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Turkmenistan: Former Foreign Minister Wanted On Criminal Charges

Authorities in Turkmenistan today officially filed criminal charges against Boris Shikhmuradov, Ashgabat's former foreign minister and, until recently, its ambassador to China. The charges come after Shikhmuradov yesterday announced that he is standing in opposition to the government of President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Prague, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The prosecutor-general of Turkmenistan filed criminal charges today against the country's former ambassador to China, Boris Shikhmuradov.

Shikhmuradov is accused of participating in illegal arms deals totaling some $30 million, dating back to his time as deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

The charges come one day after Shikhmuradov released a statement in Moscow announcing his "open opposition" to the government of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Shikhmuradov said the Turkmen government has become "authoritarian in style, anti-national in essence and anti-democratic in political practice."

"The situation in my country has forced me to make a decision not only to improve it for the better, but to stand in open opposition to the policies of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov," he said.

He said a democratic movement is growing in Turkmenistan in opposition to Niyazov's rule, but owned up to his own role in past mistakes made by the government.

"Turkmen are probably the most patient people in the world. But even among them, a democratic national movement has been forming which is prepared constructively and on a democratic platform to oppose Niyazov's regime. Many of us, including myself, cannot shed responsibility for a period of time when we were involved in the vicious practices of Turkmenistan's governing and involuntarily aided in promoting the cult of Niyazov."

Shikhmuradov had, over the years, served as Turkmenistan's deputy prime minister, foreign minister, special envoy on Caspian issues and, most recently, as Ashgabat's ambassador to China before being dismissed recently.

The 52-year-old Shikhmuradov lasted longer in Turkmen politics than any other figure, save Niyazov himself. Government officials were dismissed over the years due to corruption or incompetence, but Shikhmuradov never seemed to fall from Niyazov's good graces.

Shikhmuradov became deputy prime minister in 1992 and foreign minister in January 1993, where he served for nearly eight years. His appointment as Turkmenistan's special representative on Caspian affairs in July 2000 was not considered a demotion. The position was seen as crucial since Turkmenistan is counting on financially exploiting its vast hydrocarbon resources in the Caspian basin.

His switch to ambassador for China marked a turning point as, for once, Shikhmuradov was no longer serving in a role close to Niyazov. The move mirrored a trend in the Turkmen government to constantly shuffle government officials. Observers theorize Niyazov may have been trying to prevent potential rivals from entrenching themselves in the government and gathering personal support.

Shikhmuradov's transformation into a leading opposition figure could present an unprecedented challenge to Niyazov. Shikhmuradov had been seen as a likely successor to Niyazov -- whose health is under some question -- simply because he was one of the only government officials familiar to most Turkmen citizens.

Shikhmuradov is also known outside Turkmenistan, having traveled for nearly 10 years in his various government capacities. So his criticism of the government may receive more attention than that levied by other former Turkmen government ministers in exile.

Shikhmuradov had been expected to return from China to attend celebrations on 27 October marking the tenth anniversary of Turkmenistan's independence. Instead, he was reportedly in a Moscow hospital and unable to travel.