9 December 2000
Niyazov on Earthquake
December 8, 2000
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov told an assembly of foreign diplomats that the 6 December earthquake that struck Turkmenistan had caused no damage to modern buildings, and he criticized the Russian media for issuing baseless reports that could induce panic. Niyazov's comments were made at a reception in the presidential palace to mark the 5th anniversary of Turkmenistan's neutrality. Citing his decision to oblige construction contractors to build foundations not less than 17 meters deep, he noted that none of Ashgabat's new skyscrapers were damaged in the quake. (Kommersant, Turkmen TV)
Neutrality Conference to Open in Ashgabat
December 8, 2000
An international conference dedicated to Turkmenistan's policy of permanent neutrality will open in Ashgabat on 9 December, according to a press release distributed by Turkmenistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The release noted that 70 representatives from 25 unidentified countries would participate, along with representatives from various international organizations, including the UN, OSCE, UNICEF and ICRC. The conference is to consider the historical and philosophical basis for Turkmen neutrality and the country's regional peace-making role. (Turkmenistan.ru)
Who's Who: KNB Officers Engaged in Religious Persecution
December 8, 2000
Citing reliable sources, Keston News Service has published a list of 42 officers of Turkmenistan's National Security Committee (KNB) said to be involved in the persecution individuals engaged in unsanctioned religious. Though "far from complete" and unverified, the list includes name, rank, regional affiliation, and a description of specific activities individual officers were involved in. Keston noted that the KNB appears to play a leading role devising religious policy and implementing its punitive aspects. Sources conflict on the identity of the officer in charge of religious affairs at the KNB, some indicating that Khudaiberchen Saparovich Khudaiberdiyev holds that position, while others have named Karadjaev (first name unknown). The KNB operates both at a national level and a local level, with branches in each city and district of the country. Other institutions involved in implementing Turkmenistan's policy toward religion are the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs, the police (militia), the procuracy, the Justice Ministry, the Education Ministry, and local authorities. (Keston News Service).
Afghan Peace Talks in Ashgabat?
December 8, 2000
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov said the two sides in Afghanistan's civil war may hold peace talks with the participation of the United Nations in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on December 12. Niyazov told diplomats in Ashgabat that he has invited representatives of the Taliban movement and of the opposition Northern Alliance, headed by Ahmad Shah Masood, to an exchange of views. He says the UN's special representative for Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, may also take part in the talks. (RFE/RL)
Niyazov: Afghanistan Non-Threat...
December 7, 2000
Speaking to representatives of diplomatic missions accredited to Ashgabat, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov declared that Afghanistan does not pose any threat to neighboring countries, and that ultimatums, military action, or the isolation of Afghanistan will not produce the intended results, but, "will only worsen the people's suffering." Niyazov's remarks, made at a gathering pegged the fifth anniversary of Turkmenistan's declaration of neutrality on December 12, represent his reaction to growing indications that Russia and the US have agreed to join forces in isolating the Taliban. (Interfax)
...Russia "Slacks" in Arranging Gas Contract
December 7, 2000
Niyazov described as "slack" Russia's position in drawing up contracts for the purchase of Turkmen natural gas in 2001. Moscow is losing an opportunity to obtain beneficial contracts, Niyazov remarked. Turkmen gas costs $40 for 1,000 cubic meters, while transit via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- $18, making the Russian border price for Turkmen gas $58, Niyazov said. (Interfax, Itar-Tass)
Cross-Border Gas Line Opens?
December 7, 2000
A second transmission line for the export of Turkmen gas to Iran was officially inaugurated on 1 December, according to media reports in Turkmenistan and Iran. The pipeline connects the Artiq region, 100-km north of Ashgabat, with Iran's Loftabad border region, reportedly. According to the Turkmen Minister of Oil and Mines, Khoshgaldi Babayev, the gas line will transport 15 million cubic meters in 2001. (IRNA, Neutral Turkmenistan)
December 6, 2000
A moderate earthquake lasting some three minutes hit Turkmenistan, leaving many residents to flee into the streets. No reports of injuries, casualties or significant damage were registered. In separate remarks broadcast subsequently on Turkmen TV, Niyazov identified the quake's epicenter as the southern part of the Caspian, close to the Iranian-Turkmen border, about 500 kilometers west of Ashgabat. At its epicenter, the earthquake measured 7 points on the Richter scale. It measured 5 points in the towns of Turkmenbashi, Khazar and Balkanabat and 4.5 points in Ashgabat. (Turkmen TV, Reuters, RFE/RL Turkmen Service) See feature article below.
