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Turkmenistan: Opposition Claims Wide Protests, But Independent Observers Remain Doubtful

Representatives of the Turkmen opposition in exile say there were a number of protest meetings last weekend in the capital, Ashgabat, and in other cities throughout the country. They say hundreds of people demanded the resignation of President Saparmurat Niyazov. The opposition National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan claims the meetings were the first wide-scale antigovernment actions to occur in Turkmenistan and that the protests will continue. But independent observers in the country say they are unaware that any such meetings took place.

Prague, 15 August 2002 -- Members of the Turkmen opposition in exile describe last week's People's Council meeting in Turkmenabad as the straw that broke the camel's back.

Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov opened the session -- the country's highest consultative body -- by telling some 2,000 delegates that "everything is going well" in the republic. He claimed that last year's gross economic product grew by more than 20 percent, and that this year's wheat harvest came to more than 2 million tons, which he called a "miracle."

But opposition members say Niyazov ignored the worsening socioeconomic situation in the country, including skyrocketing unemployment.

Instead, the opposition says, Turkmenbashi -- or "father of all Turkmen" -- once more elected himself president for life, and the names of the days of the week and months were changed, to the horror of many Turkmen.

After the People's Council ended, according to the opposition, several protest gatherings were held in the capital, Ashgabat, and in other cities such as Tashauz, Mari, and Krasnovodsk. The National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, founded by former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, claims that special committees were set up within the country to organize these protest actions.

According to opposition estimates, 200 to 300 people took part in each of these protests. They say 3,000 leaflets in Turkmen and 500 in Russian were distributed. The leaflets pictured Niyazov behind iron bars and called for the citizens of Turkmenistan to rise up and demand the ouster of Niyazov and his regime.

Shikhmuradov told RFE/RL that nationwide anger over the latest People's Council is strong, and that the opposition had no choice but to pressure the regime. He also says that police who sympathized with their protests treated them leniently. "Our work has become easier, in general, because [Niyazov's] so-called guardians of the law are sympathizing with us, and there is no division between protesting people and the police that protect the regime. We could do a lot because policemen and officials of the National Security Committee (KNB) treated our actions with understanding and sympathy. Now I can even say that they are helping us."

Niyazov's regime is criticized by Western governments and human rights groups for stifling antigovernment dissent. The U.S. State Department says the Niyazov regime severely restricts political and civil liberties, that citizens do not have the ability to change their government peacefully, and that the government continues to repress all opposition political activities.

According to Shikhmuradov, however, police and security officials did not seriously try to disperse the 11 August protests and, in the end, detained only a few people. Shikhmuradov says that after some routine questioning, all detainees were eventually released. He says this proves that frustration exists with Niyazov's policies among law enforcement authorities.

An official in the Turkmen Interior Ministry, who asked not to be named, vigorously denied that any such protest meetings had occurred: "This is nonsense!"

Independent observers in Turkmenistan say they were also surprised by the reports of protest actions. A Western diplomat in Ashgabat, who wished to remain anonymous, told RFE/RL that on 11 August she was in the capital's Tolkuchka market, where the opposition says its biggest protest took place. The diplomat said she did not see or hear any protests. She says there were some people spreading leaflets, but that, due to a dust storm, people were more interested in protecting their purchases than taking the leaflets.

Another Western official also could not confirm the opposition's claims: "This is a society in which there is no media worthy of the name, and consequently, as in the days of the Soviet Union, the importance of rumor is very great. When something happens, the whole city will know about it pretty quickly, and people will make comments and retell the story with slight variations and something will become generally known. That has not been the case here."

Shikhmuradov says he is unconcerned about such statements. He says he believes that the public's discontent with the regime has been strongly demonstrated and will grow further. He says the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan has a well-organized and well-disciplined structure within the country and that soon, larger protest meetings will be organized.

"Our main goal is to oust Niyazov from power and introduce democratic rules in the country, to create conditions for immediate development of civil society with all its attributes -- with an independent press, independent court, with the right of the people to elect and to be elected. At the same time, to create all necessary conditions to establishing Turkmenistan as a democratic state."

Some independent observers, however, doubt the Turkmen people are ready to take to the streets and oust the regime through mass protests.

Filip Noubel is a senior Central Asian analyst with the International Crisis Group, based in Kyrgyzstan. He says that during a recent trip to Turkmenistan, he saw for himself the worsening socioeconomic situation in the country. Most of the country lives below the poverty line, he says, and unemployment is worsening.

Still, he says, it seems too much to hope that the Turkmen people will carry out what Shikhmuradov calls another "Velvet Revolution": "I think that, indeed, people are in despair and they want a change. But on the other hand, it is not clear how to do that and who will do that. That creates a passive reaction to what's happening around them."

The Western official agrees. She acknowledges frustrations among the Turkmen population with poor living conditions, but says such frustrations are not as deep as the Turkmen opposition in exile supposes. Moreover, she adds, there is a lack of confidence among Turkmen citizens in the abilities and motives of the opposition.

"I don't find that the people inside the country -- at least, people in Ashgabat, and they are, of course, the important ones -- have much sympathy for the opposition in exile. First of all, these people used to be part of the system. So they are seen as, in essence, having a personal quarrel with Niyazov rather than acting on general principle. And consequently, although some people do admit to having heard some of the appeals and statements of the opposition, they are not willing to follow these people."

Noubel of the International Crisis Group says the opposition's democratic appeals remain a distant notion for most Turkmen: "In principle, many people say that most of the opposition are former members of the government. That's why there is a strong doubt about what would happen even if they return to the country: Would it become worse, better or stay the same? When you go into the countryside, of course, nobody knows about the opposition. These are words, these are notions which mean nothing to them. Only in Ashgabat do people know about the opposition, but I did not feel much strong confidence in them."

Noubel and other Western observers say they are pessimistic about the possibility of positive changes in Turkmenistan in the foreseeable future, while Shikhmuradov predicts that Niyazov and his regime soon will have no other choice but to bow to growing public protests and resign.