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Turkmen Report: December 2, 2002

2 December 2002
Niyazov Escapes Assassination Attempt

25 November 2002

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov claimed to have escaped an attempt on his life on 25 November in Ashgabat, RFE/RL reported the same day. ITAR-TASS reported a source close to the Turkmen government as saying the attempt on President Niyazov's life happened in the center of Ashgabat as he was traveling to work. Several of the attackers were reported dead and at least one bodyguard seriously wounded.

President Niyazov said his political opponents -- four former government ministers -- organized the attack. In a televised speech, he said the gunmen, who allegedly fired shots at his motorcade, were detained.

Speaking at an emergency cabinet meeting the same day as the assassination attempt, Niyazov said a truck pulled out and blocked the path of his car. Attackers then opened fire on the presidential convoy from the truck and two other vehicles. The president said the truck ran over a traffic police officer, who was hospitalized and underwent surgery. The Interfax news agency reported one of the president's bodyguards was injured.

Niyazov named former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Iklymov as the main organizer of the attack. The three other suspects -- former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former National Bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov, and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov -- have been accused of stealing state property and are wanted by police but have been hiding outside the country, Niyazov said. He said he has appealed to the leaders of Russia and Turkey, which are allegedly harboring the men, to extradite them immediately. But on 1 December Interfax reported, citing a source with the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, that Russian federal law-enforcement agencies have not received any requests or appeals from Turkmenistan, which would be related to a recent assassination attempt on Niyazov in Ashgabat.

RFE/RL on 26 November quoted presidential spokesman Serdar Durdiev as saying that 16 people have been arrested in connection with the assassination attempt, four of whom are citizens of Georgia. The Russian human rights organization Memorial said a more accurate figure was closer to 100. Georgia's state intelligence department chief, Avtandil Ioseliani, said ethnic Georgians detained in Ashgabat did not take part in the assassination attempt on President Niyazov, Interfax reported on 27 November. They were detained because they did not have Turkmen visas, Ioseliani said.

The exiled opposition leaders named by Niyazov as the organizers of an attempt on his life contacted RFE/RL's Turkmen Service on 26 November and denied any involvement in the murder bid. According to an Interfax report on 30 November, Khudaiberdy Orazov claimed that Niyazov himself plotted the act. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service)

Meeting Demands Death For Attackers Of Turkmen President

27 November 2002

A meeting in support of President Niyazov in Ashgabat on 27 November demanded the death penalty for those alleged to have attacked him, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported the same day.

The 1,500-strong meeting of representatives of 70 public groups unanimously voted for asking the parliament of the Central Asian republic to pass a special resolution saying that "all masterminds and perpetrators of the attempt on the life of the president must be declared traitors of the Motherland, and the death penalty must be applied to them on an exceptional basis." Capital punishment was banned in Turkmenistan in 1999.

The meeting's participants also called for an address to governments of countries where four former high-ranking government officials labeled by Niyazov as organizers of the assassination attempt are staying. "They must be turned over to Turkmenistan, where they will be put to trial and punished," one of speakers said. (Interfax, ITAR-TASS)

Turkmen President Frees 8,000 Prisoners

1 December 2002

President Niyazov has freed some 8,000 prisoners from the country's jails under an amnesty to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, AFP and ITAR-TASS reported.

Turkmen officials said on 1 December that the amnesty covered 162 foreigners, mostly from Iran, Afghanistan, and former Soviet republics, convicted of drug-related crimes.

According to the officials, women, the elderly, underage people, and prisoners in poor health, as well as those sentenced for minor crimes, were also freed. Niyazov frees thousands of prisoners annually in this former Soviet republic. (AFP, ITAR-TASS)

Turkmenistan-Pakistan Gas-Pipeline Deal To Be Signed

28 November 2002

A contract to lay a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan across Afghanistan is to be signed at a three-nation summit meeting in Ashgabat in December, Prime-TASS reported on 28 November, citing a statement by President Niyazov on national television. The pipeline will be some 1,500 kilometers in length and cost $2 billion to lay.