Amnesty International on Detentions, Torture of Four
December 6, 2000
Citing a report from news agency Compass Direct, Amnesty International has called for an immediate protest against the detention and torture of four Protestant Christians in Turkmenistan. The four -- Babamurat Gayebov (aged 27), Umit Koshkarov (aged 25), Batir Nurov (aged 23), Shokhrat Piriyev (aged 27) -- have reportedly been detained and severely tortured because of their religious beliefs. They were arrested after the secret police, the National Security Committee (KNB), found Protestant videos in their car in the wake of 21 November automobile accident. The four have reportedly been summoned several times to the KNB building in Anau, near Ashgabat, where they were tortured and forced to state in writing that they "voluntarily donated" everything they owned as a "gift to the President of Turkmenistan". (Amnesty International)
Finnish Envoy Presents Credentials
December 4, 2000
Tapio Saarela, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Finland, presented his credentials to Chairman of Turkmenistan's parliament [Mejlis] Sakhet Nepesovich Myradov. (Turkmen State News Service Agency)
Human Rights Watch: Stronger Institutions Needed
December 8, 2000
By Beatrice Hogan, RFE/RL
The world lacks the institutional support to deal with deteriorating human rights conditions in many countries.
That's the conclusion of this year's annual report on human rights by the US.-based non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch.
The report surveyed conditions for basic human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of worship, in 70 countries, including many former communist countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The report notes progress in some areas, particularly in the countries of former Yugoslavia, but points out deficiencies in many others. In many Central Asian states, this year marked a step backward in human rights.
The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, says the sheer scope of human rights problems outstrips countries' capacity to deal with the problems. He says international institutions are inadequate.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Roth says that no international institution exists that has enforcement power to ensure that economic growth in developing countries also respects rights of workers to decent wages and working conditions:
"We need to undermine the so-called 'race to the bottom' and make sure the global economy expands on the basis of respect for human rights. And we need an institution to do that."
Roth says the current level of financial support for the United Nations is insufficient. He says that the same countries that expect the UN to deal with numerous humanitarian and human rights crises have also been withholding the necessary funds and personnel.
Roth also calls on the world community to fortify the international system of justice -- particularly the International Criminal Court.
Roth says this lack of international commitment has allowed many human rights abuses to go unchecked.
He says that in Russia, for example, international lenders continued to loan Moscow millions of dollars while reports of summary executions of civilians, the widespread use of torture and the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas were coming out of Chechnya.
Roth says the development of civil liberties has been uneven across the former Soviet territories:
"There are too many places where the government seems to think that these are still Soviet times and that it is entitled to crack down on anyone who dares to join an independent organization, pray independently to a god, or speak out independently against the government. And I have in mind countries like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan where you would have a hard time distinguishing the current government with the government of the Soviet era.
Cassandra Cavanaugh is a researcher for Human Rights Watch who monitors conditions in Central Asia.
She tells RFE/RL that the year 2000 was noteworthy for marking a step backward in human rights conditions in that region:
"We look at the year 2000 as the decisive turning-back point -- the point at which it should be clear to everyone around the world that these countries are not engaged in democratic transition. They are engaged in a transition to authoritarianism."
She points to the situation in Uzbekistan, where this year many people were arrested for engaging in what the government says is illegal religious activity. Cavanaugh says that to some extent the Uzbek government is reacting to repeated incursions on its territory by armed groups, but the repression only threatens to make the situation worse:
"As far as we've documented, it's a gross overreaction and the repressive nature of Uzbek policy is certainly, as all international organizations now agree, worsening the conflict, and planting the seeds for future conflict."
Cavanaugh also comments on conditions in Kazakhstan, where she says the government has a mixed record. She says officials there have made gestures to support OSCE democracy-building efforts, but that there has been no substantive improvement in the status of political freedoms. Moreover, she says the country refuses to sign the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
But Cavanaugh also praises what she says is grassroots coalition-building in Central Asia. She says that in Kyrgyzstan, a local NGO coalition joined forces with human rights groups to monitor this year's presidential elections and focus international attention on political and human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch says this year marked an improvement in human rights in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, where democratic governments came to power in Croatia and in federal Yugoslavia.
In Croatia, the death of long-time president Franjo Tudjman ushered in a new era. Human Rights Watch says the new Croat leadership in the presidency and parliament has made speedy human rights progress by turning over war criminals and elevating the status of minorities in the country.
Bosnia saw progress as well, with the transfer of eight indicted war criminals in the past year.
This year's report did not cover conditions in the Baltic states, Slovenia, Moldova or Ukraine. The organization says any omission should be seen as a reflection of staffing limitations rather than any signal about human rights in a particular country.
