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Turkmenistan: 10 Years Later, Ashgabat More Affluent, But Poisoned By 'Atmosphere Of Political Repression'

Turkmenistan has been called the "hermit kingdom" and the North Korea of Central Asia. Foreigners are watched when they enter the country, and the Turkmen government goes to great lengths to keep foreign media from reaching its people. Many businessmen visit Turkmenistan, as the country is rich in oil and natural gas, but few people visit as tourists, and fewer yet have visited more than once. Gregory Gleason is an expert on Central Asian affairs. He is also one of the few people who spent a lot of time in Turkmenistan during the first years after the country became independent. Gleason just returned from Turkmenistan after more than 10 years away. He spoke with RFE/RL about the changes he witnessed.

Prague, 12 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, and the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, are sister cities. The Turkmen government extended an invitation to officials in Albuquerque to attend celebrations marking the country's 13th year of independence on 27 October.

Gregory Gleason, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, accompanied the city delegation to Turkmenistan and spent about two weeks in Ashgabat. He returned to the United States on 6 November.

It was not Gleason's first trip to Turkmenistan. His last visit was in 1993, his most memorable in December 1991.

"I recall vividly just by chance being in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating in December 1991, sitting around the floor with my Turkmen colleagues, my friends who were scholars and officials in the Turkmenistan government at the time. And I recall the sense of euphoria at becoming an independent country and the sense of great uncertainty about what the future would hold for Turkmenistan as an independent country," Gleason said.
"One of the other things that's striking is the improvement in the material standards of many of the people who live in Ashgabat."

At the time, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov promised that he would turn the country into a second Kuwait. Things haven't worked out that way. While much of the country's oil and gas wealth has been sunk into grandiose public works projects, ordinary Turkmen have seen little real improvement in their lives. The government has drastically cut many social services and spending on education.

According to human rights and media freedom organizations, Turkmenistan has one of the most repressive governments in the world. A recently released report from the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, for example, lists Turkmenistan as one of the worst countries in the world in terms of media freedom, ranking it 164th out of 167 nations.

Gleason says the appearance of the capital has changed dramatically since his last visit.

"The contrasts [between the early 1990s and now] are striking. One thing, it's the capital of a country that's undergone significant transformation in terms of its physical features. Ashgabat is now home to a number of magnificent public buildings -- the buildings of the ministries in particular. In addition to a number of quite beautiful mosques and public museums, the roads are without question some the best I've seen, and there's quite a lot of new housing construction that's going up. So, the physical features of Ashgabat are certainly an impressive sight," Gleason said.

Gleason says many residents of Ashgabat -- a city of some 700,000 -- appear to be better off than they were a decade ago.

"One of the other things that's striking is the improvement in the material standards of many of the people who live in Ashgabat. It's very clear that people who lived in the city 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and who experienced at that time a great deal of deprivation have undergone a transformation. There's a very marked increase in the number of consumer goods available in stores," Gleason said

Gleason points out that these improvements are not the result of market reforms, however:

"There's criticism, of course, that this is simply a populist technique that's designed to satisfy mere acquisitiveness on the part of individuals and that the government thereby can basically purchase the political support of many of the population," Gleason said.

Gleason cautions against inferring too much from the fact that the material situation of some Ashgabat residents has improved.

"The political situation in the country obviously strikes a sharp contrast with the material situation. Although the material situation has improved markedly, the political situation clearly has deteriorated in the respect that the country has a human rights situation that merits close international attention," Gleason said.

Gleason says this is clearly seen in the attitude of Ashgabat residents. He says that while people were friendly and curious, candid conversations were difficult.

"There is a sense, an atmosphere of political repression, that I think prevents people from speaking openly with respect to the government, with respect to their feelings as to how the government is organized and operates," Gleason said.

Gleason says it is vital for the international community to pay attention to Turkmenistan and to pressure the government to implement badly needed reforms. He also notes that the question of succession is crucial, as Niyazov's sudden death could spark widespread turmoil, as groups inside the country and opposition figures in exile compete for power.

Gleason says Turkmenistan is a moderate Islamic state in a volatile region. Ensuring the stability of future Turkmen governments is in the interest of the world community.