Niyazov has invited Afghan leader Hamid Karzai to the summit in Ashgabat on 26-27 December. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is expected to attend, too. Originally the contract was scheduled to be signed in October, but the ceremony was postponed at Musharraf's request. (Prime-TASS)

Itera Prepared To Continue Cooperation With Turkmenistan In 2003

25 November 2002

Itera is prepared to remain in charge of transporting and selling Turkmenistan's natural gas on foreign markets in 2003, Interfax cited Itera chief Igor Makarov as saying at a meeting with members of the Turkmen cabinet in Ashgabat on 27 November. The meeting discussed details of a contract on transporting and selling 10 billion cubic meters of gas in 2003.

The two sides agreed on specific steps to be made in preparation for developing oil and gas fields on the Turkmen shelf of the Caspian Sea jointly with Russia's Rosneft and Zarubezhneft companies.

Itera, Rosneft, and Zarubezhneft have accepted President Niyazov's invitation to share in developing of those fields and registered the private company Zarit in Moscow. Rosneft and Itera's subsidiary Gazkhiminvest each hold 37 percent stakes in Zarit, and Zarubezhneft has 26 percent.

Zarit is expected to develop several areas on the Caspian shelf and on the northern bank of the Amu-Darya field. (Interfax)

Over 100 Armenians Sent Home From Turkmenistan

25 November 2002

A charter plane on 25 November took 113 Armenians from Ashgabat to their home country, Interfax reported on 25 November. They had lived illegally in Turkmenistan for several years. The voluntary repatriation action was organized by the Armenian Embassy in Ashgabat and the office of the International Organization for Migration.

A spokesman for the office told reporters that the action was sponsored by the Norwegian government, which offered a grant for over $50,000. The money was spent not only on the transportation of the Armenians, but also on benefits of $200 for every adult and $100 for every child.

The Armenian Embassy is forming another group of people willing to return to their homeland. Most of the Armenians living in Turkmenistan without a permit arrived in the early 1990s after ethnic clashes in Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh. (Interfax)

Main Suspects In Plot To Assassinate Turkmen President Deny Charges

27 November 2002

By Bruce Pannier

On 25 November, just hours after a reported assassination attempt against Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen president said he knew who was behind the attack. He said those who carried out the assassination attempt "were hired, given weapons and sent to carry out the shooting. They got high and tried to carry out their orders. Punishment will be brought to them. But they are not the ones who bear the main responsibility. There are others who stand behind them -- Shikhmuradov, Khanamov, Orazov, and Iklymov. They won't go far, and will one day come into my grasp."

Niyazov was referring to former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Iklymov, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov, and Turkmenistan's former ambassador to Turkey, Nurmukhammed Khanamov.

The four men have several things in common. All were high-ranking officials in Niyazov's government who eventually declared themselves opponents of the regime. All left the country rather than face criminal charges of corruption at home. And all say they are innocent of any connection to the attempted assassination.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service has spoken with all four men. Iklymov, who was singled out by Niyazov as the alleged mastermind, denied plotting the assassination. Iklymov, who has spent the past several years living in Sweden, said he has no interest in returning to Turkmenistan. "For me, there is no post [in Turkmenistan] I need. I left eight years ago and have been living in isolation since."

Iklymov admitted that he opposes Niyazov's regime. But he said the opposition's battle against the Turkmen president has always been an intellectual one and said violence would never be used to advance the cause. Of the other three alleged co-conspirators, Iklymov said he knows them, but "we don't have a warm relationship."

Iklymov was not well-known before the attempt on Niyazov's life. The only reported evidence offered by Turkmen officials linking Iklymov to the attempted assassination is the allegation that the vehicles used by the attackers all belonged to a company owned by one of Iklymov's relatives.

Iklymov said he learned of all these events from the safety of his home in Sweden. But he said he is alarmed that the search for perpetrators appears to be centering on his family back in Turkmenistan. "My relatives have all been arrested -- women, girls, children. It is a disgrace that Niyazov is fighting with women, girls, and children."

