Prague, 10 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kumush Narziyeva is a Turkmen citizen who has lived in the Uzbek town of Talimarjon since the summer of 2002.
That was when she and her Uzbek fiance eloped to Uzbekistan, illegally crossing the border and having a nikah, or Islamic marriage, in Talimarjon.
“I eloped with my husband because I loved him. Our parents didn’t like that, they didn’t speak to us for 2 and 1/2 years. The dowry is a very complicated matter in Turkmenistan. Some men earn money, others don’t. They can’t pay the dowry, and so they kidnap Turkmen [girls]," Narziyeva said.
According to the Turkmen laws at the time, Narziyeva's fiance would have had to pay at least $50,000 to receive official permission to marry her. He would have also had to own a house in Turkmenistan and live in the country for at least a year before being allowed to wed.
President Niyazov, issuing the decree in June 2001, said it would protect women from being tricked into abusive relationships, and that the money would be used to provide for children in case of divorce.
The terms were high even for prospective Western grooms. For the Turkmens and Uzbeks living in the border area of neighboring Uzbekistan, they were impossible. People in the region have traditionally had intercultural marriages. But with an average monthly salary of just $20-30, there was no way they could afford the $50,000 fee.
After the requirement was introduced, many Turkmen women eloped or were “voluntarily kidnapped” by Uzbek men.
Independent observers said the move made Turkmenistan even more isolated.
But it's recently gotten cheaper to marry a Turkmen citizen. The $50,000 requirement was scrapped in March. The obligation to own a house was also dropped.
Another change came this week, when Niyazov -- who likes to be referred to as Turkmenbashi, or "Father of All Turkmen" -- issued a new decree.
This one requires Turkmen citizens and their prospective foreign spouses to sign a contract determining how their property will be divided in case of divorce. As with the previous decree, his aim, Turkmenbashi said, was to protect Turkmens from unscrupulous spouses.
Niyazov's new decree was announced on national television yesterday.
“In order to protect the rights of Turkmen citizens who intend to marry a foreign citizen or person with no citizenship, President Niyazov has signed a decree. Attached to this official document is a sample of an approved marriage contract," the male broadcaster said.
Now, as before, a foreigner wishing to marry a Turkmen citizen must live in Turkmenistan for at least a year before the wedding. There is also a mandatory three-month engagement period following the formal submission of the marriage application.
But observers still see the recent changes as a sign of progress.
Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, says the move is progressive compared to the former $50,000 fee. She spoke to RFE/RL from the Bulgarian city of Varna.
“Such a decision should have been made at the very beginning of independence when authorities, as they say, started creating a secular state. If they had done it then, we could have avoided so many tragedies and violations of human rights involving people who married foreigners. The abolition of the fee -- or qalin, as Turkmen say -- wasn't a result of government will. It came under pressure from the international community," Begmedova said.
Does the new move make it easier for foreigners to marry Turkmens?
One Uzbek woman, who asked to be called Nasiba, says her son had been unable to marry his girlfriend of four years because of the $50,000 requirement. But even now, she says, it is still difficult and expensive to marry a woman from Turkmenistan.
“I eloped with my husband because I loved him. Our parents didn’t like that, they didn’t speak to us for 2 and 1/2 years. The dowry is a very complicated matter in Turkmenistan."
“We are going to kidnap her. There is no other way. We will have to cross the border. We’ll put money in soldiers’ pockets and overcome other obstacles," Nasiba said.
Even without the official fee, Turkmen women remain expensive brides. The tradition of qalin, or dowry, is so entrenched in society it remained common practice even during the Soviet era.
And it isn't cheap. For qalin, parents usually ask prospective husbands for 36 sheep, 36 dresses or their equivalent in fabric, at least four boxes of vodka, and $600.
That is why Nasiba's son, and others like him, turn to voluntary kidnapping as a last resort.
But difficulties will remain even for those couples who manage to marry.
Kumush, who eloped three years ago with her Uzbek groom, cannot hold Uzbek citizenship because her marriage was not officially registered. She is also without a residence permit, since she crossed the border illegally, without obtaining an Uzbek visa. Her children do not even have birth certificates.
(Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)