Earthquake Strikes Western Turkmenistan
December 7, 2000
By Jean-Christophe Peuch, RFE/RL
A powerful earthquake measuring about 7.5 on the Richter scale struck Western Turkmenistan late yesterday (December 6)
Information on the quake is still sketchy, but authorities in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat confirm the quake struck around 23:00 local time (18:00 GMT). They say there were no casualties or significant damage.
Those official reports, however, are contradicted by Chinese state television which said that 11 people were killed and another five were injured. The Chinese TV report gave no details and did not specify the source of its information.
Russia's Gazeta.ru electronic daily today quotes local residents as saying that four people -- including a child -- were killed, and eight others injured in Balkanabad (formerly Nebid-Dag), about 400 km west of Ashgabat.
A spokeswoman (unidentified) for Russia's Emergencies Ministry tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that, according to the Russian embassy in Ashgabat, there were apparently no victims. But she says quakes of this magnitude generally d-o cause casualties and damage.
She says Russian rescuers are ready to fly to Ashgabat if Turkmen authorities request help.
It's also not known where the earthquake's epicenter was.
A Turkmen state-controlled newspaper, quoting the country's seismological institute, says the epicenter was located in the southern part of the Caspian Sea, 80 km from the village of Esenguly. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency says the population of the area is estimated at about 68,000.
Other sources put the epicenter in the sparsely populated mountainous Balkan region, some 400 km west of Ashgabat and 100 km north of Balkanabad.
Turkey's NTV television channel quotes the France's Strasbourg-based Earth Sciences Observatory as saying the epicenter was around Kizil-Arvat (now called Serdarabat), about 250 km west of the Turkmen capital.
Other independent sources tell RFE/RL that telephone communications between Ashgabat and Balkanabad have been cut off. They also say the road linking Balkanabad to the Caspian port of Krasnovodsk (now called Turkmenbashi) in northwestern Turkmenistan is closed. The sources could n-o-t provide any explanation for the disruptions.
Russia's private NTV television channel says people in Balkanabad are staying out of their homes in the aftermath of the quake. According to the NTV report, police are patrolling the streets and many buildings have been damaged.
Russian news agencies report the quake could be felt in other parts of the former Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan's capital Baku and the Armenian town of Spitak.
Baku was hit last month by a powerful earthquake that left 31 dead and 300 injured. Spitak was entirely destroyed 12 years ago by a quake that killed 25,000 people.
The Uzbek town of Nukus experienced a mild quake yesterday, while lighter tremors reached Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara.
Iran's IRNA state news agency reported that the tremors reached several Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran.
A major earthquake razed Ashgabat in 1948, killing between 45,000 and 100,000 people.
Iran, Russia Vie for New Alignment on Caspian
December 7, 2000
By Michael Lelyveld, RFE/RL
As the conflict heats up over a legal division of the Caspian Sea, Russia and Iran appear to be opening up a new competition for the region's resources and export routes.
The two sides have been preparing for a new alignment on the Caspian question, which is expected next month when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Azerbaijan to sign a bilateral Caspian pact.
If Baku signs the agreement, as it has promised, the alignment would essentially be three against two, with Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan on one side of the Caspian issue, and Iran and Turkmenistan on the other.
The Putin government has been working for months to persuade the four other shoreline states to adopt its formula for dividing the Caspian, splitting only the seabed into national sectors, while allowing the water and its surface to be shared. Kazakhstan has already accepted Moscow's position. This week, Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliyev confirmed that he will sign the agreement with Putin during the visit that starts January 9.
The exact terms remain a mystery, in light of the fact that Aliev's son Ilham, the vice president of the state oil company, vowed last Friday that his country "won't make concessions" on its position that the water must also be divided along a Caspian center line.
Moscow has been vague about its reasons for the hybrid solution, but suspicion has grown that the sharing of the water could allow free passage not only for fishing boats but also military craft. Iran has opposed the formula for its own reasons, insisting on an equal 20 percent share of the Caspian. Analysts have estimated that a territorial boundary might give it only 13 percent.
Turkmenistan has sided with Iran for still other reasons. The Russian formula calls for sharing disputed oilfields. That approach would compromise Ashgabat's claim to a major deposit in the center of the Caspian, which is also sought by Azerbaijan. At the same time, Turkmenistan is hoping that its support will lead to greater gas sales and exports through Iran.
But signs are growing that the competition between Russia and Iran could break out on related energy issues as a result of the frictions.
Last week, for example, the head of Russia's second-largest oil company, Yukos, met with Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov and offered to buy an undisclosed amount of the country's oil for a refinery in Russia.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is one of Russia's richest oligarchs, told the Neutralny Turkmenistan newspaper, "We need this raw material for the Samara oil refining complex."