A security lockdown in Ashgabat since the day of the attempt has so far reportedly yielded 16 suspects.

But the Russian human rights organization Memorial says the number comes closer to 100. A statement released by Memorial said, "Among those taken into custody, are a large number of relatives of...Sapar Iklymov." The statement said six family members were taken into custody from the house of Iklymov's mother alone.

Former Foreign Minister Shikhmuradov also said that he had no part in the assassination attempt and dismissed Niyazov's charges as an attempt to eliminate four of his leading opponents in a single stroke. "Niyazov simply decided, with one wave of his hand, to get rid of all of us immediately. Therefore, like a great detective or master sleuth, right after the so-called terrorist act he revealed that he knows who the guilty are, who the instigators are, and named them."

Shikhmuradov said Niyazov is overestimating the Turkmen opposition's appetite for violence and what he called "animal methods." Although he suggested such methods might eventually be necessary to bring about change, he said the Turkmen opposition felt no particular need to resort to such tactics at this time.

Khudaiberdy Orazov, the former deputy prime minister and National Bank head, also denied any role in the attack and said the assassination attempt -- which allegedly took place as Niyazov was being driven to work -- seemed strange. "Niyazov has two vehicles -- a Mercedes and a jeep. Both have double-plate armor. These vehicles can not be destroyed by machine guns or even rocket-propelled grenades. Think for a minute. The alleged attackers let Niyazov go by, then they blocked the road in front of the police [following Niyazov]. If the plan had worked it wouldn't have been for eliminating Niyazov."

The attackers used machine guns. They had three vehicles, allegedly all belonging to a relative of Iklymov. A large KamAZ truck blocked the road, allowing armed men to jump out from two passenger cars and begin firing. Niyazov himself said he didn't know about the attack until he arrived at work. Several bystanders and a security officer were reportedly injured in an exchange of gunfire.

Nurmukhammed Khanamov, the former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey, likewise denied any role in the attack. He offered an explanation for why he, Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and Iklymov had been named as suspects in what the Turkmen government has branded an "international terrorist" plot. "[The Western governments that have offered us asylum] understand Niyazov's accusations [about our past corruption] are groundless. These accusations have not brought results. And now, the world is focusing on terrorism and it is fashionable to fight terrorism, so Niyazov wants to portray us as terrorists so we will be returned to Turkmenistan."

Steve Sabol is a professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in Turkmenistan. He said he doubts the four former officials could have managed to organize the assassination attempt from their distant locations. "I'm not convinced by what I've seen that it could be organized, as Niyazov claims, by Shikhmuradov, Iklymov, or Orazov because they're in exile. So, my feeling is that it's someone inside the country who was recently let go, either from the security forces, internal ministries, or the Agriculture Ministry."

Many Agriculture Ministry officials were sacked earlier this month following the country's extremely poor cotton harvest. The National Security Committee was also purged this year, from the ministerial level down. The Defense and Interior ministries have experience similar mass sackings in years past.

There is so far little to link the four men to the alleged crime. The Memorial statement said the Turkmen authorities "have not offered any evidence of the involvement of the 'new opposition' to the assassination attempt," besides the usual antiopposition statements seen for months now.

Several analysts have pointed out that in a country like Turkmenistan, where Niyazov -- who proudly bears the parliament-bestowed title of "Turkmenbashi," or father of all Turkmen -- rules the country with ruthless authority and a dim view of human rights, there is no shortage of people who may have wished to see him dead. (RFE/RL)

Moscow Brushes Off Turkmen Accusations

27 November 2002

By Gregory Feifer

Politicians have dismissed as absurd claims that suspected plotters of an assassination attempt against Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov were given protection in Russia. But while the political exchange between Moscow and Ashgabat reflects uneasy relations between the two former Soviet countries, it does not look set to further deteriorate ties.

Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov is director of Moscow's Center for Political Studies. He said the accusation is the kind of exchange that has become standard between Moscow and Ashgabat. "This will not be forgotten, but it will not have any major consequences," he predicted.

