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Turkmenistan: Opposition See Cracks Emerging In Ashgabat Regime

Members of the Turkmen opposition and human rights officials say some cracks are appearing in Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's regime. They say the desire for change is growing among ordinary Turkmen people but that a lack of unity among the opposition could hinder the process. RFE/RL talked with exiled opposition leaders and human rights activists.

Prague, 31 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition leaders and observers say cracks are appearing in Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's regime and that frustration is growing among ordinary people.

Vitalii Ponamarev, the Central Asian program director of the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, said opposition and human rights leaders met recently in Washington and identified what they called an "awakening of social consciousness" in Turkmenistan. "One of the issues we discussed during the U.S. meetings was about how social consciousness in Turkmenistan is being changed. Approximately a year ago, a kind of awakening started. Before that, public consciousness was in a very passive state. People started to discuss, at least in private talks, problems of society. Also, there were several actions of spreading protest leaflets in the streets. Street actions haven't been seen in Turkmenistan since 1995," Ponamarev said.

The Washington discussions included meetings with top U.S. officials and congressional representatives. Activists stressed that high-level Western support remains crucial.

Avdy Kuliev, a leader of the United Turkmen opposition abroad, said that without outside support, the opposition could not succeed. "[There is a] thesis that says it is impossible to bring democracy to a country from the outside and it should be fought for by local people -- and this is true. Americans say this, but not because they don't support us. Indeed, the U.S. supports us. If not, we would not be able to fight, because the regime in Turkmenistan is very powerful. It has huge financial might. Not a single person supports the regime in Turkmenistan, but they have no other choice but to tolerate it. Niyazov is holding his power with his prisons, with the might of the army and police. Without them, he can't survive even one day. We rely mostly on the people inside Turkmenistan, at the same time getting support from outside," Kuliev said.

Since Turkmenistan's independence in 1991, the outside world has shown relatively little interest in the country, where Niyazov has declared himself president for life. But some believe this situation is changing.

Peter Zalmaev, the NIS program coordinator of the International League of Human Rights, which sponsored the visit by the Turkmen opposition to the United States, is one of them. "It seems to me that the U.S. would be ready to support any replacement for Niyazov because as a partner, he is completely unreliable. 'Turkmenbashi' is not an ally of [the] U.S. in the war on terror. This is a man who is involved in the drugs trade and a person who has taken a very destructive position, impeding any progress, on Caspian issues. We also can see such discontent [with Niyazov] from other countries: Russia is not happy with him, as well as his Central Asian neighbors," Zalmaev said.

Despite Niyazov's unpopularity, it is not clear how regime change could take place and who could initiate it. There are no active opposition parties inside Turkmenistan, and groups outside of the country often see themselves first as rivals, not allies.

International observers say the main task remains forming a broad opposition coalition that could deliver a united message to the Turkmen people.

Ponamarev said a continuing rift between opposition leaders is hampering the consolidation of all democratic forces in Turkmenistan and thus serving the regime's interests. "Now there are more and more small opposition groups without any names in Turkmenistan, and they are becoming more active. The regional elite is becoming active too. In conditions of conflict among leaders of the Turkmen opposition abroad, these people often can't make their choice. If the unity of the opposition happens, then this would to a certain degree activate the process of the consolidation of opposition forces within Turkmenistan," Ponamarev said.

Ponamarev's Memorial Human Rights Center, together with the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and other international organizations, has launched a series of meetings and conferences aimed at bringing the opposition together.

In June, they organized a special meeting in Vienna, where leading opposition figures, Turkmen dissidents, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations discussed human rights and civil society. One of the outcomes of the conference was the formation of a coordinating-consultative body of opposition members.

Another meeting of Turkmen dissidents will take place in Moscow on 3-5 November, and many hope the discussions will help break the deadlock.