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Turkmenistan: Social Tragedy With Political Implications

Ashgabat, 14 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurad Niyazov addressed a painful issue in a speech last week, when he acknowledged that prostitution has become a widespread problem in his country.

On the day that he spoke, some 80 prostitutes who were working for dollars, were rounded up in the capital Ashgabat.

Niyazov said that even girls as young as 12 or 13 were involved in the vice trade, and he accused the police of having a direct role in that trade. He quoted from a report of the Presidential Security Council which said that on many occasions the police had acted illegally and were corrupt.

The report accused law enforcement officers of having a hand also in the drugs trade, and of taking bribes, of mistreating detainees and arresting people in order to pressure them to pay bribes.

The report said that last year, 63 police officials were arrested in connection with crimes, but that the real number of officers violating the law was believed to be much higher.

Niyazov also noted there had been a 16 per cent rise in major crime throughout the nation, a 19 per cent rise in Ashgabat and worst of all, a 22 per cent rise in the northern province of Dahhovuz, which is suffering severe ecological problems.

So what has happened in Turkmenistan to make it a center of apparently thriving crime and vice? The former Soviet republic traditionally has been a closed, tribally-based society, with a strict sense of morality displaying Islamic characteristics.

There have of course been changes since the collapse of the USSR, among them the far greater number of foreigners transiting the country: truck drivers, notably from Iran and Turkey, businessmen, energy industry workers.... These form the dollar-rich customers for the sex trade, organized by Turkmen criminal elements obviously with the backing of the police.

Another factor is the scale of the country's economic decline: agricultural production is sharply down, bread is scarce and increasingly expensive, average incomes have sunk to between $8 and $10 per month. Impoverishment leads to increased crime. And it fuels resentment. Two Turks frequenting the prostitution milieu have recently been killed.

Not less damaging to the moral fabric of the country is the increased use of opium, especially among the men folk and the young people. And the personality cult surrounding the President, in which praise of the leader becomes an end in itself, saps the population's will for independent thought and judgment.

There is speculation about Niyazov's motives in focusing attention on the problem of prostitution and official corruption right now.

The "man in the street" in Turkmenistan has long known that the police are infiltrated with corrupt elements, that's not news. The entire government mechanism is widely seen as corrupt. But now the President has specifically drawn attention to the problem. Why? Some Turkmen analysts see this as a maneuver by the President to disperse the ground swell of anger and discontent building up over the worsening living conditions and the indications of social breakdown.

They say he could replace some police and Interior Ministry cadres, thus giving the appearance of action without the necessity of undertaking methodical structural reform. They say this is a tactic often used previously by Niyazov in response to various problems.

Niyazov relies on the KGB and police to suppress political dissent, and he is considered unlikely to take any radical moves against them over their involvement in vice or anything else.