Niyazov's spokesman said the assassination attempt on the president's motorcade by masked gunmen -- which left several people injured but Niyazov unscathed -- was the work of exiled political opponents with support from Russia.

A number of politicians in Moscow condemned the accusation yesterday. Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, said the accusations were "so absurd that they need no commentary," Interfax reported. Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin, was quoted by Interfax as saying that "to accuse our country of taking part in a terrorist act against Niyazov is utterly crazy."

Some politicians said an assassination attempt on Niyazov was not unexpected inside a dictatorship.

Niyazov has ruled Turkmenistan for the past 17 years. The country largely consists of desert, but holds lucrative mineral wealth in the Caspian Sea on its borders.

The Caspian is estimated to contain the world's third-largest oil and gas reserves. But development has been hampered by a decade-long dispute over the sea's status. Russia -- together with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which have relatively long Caspian coastlines -- wants the sea divided into sections reflecting the size of those shorelines.

Turkmenistan, along with the remaining littoral state, Iran, says each country should have an equal 20 percent share of the sea.

Russia spearheaded a summit meeting involving all five states last April, but failed to reach a consensus, drawing criticism of Turkmenistan from Moscow.

Moscow is also wary of Niyazov's regime in general. The autocratic former Communist Party chief -- who has been dubbed "Turkmenbashi," or Father of all Turkmen -- rules his country with an iron fist, ruthlessly pursuing political opponents. He declared himself president for life in 1999 and has built a cult of personality around himself, recently renaming even the months of the year after himself and members of his family.

Niyazov has accused a number of former top officials of masterminding the assassination attempt. One of them, a former foreign minister and close presidential aide, Boris Shikhmuradov, fled in 2001 to Moscow, where he launched a stinging attack against his former boss.

An outraged Niyazov demanded his extradition, which Russia still refuses, further fueling distrust between the two countries.

Moscow is also generally unhappy over alleged discrimination against ethnic Russians living in Turkmenistan and has accused Ashgabat of failing to control its border with Afghanistan.

Markov, of the Center for Political Studies, said Niyazov accused not the Russian government as a whole but individual politicians who maintain contacts with the increasingly restive Turkmen opposition. As such, Markov said, the charge leveled by Niyazov's spokesman is not entirely unfounded because a number of political and business organizations indeed have ties to the Central Asian state. "Of course, the Turkmen leader would be very unhappy about that and would try to exert some kind of pressure in connection with that."

But Markov concludes that neither official Moscow nor those organizations close to Turkmenistan will alter their activities as a result of Niyazov's accusations. (RFE/RL)

Attempted Assassination Of Turkmen President Leads To Long List Of Suspects

26 November 2002

By Bruce Pannier

Security remains tight today in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat one day after a reported assassination attempt against the country's president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Niyazov's motorcade reportedly came under fire as he traveled to work Monday morning. Niyazov was not hurt, but several bystanders and a security officer were injured in an exchange of gunfire.

Niyazov himself described what happened yesterday morning as he and his motorcade headed into the capital from the presidential residence on the outskirts of Ashgabat. "It was 7 o'clock in the morning. As I was passing through [Ashgabat], a KamAZ truck appeared behind me and blocked the intersection. A traffic-police car then stopped next to the KamAZ truck. I stopped paying attention and went to work and there I was told there had been shooting. People jumped out of the KamAZ, a BMW, and a Gazel [another car] and started firing," Niyazov said.

Some 16 people have already been detained in the case, including four ethnic Georgians who are not Turkmen citizens. Niyazov's press secretary Serdar Durdiev today referred to the Georgian detainees as "mercenaries" and characterized the attack as an act of "international terrorism."

But that has not changed Niyazov's mind about who was behind the attack. Following an emergency cabinet session yesterday, the Turkmen president named four of his most prominent political rivals and accused them of organizing the attempt on his life.

All four are one-time government officials now living in exile: former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Iklymov, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov, and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov.

Niyazov singled out Iklymov, who left Turkmenistan in 1996, as the main organizer of the attack. The Turkmen president cited as evidence the fact that the vehicles used in the attack reportedly belong to a company owned by one of Iklymov's relatives.

