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Turkmenistan traditionally rolls out lavish celebrations to mark its neutral status. (file photo)

On December 12, there will be massive celebrations across Turkmenistan to mark the 20th anniversary of the day the United Nations officially recognized the country's "permanent neutrality."

What this neutral status means for Turkmenistan is still not clear 20 years later.

The meaning of neutrality as articulated by the late President Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov in 1995 has little resemblance to the neutrality policy Turkmenistan practices today under current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to discuss what the neutrality status has done for, and done to Turkmenistan over the last 20 years.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel discussion. Participating in the talk was Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian studies at Glasgow University and author of the book Turkmenistan's Foreign Policy: Positive Neutrality and the Consolidation of the Turkmen Regime, and also Ruslan Myatiev, journalist and founder of the Alternative Turkmenistan News website. And me, I've been watching Turkmenistan's neutrality since the start, so I said some things also.

At the start of the discussion Anceschi offered this assessment of Turkmenistan's policy of positive neutrality: "It's a policy with which Turkmenistan has been able to stay at the margins of the international community for 20 years now, but it's also a policy of insulation, a policy that has been used to make sure that external pressures for liberalization, for human rights improvement were never relevant in the domestic arena."

Myatiev said, "When we speak about neutrality I think it's worth differentiating between the concept of neutrality and the Turkmen neutrality."

Niyazov's Vision

The concept of neutrality, as originally envisioned by Niyazov, who died in 2006, was that Turkmenistan would become a neutral venue for talks between feuding parties, a place to come and resolve differences.

In fact, inter-Tajik peace talks between representatives of the two sides in Tajikistan's civil war (1992-1997) had started in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat in early December 1995. With the exception of one round of talks in Islamabad in October-November 1994, previous rounds of Tajik peace talks had been held in Moscow and Tehran, but neither was a particularly auspicious choice since Russia was seen as backing the Tajik government and Iran was perceived as being partial to the Tajik opposition.

The first President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov (1940-2006) was the architect of Turkmenistan's neutrality status.
The first President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov (1940-2006) was the architect of Turkmenistan's neutrality status.

The round of talks in Ashgabat suffered a series of setbacks and postponements but the two Tajik factions continued off and on to meet in Ashgabat until July 1996. It seemed Niyazov's vision was possible, even more so when in March 1999 the warring factions in Afghanistan met for talks in Ashgabat.

But the Tajik civil war ended in mid-1997 and the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan that started in late 2001 ended, at least temporarily, any need for inter-Afghan peace talks. No one else showed interest in coming to Ashgabat to solve their differences, in part because of the Turkmen government's growing reputation as a rights abuser.

The policy of neutrality changed, "it turned into a shield for the government to close the country from the outside world," Myatiev said.

These days, the country is often compared to North Korea and word "isolationist" frequently figures in reports about Turkmenistan.

But inside the country, where media is carefully controlled and manipulated, Myatiev said there is support among Turkmenistan's people for the official policy of neutrality.

"In general the population is very proud of the fact that Turkmenistan is a neutral state," he said -- even if they are not sure what the benefits might be.

Molding Facts

Anceschi elaborated on the Turkmen government's need for its policy of neutrality. "I think it's about legitimacy. They think that neutrality is popular, a unique development especially as it was recognized by the UN…the regime wants the Turkmen people to see that whatever has been done by the regime has been recognized as high up as the UN; it's that kind of legitimacy they want to get."

Anceschi also pointed out that the policy of neutrality is vague. "They use neutrality in such a flexible way that it means everything and its opposite at the same time," Anceschi said.

And Turkmen authorities have been adept at molding facts to fit into Turkmenistan's neutrality policy.

One example given was the current economic crisis, which, according to President Berdymukhammedov, is not a "crisis" inside Turkmenistan, despite the country's heavy dependence on gas exports for revenue (Turkmenistan has the world's fourth largest reserves of gas), but rather is something affecting the rest of the world. Essentially, Turkmenistan is sneezing because the world outside has a cold.

Gas exports and security along the border with Afghanistan are two factors that promise to test the flexibility and limits of neutrality. Anceschi mentioned "neutrality really doesn't touch upon gas, which I always find a very strong contradiction because [exporting gas] requires engagement on the other end."

And, on December 13, foreign leaders will be on hand when construction starts on Turkmenistan's section of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also due to be in Turkmenistan for what many believe will be talks on building a trans-Caspian pipeline to bring Turkmen gas to Turkey via the South Caucasus. Such a project has long faced opposition from two other Caspian countries -- Russia and Iran -- and falling back on a policy of neutrality is not likely to resolve the issue to Turkmenistan's satisfaction.

