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Turkmenistan: Niyazov Sacks Most Of Top Leadership Of National Security Committee

Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov has carried out a thorough reshuffling of top officials in the country's National Security Committee. Niyazov said the officials were removed from office on suspicion of abuse of power and other violations. The fact that Niyazov is focusing on cleaning out the repressive structure -- seen as a crucial pillar of support for his regime -- is raising speculation among Central Asian analysts about his real motives.

Prague, 20 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in mid-March sacked most of the top leadership of the country's National Security Committee (KNB) on suspicion of abuse of power and other legal violations. The KNB is seen as the direct successor to the Soviet Union's KGB secret police.

Niyazov told a cabinet meeting held on 14 March that violations in the KNB were "enormous" and cited unlawful searches and arrests, interference in the affairs of other law-enforcement agencies, and drug-trafficking.

Niyazov's comments on the topic to an earlier cabinet meeting on 4 March were broadcast on state television: "The [National] Security Committee's standing has suffered recently. In cities, provinces, and regions, the Security Committee officials themselves have begun to disrupt order. Those in the central Security Committee have taken bribes, have disrupted order. They have acted arbitrarily. They have spread gossip. This is unbelievable."

Niyazov dismissed KNB Chairman Muhammad Nazarov -- once described as the second-most-powerful man in the country -- and replaced him with Interior Minister Poran Berdyev. Niyazov also replaced Defense Minister Gurbandurdi Begendzhev with Rejepbay Arazov. Arazov also was appointed deputy prime minister and will supervise the military, as well as the KNB.

Niyazov also reshuffled many military, border guard, and regional officials, some of whom are being charged with corruption, polygamy, and drug-trafficking. Berdyev told the cabinet that investigators have found evidence linking KNB officials to criminal gangs specializing in drug-trafficking.

At the 4 March cabinet meeting, Niyazov said the KNB will no longer be allowed to interfere in the lives of citizens or in the activities of private companies: "I gave orders to you to defend order, freedom, and liberty of the people, to restore law and order. You, however, have raised criminal charges against the wealthy bosses, firms, companies, which is not your job. You are harassing the people involved in private business. Many of your people collect money from them."

Niyazov said the fate of the dismissed officials will depend on the results of an investigation being carried out by a special commission. He told the cabinet that reforms in the security agency will continue.

Dismissing officials is a common practice in the Turkmen government, but the fact that Niyazov is focusing on the KNB is raising speculation among analysts. Until now, the state security apparatus has been seen as a crucial pillar of support for Niyazov's regime.

Christopher Langton is the head of defense analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He tells RFE/RL that Niyazov's decision to accuse KNB officials of corruption and remove them from office is meant to send a warning to the KNB that it doesn't have enough authority to undermine him.

Langton says some of Niyazov's comments also indicate he is seeking scapegoats for the stagnation of the country's social and economic development. He says there is economic insecurity within the country, linked with requirements to develop the country's natural gas industry.

"Although capital investment has risen in January, there is considerable requirement for inward investment to develop the gas industry, which has not been happening. And [Niyazov] has staked some of his reputation on developing that industry," Langton says.

Niyazov, in power since 1985, enjoys a personality cult at home but faces mounting pressures from opposition groups living outside the country. Three former ambassadors and a top Turkmen bank official recently declared their opposition-in-exile.

Analysts believe Niyazov turns a blind eye to KNB misdeeds as long as he feels the security service is able to control the opposition. But Langton says the recent defections are a source of great concern to Niyazov.

"Maybe there is some concern in the presidency of growing opposition in the country. And President Niyazov has been traditionally a person who makes all the decisions himself and has shown insecurity vis-a-vis others within his power structure," Langton says.

Langton says more internal shakeups and repressions can be expected, especially if the level of foreign investment drops.

Writing in "Eurasia View," Rustem Safronov, the special U.S. correspondent for Russia's "Novaya gazeta" newspaper, says foreign investors do seem to be losing patience with the regime in Turkmenistan. Safronov says the American energy conglomerate ExxonMobil has announced plans to close down its offices in Ashgabat and in the regional center of Balkanabad.

The U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights, released in March, called Ashgabat's record in 2001 "extremely poor." The report said Turkmenistan repressed all forms of political activity, including the registration of political parties, and forbid freedom of speech and of the press. Niyazov's government also did not permit unauthorized religious expression, the report said.