The other three former officials, Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and Khanamov, are all members of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan opposition group, which was formed about one year ago. All four have lived in exile since the Turkmen government handed down corruption charges against them in various cases.

Niyazov has since said "drug addicts" were responsible for the actual shooting but maintained they were acting on the orders of the four former officials. Some of the 16 detainees in the case have reportedly implicated the four as well.

But in a country like Turkmenistan, where Niyazov -- who proudly bears the parliament-bestowed title of "Turkmenbashi," or father of all Turkmen -- rules the country with near-absolute authority, there is no shortage of people who may have wished to see Niyazov dead.

Since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991, Niyazov has cultivated a bizarre cult of personality in which his image dominates all facets of life. Cities and streets bear his name, his portrait adorns the national currency, and his face is a near-constant image on television and in newspapers. In working to promote his ubiquitous persona, Niyazov has shuffled and fired hundreds, perhaps thousands, of officials and jailed or expelled nearly all his opponents.

Shikhmuradov was for a long time an exception in the Turkmen government, occupying various prestigious posts in the government -- deputy prime minister, foreign minister, special adviser to the president on Caspian affairs, and ambassador to China -- from 1991 until his fall from grace late last year.

Most officials, especially ministers, occupy their posts for less than a year before they are dismissed, often in humiliating circumstances.

Alexander Zaslavsky of the New York-based Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy firm, said there are many people with the motivation to seek Niyazov's assassination. "It's interesting to see that the government changes -- that, of course, are so well-known with Niyazov's eccentric style -- have touched not only on the recent appointees but those who were particularly influential and well-entrenched," Zaslavsky said. Zaslavsky cited one such example: Mukhammad Nazarov, the head of the National Security Committee (the institutional heir to the KGB) and a reported longtime ally of Niyazov. Earlier this year, Nazarov was sentenced to 20 years in jail for abuse of office and corruption. His arrest followed rumors that Nazarov himself was orchestrating an assassination attempt on Niyazov.

There are others. Many officials, including ministers, have been dismissed from the Defense and Foreign ministries, often during cabinet sessions that are later broadcast on state television with Niyazov ordering the disgraced officials to "go work in the fields and let the sweat of your brow clean your soul of its crimes against Turkmenistan."

Zaslavsky said this revolving-door policy of near-constant hiring and firing has severely undermined Niyazov's authority in Turkmenistan. "[Niyazov's] continued hunt for opponents within his own government -- of course, almost the entire government was dismissed 10 days ago, as well as four out of five regional governors -- is something that has eroded Niyazov's domestic position considerably. So his undoing is very much a product of his own obsessive search for his domestic enemies," Zaslavsky said.

International human rights organizations are already warning of what may be the wave of arrests that is likely to follow yesterday's assassination attempt on Niyazov. Erika Daily of the New York-based Open Society Institute said, "In the past, the [Turkmen] government has arbitrarily detained and imprisoned civic and politically active individuals and their associates."

Zaslavsky agreed that the arrests that will follow the attempted assassination will likely prove no exception to the pattern already established. "It's certainly safe to assume he won't treat his opponents kindly," Zaslavsky said.

Similar assassination attempts against other Central Asian leaders have prompted a similar law-enforcement crackdown. There were widespread arrests in Tajikistan following the attempted assassination of President Imomali Rakhmonov in April 1997 and in Uzbekistan after the attempt on the life of President Islam Karimov in February 1999. The arrests in Turkmenistan -- dubbed "the hermit kingdom" for its airtight government restrictions on information and travel -- may be even more widespread.

Turkmenistan may not find other countries very receptive to helping in the search for those responsible for the attempt on Niyazov's life. Presidential press secretary Durdiev may have ruled out any possible assistance from Russia today by indirectly accusing Moscow -- which in the past has expressed its resentment of Niyazov's intransigence over natural-gas supplies -- of involvement in the plot. Reuters quoted Durdiev as saying, "I can't say it was done from Russia, but I can say there are political activists in Russia who are protecting the organizers and motivators." (RFE/RL)