care system for prisoners that will include access to substitution treatments for drug addicts like methadone.

In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the two poorest CIS states, progress has been slower. But Rechnov notes that needle-exchange programs have been introduced in the Kyrgyz penal system. "Kyrgyzstan is the only [Central Asian] country where needle exchange really exists in all prison facilities. Also, policymakers and medical staff of the prison facilities are ready to start substitution therapies. But because of the lack of funding it's just a decision on paper," Rechnov said.

Tajikistan is a particular source of concern, as it shares a long border with Afghanistan, the world's top opium producer. The country is still recovering from a devastating five-year civil war in the 1990s. In general, Rechnov noted, a lot of work needs to be done to improve the prisons' medical staffs. For instance, he says, his organization has counseled the medical team employed at a Tajik prison colony on how best to inform infected inmates that they are HIV-positive.

UNAIDS' Adamian says Central Asian states have used pilot projects to gain experience. But he stresses that experience must now be applied to wide-scale programs in order to halt the growing threat of an HIV epidemic. "All countries now have better practice experiences with small-scale pilot projects among vulnerable groups. The issue today is using the Global Fund and resources from donors to expand this knowledge for a larger-scale intervention," Adamian said.

Central Asia has until recently reported relatively low numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS. But the number of new infections is beginning to grow rapidly, particularly among injecting drug users.

According to Adamian, 4,000 HIV cases have been documented in Kazakhstan, including more than 600 in prisons. There are 3,500 cases in Uzbekistan, 451 in Kyrgyzstan, and 120 in Tajikistan. Adamian stresses that real figures are likely to be much higher. Turkmenistan has reported only two HIV cases so far. International health workers are denied access to Turkmen prisons.

(Ainura Asankojoeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

Ashgabat Marks Flag Day As President Prepares To Show 'Real Turkmenistan' To The World
19 February 2004

By Bruce Pannier

Saparmurat Niyazov presides over a country known to many as the "hermit kingdom."

But the "Leader of All Turkmen," or Turkmenbashi, now says he wants the world to become better acquainted with Turkmenistan -- and is launching a new satellite television station to that end.

"The world does not know what is happening in Turkmenistan -- the economic growth, the changes in society. We live in an interesting time, you would be amazed at the changes in Ashgabat -- the streets, the buildings, the monuments, and the huge lake they are building for the future, the factories and plants," Niyazov said.

To be sure, Turkmenistan has undergone many changes since gaining independence in 1991. The capital Ashgabat has new buildings and a scattering of largely empty five-star hotels. It also has the Arch of Neutrality -- commemorating the United Nations decision in 1995 to grant the country neutral status -- complete with a revolving golden statue of Niyazov that perpetually faces the sun.

And it has the artificial lake touted by the president. The project, being built in desert lands at an estimated cost of $6.5 billion, does not actually mean more water for Turkmenistan. It just means the same amount of water, in a different place.

It is unclear how such achievements have affected the lives of ordinary Turkmen citizens, who continue to struggle on an average monthly wage of less than $20.

Today's Flag Day celebrations -- which also mark Turkmenbashi's 64th birthday -- showed a public living in harmony with their leader. A children's chorus sang Niyazov's praises in Turkmen and English, and a magnificent chestnut stallion was presented to the president.

Not everyone, though, is content. Sixty-five-year-old Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev last month told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service how he planned to spend Flag Day: "I am asking for written permission to hold a protest on 18 and 19 February 2004 in the central square of Balkanabat. I have never been a supporter of bloodshed and I would never call on anyone to shed blood. I am proud of my country and my people. I love them."

If Durdykuliev had said his protest was intended to draw attention to bureaucratic corruption or environmental issues, he might have received the permission he sought. But that was not what he wanted. "We want to demonstrate our dissatisfaction with the activities of the president and his bureaucracy," he said. "During this protest we will demand from the authorities that they pay more attention to the suffering of the people."

Since then, according to the Amnesty International rights watchdog, Durdykuliev has been forcibly taken from his home and is now reportedly being held in a psychiatric hospital.

The story isn't likely to be among those mentioned on Turkmenistan's new satellite television station. Nor is Niyazov's recent announcement that some 15,000 health-care workers -- nearly 15 percent of the sector's employees -- will soon be losing their jobs. It is just the latest in a series of significant cuts to Turkmenistan's health-care system. The Turkmen Health Ministry says the laid-off employees will likely be replaced by conscripted soldiers.

Niyazov says it will cost at least $13 million to get the satellite station on the air, and is holding a tender for the contract next month. Soon, the world may be able to get news in Russian, English, French, Chinese, and Farsi on what Turkmenbashi calls "the real Turkmenistan." It remains to be seen, however, if Niyazov's Turkmenistan has anything in common with what the rest of the world sees.

Oleg Panfilov, of Russia's Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, said, "It seems Turkmenbashi is confusing information with propaganda."

(Rozinazar Khoudaiberiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)

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