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Turkmenistan: Authorities Pursue Former Minister

Prague, 2 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Nazar Suyunov was once Turkmenistan's Minister of Gas and Oil, and deputy Prime Minister. Presently he is a fugitive from the Turkmen authorities, and is believed to be somewhere in the Moscow area. The Turkmen government says Suyunov must return to answer corruption charges.

However, Suyunov's long absence from Ashgabat did not seem to trouble the Turkmen government until the end of October. Towards the end of that month, Suyunov co-authored an article in the Russian Literaturnaya Gazeta and gave an interview to Radio Liberty. Following these two events, officials in Ashgabat apparently believe Suyunov is better off at home, seen and not heard.

In the interview with Literaturnaya Gazeta (Oct. 22), Suyunov gave an unflattering portrayal of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Suyunov sees him as a president who has closed institutes of higher education, who doesn't trust his generals, who changes the leadership in the country's power ministries every year or so, ostensibly to keep corruption in check but more likely to avoid giving any future political challenger the opportunity to consolidate support. Further, Suyunov said, he has turned Turkmenistan into a nation of informers.

Suyunov and former Turkmen Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, who was also interviewed for the same article, concluded that the condition of the Turkmen people is becoming much worse as Niyazov leads the country backward in time to a feudal society of the middle ages.

Suyunov made clear therefore that he is no supporter of Niyazov, what he told Radio Liberty (Oct 24/25) went beyond commentary into a statement of political goals. Suyunov said he would like to form his own opposition party, and he spoke of options he would employ if he were president, such as privatization of industry and updating the tax system. He had his own ideas of export routes for Turkmenistan's natural gas and oil. And he asserted that 99 percent of the Turkmen people are against Niyazov and his policies. He also elaborated on tactics for gaining popular support while avoiding violent confrontation. By these statements Suyunov officially announced himself as a political opponent of the current regime in Turkmenistan. Response was not long in coming from Turkmenistan. The series of events may be indications of how seriously the Turkmen government is taking the two interviews. First, the Turkmen press criticized Radio Liberty for allowing Suyunov to speak. About the same time Yovshan Annakurbanov, a prominent writer and sometime stringer for Radio Liberty, found himself in police custody instead of on a plane to a journalists' seminar in Prague, co-sponsored by Radio Liberty. Some hours after Annakurbanov was taken from the airport to police headquarters it was announced that he had in his possession a computer disc with material from on it from "opposition parties."

On November 12 Literaturnaya Gazeta gave equal time to two Turkmeni, (A. Yusunov and G. Shchepotkina), who it said worked for newspapers which belong to the Turkmen government. They said they were writing without any kind of direction "from above". Yusunov and Shchepotkina wrote that Suyunov and Kuliev had had their time in power and at that time, had publicly supported President Niyazov's policies and that "their point of view changed after losing their ministerial portfolios." The article finished by saying Suyunov left office to avoid facing charges for corruption, and that he left the country "to avoid unpleasant contact with investigators."

Those lines were an indication something was in the works. On November 25 Suyunov was detained by agents of the Russian Federal Security Service in Moscow. He was brought to headquarters and held for four hours. During this time Suyunov was told that Niyazov himself had called the Moscow city procurator general to notify him of a warrant for Suyunov's arrest with a request for extradition back to Turkmenistan. The Russian authorities released Suyunov on grounds of insufficient evidence. Suyunov also claimed to have discovered that the head of the Turkmen State Security Service and deputy procurator general had flown to Moscow and were to accompany Suyunov back.

Suyunov's detainment came during the same week that Turkmenistan's poor human rights record was the subject of discussion at an Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference on rights. Turkmenistan's use of psychiatric hospitals to treat members of opposition parties received attention at that conference. One American delegate said such misuse "violates...the most fundamental norms of human decency."

The OSCE conference may help Suyunov avoid extradition. After such publicity many questions would be raised about Suyunov's treatment should he be forced to return to Turkmenistan. And the London-based rights organization Amnesty International has expressed fears that he risks grave violation of his rights, and it says that the charges against him are fabricated.

In Moscow, he has been working as an informal adviser on oil and gas matters to the Russian Scientific Research Institute and to the Russian State Duma since he left his Turkmen government posts in 1995.

Suyunov isn't taking any chances now in Moscow though, and is reportedly staying out of sight. But if the Turkmen government is sincere in its desire to become a democratic state, then why does Suyunov need to hide at all?