Yukos wants to ship the Turkmen oil by tanker across the Caspian and up the Volga River to Samara by barge, a distance of some 1,600 kilometers. Turkmenistan, which is primarily a gas producer, exports only about 32,000 barrels of oil per day. The Russian offer may compete directly with Iran for that oil.
One-third of Turkmenistan's oil exports are believed to be moving now through Iran in exchanges, known as swaps. The trade allows Iran to use Turkmen oil for local refining while exporting an equivalent amount of crude through the Persian Gulf. The arrangement is key to Iran's bid to serve as a route for Caspian oil. Tehran has invested heavily in a pipeline from the Caspian to its refineries to handle 50,000 barrels of crude per day by the end of this year.
But the Yukos bid could deprive the Iranian pipeline of oil just as it is about to open. The Samara refinery may need oil, but curiously, Yukos oil production was up by more than 10 percent in the first 10 months of the year, the company said last week.
It remains to be seen whether Yukos is acting on behalf of the Russian government to pressure Iran on the Caspian. But the company has been vocal in seeking relief from a Russian government crackdown on its transfer pricing practices to avoid higher taxes. So far, Turkmenistan has not responded to the Yukos offer for its oil.
Instead, Turkmenistan has pursued closer ties to Tehran during the Caspian controversy. Last Saturday, Ashgabat was rewarded with a new agreement to greatly increase its gas sales to Iran. While details are still sketchy and the terms have yet to be disclosed, the higher export target of 15 billion cubic meters by 2002 suggests that Iran could use the Turkmen gas to supply Turkey, competing with Russia. Moscow has yet to negotiate its own agreement on gas supplies from Turkmenistan for next year.
Niyazov's higher commitment to Iran may also mean that Turkmenistan will have to tap new gas fields or open new pipeline connections. The only link between the two countries, opened in 1997, has a reported capacity of only 8,000 million cubic meters per year.
The larger agreement may be a signal that Iran is ready to compete with Russia for Turkmenistan's gas, just as Russia seems to be competing with Iran for Ashgabat's oil.
If that is the case, the dispute over Caspian division may be leading to a wider split between Russia and Iran over energy routes and national interests, forcing each of the Caspian neighbors to choose and take sides.
Turkmen President Fires Scores of Officials
December 4, 2000
By Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has fired hundreds of public-sector workers across the country for allegedly failing to meet production targets, particularly in agriculture.
At the same time, Niyazov has re-introduced measures from Soviet times to make public-sector employment contingent on passing a genealogical test to determine an applicant's tribal origin.
Under the new rules, Turkmenistan will now review family histories going back three generations. The requirement applies not only to potential government officials but also their spouses. Turkmen officials already impose a similar genealogical test for prospective university students.
Niyazov made public the dismissals during two weeks of travel across the country at the end of last month.
Niyazov's main complaint was the failure by many districts to meet production figures for cotton, one of the country's leading agricultural products.
A severe drought this year adversely affected agriculture in several Central Asian states.
Niyazov, however, rejected this as an excuse for not meeting government quotas. State television showed Niyazov telling dismissed agricultural officials that "water shortages, cold weather and so on" are no excuse for failing to meet harvest figures.
The dismissals in themselves were nothing new -- Niyazov has routinely fired officials for allegedly failing to complete assigned duties. But rarely has the scope and number of the firings reached this level.
The new replacements will face a more difficult task next year, as Niyazov is calling for even higher production targets. He told the people in Lebap what he expects:
"Each district chief must work night and day. We have the land, we have the water, so everything depends on the management. You must find time to improve [the country's condition]."
It's not clear how the new rules on genealogy will affect the selection and composition of the new officials. Turkmenistan is divided into some 24 different tribes, usually based on regions.
Niyazov was quoted as saying that to fill the vacant positions, the country will now rely on what he called "the experience of our ancestors, who chose their leaders, military commanders and judges from among the worthiest compatriots with high moral standards."
Niyazov is a member of the dominant Teke tribe and is known to be sensitive to the tribal issue. He said last year that any Turkmen leader who follows him should not be from the country's second-largest tribe -- the Yomut, who inhabit western Turkmenistan.
The Teke tribe was reduced in importance during the early days of the Soviet Union when an effort was made to promote the lower segments of society. But following Turkmen independence in the 1990s, a backlash ensued and the Teke tribe resumed many of its traditional powers.
Beyond tribal differences, about nine percent of the population is ethnic Uzbek, seven percent ethnic Russian and another seven percent divided up between other Central Asian and Slavic peoples.