Fighting just across the border in northern Afghanistan has also been testing Turkmenistan's neutrality. In 2014, armed militants crossed into Turkmenistan and killed three border guards in one incident and three Turkmen soldiers during another incursion. Turkmenistan's untested military has so far not responded, even when militants temporarily occupied an island in the Amu-Darya River, half of which is owned by Turkmenistan and half by Afghanistan, in October.

The panelists agreed it would be unthinkable for Turkmen authorities to request outside help to address this security concern. But Myatiev said, "It all depends on the intensity of events that are developing on the border and my feeling is that, in order to guarantee the survival of this regime, Berdymukhammedov's government would do anything with the status of neutrality even adjusting it slightly."

The discussion delved deeper into these topics and addressed other issues of Turkmenistan's neutrality.

An audio recording of the roundtable can be heard here:

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Muhammad Solih (with his wife, Aydin) case comes after an Uzbek cleric who criticized the government in Tashkent was shot dead in Istanbul in December 2014 and another Uzbek cleric survived an apparent attempt on his life in Sweden.

It's becoming increasingly clear to those who have fled their Uzbek homeland for political reasons that they are not safe even in countries far from Central Asia.

Five men in Turkey are suspects in a plot to kill exiled Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Solih. Two of those men, one an Uzbek national, will soon appear before Istanbul's Tuzla court.

The Solih case comes after an Uzbek cleric who criticized the government in Tashkent was shot dead in Istanbul in December 2014 and another Uzbek cleric survived an apparent attempt on his life in Sweden. And then there are the many Uzbek nationals who have disappeared in Russia, some of them snatched off the street, only to reappear in courts, and later prisons, in Uzbekistan.

Solih told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, on December 3 that suspicious people were hanging out around his home in eastern Istanbul.

Solih called the police, who also started watching his home, and it was not long before they spotted the suspicious characters outside Solih's house. The suspects spotted the police also and attempted, unsuccessfully, to flee.

The men drove away, but Istanbul police caught up to them and took all five people inside the vehicle into custody. Three were later released under the condition that they not leave the city.

Turkish media reported one of the men held in custody was a 33-year-old citizen of Uzbekistan, "Hursanbek U.," and the other man was a Russian national from Daghestan.

Solih is a longtime foe of the Uzbek government. He co-founded the Erk (Freedom) Democratic Party in 1989 when Uzbekistan was still a Soviet republic. Solih ran in the first presidential election in Uzbekistan in December 1991 against Islam Karimov, who is still Uzbekistan's president today. Solih received, officially, an amazing 12.5 percent of the votes, although many believed he got far more votes than that and some said he actually won the election.

This relatively close election (the closest in Uzbekistan's history as an independent country) quickly turned Solih into a perceived enemy of the government, and by 1993, after being accused of treason, he had fled Uzbekistan. He continued his opposition activities from outside the country and was apparently enough of a concern to Uzbekistan's government that in 1999 he was convicted in absentia of plotting to overthrow the government. His alleged co-conspirators were Islamic extremists who formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

Uzbek authorities could not convince Turkey, where Solih settled, to extradite the Erk party leader, so his brother Muhammad Bekjon, a journalist, was tried and convicted of planning a coup and imprisoned in 1999. Bekjon is still in prison and now has the dubious distinction of being one of the longest-held journalists in the world.

Istanbul police did not tell Solih much about the suspects or the investigation. After the two suspects were captured by the police, Solih told Ozodlik: "The Karimov regime has a network of killers who freely move between Sweden and Turkey. They are tasked with eliminating people who fight against this [Uzbek] regime."

Ozodlik noted in its reports that someone shot at Solih's home in 2013. No one was injured in that incident and the culprits were never apprehended.

But in December 2014, Abdullah al-Bukhari, a Muslim cleric who spoke out against the Uzbek government, was shot dead in Istanbul.

In November, Swedish prosecutors suggested an assassin who tried to kill another opponent of the Uzbek government in February 2012 was sent to Sweden by someone in the Uzbek government. The intended victim was Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, once the popular imam at the Tokhtaboy Mosque in Tashkent and a critic of the government. Nazarov was seriously wounded in the attack. He suffered brain damage and was in a coma for months.

The chief suspect in the shooting is Yury Zhukovsky, a citizen of Uzbekistan. Chief prosecutor Krister Petersson said in court that evidence suggested the Uzbek government was involved in the assassination attempt. Uzbek authorities have not cooperated with requests from the Swedish prosecutor's office.

In September 2011, Fuad Rustamhojaev was killed outside his home in Ivanovo, Russia. Rustamhojaev was a member of the People's Movement of Uzbekistan, a group Solih formed in May 2011.

Other opposition figures and fugitives from Uzbekistan have fled to Russia only to later be reported missing. Some have been assaulted and shoved into waiting vehicles. Subsequent information about them usually comes when they appear in courtrooms in Uzbekistan.

International rights groups have recorded dozens of such cases in the last 20 years.

Ozodlik's Khurmat Babadjanov contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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