Prague, 21 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkmen government -- at the behest of President Saparmurat Niyazov -- is in the midst of a drastic urban renewal project in the capital Ashgabat.
The desert capital of one of the world's most isolated countries already has five-star hotels, new government buildings, and newly widened streets. And soon it will add new theaters, an ice-skating palace, and even a Turkmen version of Disneyland to its architectural landscape.
"I don't know where I'll go -- to the kindergarten or Bezininsk prison number 5. That's where they cram in anyone who has nowhere to go. Some of our people from Keshi are staying with relatives. Where you go, how you live, no one cares. They just say ‘get out!'"
These may be pleasing additions to some Turkmen who make their home in Ashgabat. But for others, the coming attractions are already the source of bitter resentment.
That is because hundreds of capital dwellers have been ordered to vacate their homes, which will eventually be destroyed in order to make room for Turkmenbashi's grand projects.
Ashgabat's renovation project was launched in 2001. But it received a sharp push forward in June, when Niyazov visited a city suburb where residential buildings had replaced what had once been the sweeping corn and wheat fields of Soviet Turkmenistan's state farms (sovkhozi).
Turkmenbashi accused the residents of illegally seizing the land following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a meeting with his advisers, the Turkmen president made his views on the matter clear.
"First they fall into this -- taking land. Then they build a house! They have no documents [for either the land or the house]. No one is controlling this and you aren't asking the police to do anything about it," Niyazov said. "So, who should answer for this? Right in front of your eyes, in [the neighborhood of] Baghir, on a typical sovkhoz, they are building homes. In 10 days, if you don't correct this, I'll do it myself."
The officials set themselves to their task. And on 16 July, the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) released a statement criticizing what it said were "widespread violations of property rights on the rise outside the [Turkmen] capital."
The IHF statement said close to 900 residents living in 100 houses in the Ashgabat suburb of Keshi had received eviction notices.
The statement said the city plan also called for another 400 houses in Keshi to be "dismantled."
Furthermore, the IHF cited anecdotal evidence that appeared to indicate the Keshi residents are receiving little or no government compensation for the loss of their homes.
Aaron Rhodes is the executive director of the IHF. He tells RFE/RL it is a common scenario in countries with autocratic governments like Turkmenistan.
"These people are being forced out of their homes in order to accommodate various government projects. Like many totalitarian governments, the government of Turkmenistan has very ambitious building plans in the capital," Rhodes said. "And they require sometimes more space, and they have to displace private houses and sometimes entire areas. But the problem with this, in addition to the kind of statist message that they're sending, is that they don't give the appropriate compensation or substitute accommodation in these cases."
It is not clear how many Ashgabat neighborhoods beyond Baghir and Keshi are being swept away by Turkmenbashi's renovation project.
The IHF statement mentions the Bergenzi, Goekdep, Bakhardan, and Kipchak areas -- as well as the Vanov settlement and the Furjusa Gorge -- as places that are soon likely to be affected.
The Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial has also reported that last year some 500 Turkmen citizens near the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi were illegally evicted and 100 houses demolished.
With no compensation, most of those evicted are forced to move in with relatives. Asked by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service about the eviction process, one homeless man, who has no relatives with whom he could shelter, responded this way: "First they destroyed the house. Then they tell you to leave. I don't know where I'll go -- to the kindergarten or Bezininsk prison number 5. That's where they cram in anyone who has nowhere to go. Some of our people from Keshi are staying with relatives. Where you go, how you live, no one cares. They just say ‘get out!'"
The demolition project is unpopular. Public protests are rare and quickly suppressed in Turkmenistan, but the Ashgabat evictions have sparked neighborhood demonstrations.
In late June and early July, the IHF said a number of women tried to appeal to the Russian Embassy, but were detained and warned not to express their opinion publicly. Later, around 70 women gathered on the main street of Keshi but were surrounded by police, threatened and told to disperse. Police detained some briefly.
In fairness, there are arguments against the residential developments in at least one neighborhood -- Baghir.
Baghir is adjacent to the ancient ruins of Nisa, once the capital of the Parthian Empire (247 B.C. to 228 A.D.). As far back as 1992, some residents in Baghir were sectioning off parcels of farm land left unused after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Some were also using bricks from the Nisa ruins to build homes on their new land. People openly admitted they had no contract for the land, or the buildings. It was, they said simply, "privatization Turkmen style."
Some observers say discontent over the neighborhood evictions has fueled the recent circulation of antigovernment leaflets in Ashgabat bazaars.
But for the time being, Turkmenbashi's urban renewal project shows no signs of slowing. The architectural ambitions of the Turkmen leader require the best locations the desert capital has to offer.
(Rozinar Khoudaiberdiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)