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Turkmenistan: Attempted Assassination of President Leads To Long List Of Suspects

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov escaped a reported attempt on his life yesterday. Niyazov was quick to accuse his most prominent political rivals of being behind the assassination attempt, but the list of potential suspects is much longer than the four former officials named by the Turkmen leader. As the investigation continues, one thing is almost certain: Arrests are sure to follow this threat on the life of the man who has held near absolute power in Turkmenistan for the past decade.

Prague, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Security remains tight today in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat one day after a reported assassination attempt against the country's president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Niyazov's motorcade reportedly came under fire as he traveled to work Monday morning. Niyazov was not hurt, but several bystanders and a security officer were injured in an exchange of gunfire.

Niyazov himself described what happened yesterday morning as he and his motorcade headed into the capital from the presidential residence on the outskirts of Ashgabat. "It was 7 o'clock in the morning. As I was passing through [Ashgabat], a KamAZ truck appeared behind me and blocked the intersection. A traffic-police car then stopped next to the KamAZ truck. I stopped paying attention and went to work and there I was told there had been shooting. People jumped out of the KamAZ, a BMW, and a Gazel [another car] and started firing," Niyazov said.

Some 16 people have already been detained in the case, including four ethnic Georgians who are not Turkmen citizens. Niyazov's press secretary Serdar Durdiev today referred to the Georgian detainees as "mercenaries" and characterized the attack as an act of "international terrorism."

But that has not changed Niyazov's mind about who was behind the attack. Following an emergency cabinet session yesterday, the Turkmen president named four of his most prominent political rivals and accused them of organizing the attempt on his life.

All four are one-time government officials now living in exile: former Deputy Agriculture Minister Sapar Iklymov, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov, and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov.

Niyazov singled out Iklymov, who left Turkmenistan in 1996, as the main organizer of the attack. The Turkmen president cited as evidence the fact that the vehicles used in the attack reportedly belong to a company owned by one of Iklymov's relatives.

The other three former officials, Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and Khanamov, are all members of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan opposition group, which was formed about one year ago. All four have lived in exile since the Turkmen government handed down corruption charges against them in various cases.

Niyazov has since said "drug addicts" were responsible for the actual shooting but maintained they were acting on the orders of the four former officials. Some of the 16 detainees in the case have reportedly implicated the four as well.

But in a country like Turkmenistan, where Niyazov -- who proudly bears the parliament-bestowed title of "Turkmenbashi," or father of all Turkmen -- rules the country with near-absolute authority, there is no shortage of people who may have wished to see Niyazov dead.

Since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991, Niyazov has cultivated a bizarre cult of personality in which his image dominates all facets of life. Cities and streets bear his name, his portrait adorns the national currency, and his face is a near-constant image on television and in newspapers. In working to promote his ubiquitous persona, Niyazov has shuffled and fired hundreds, perhaps thousands, of officials and jailed or expelled nearly all his opponents.

Shikhmuradov was for a long time an exception in the Turkmen government, occupying various prestigious posts in the government -- deputy prime minister, foreign minister, special adviser to the president on Caspian affairs, and ambassador to China -- from 1991 until his fall from grace late last year.

Most officials, especially ministers, occupy their posts for less than a year before they are dismissed, often in humiliating circumstances.

Alexander Zaslavsky of the New York-based Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy firm, said there are many people with the motivation to seek Niyazov's assassination. "It's interesting to see that the government changes -- that, of course, are so well-known with Niyazov's eccentric style -- have touched not only on the recent appointees but those who were particularly influential and well-entrenched," Zaslavsky said.

Zaslavsky cited one such example: Mukhamad Nazarov, the head of the National Security Committee (the institutional heir to the KGB) and a reported longtime ally of Niyazov. Earlier this year, Nazarov was sentenced to 20 years in jail for abuse of office and corruption. His arrest followed rumors that Nazarov himself was orchestrating an assassination attempt on Niyazov.

There are others. Many officials, including ministers, have been dismissed from the Defense and Foreign ministries, often during cabinet sessions that are later broadcast on state television with Niyazov ordering the disgraced officials to "go work in the fields and let the sweat of your brow clean your soul of its crimes against Turkmenistan."

Zaslavsky said this revolving-door policy of near-constant hiring and firing has severely undermined Niyazov's authority in Turkmenistan. "[Niyazov's] continued hunt for opponents within his own government -- of course, almost the entire government was dismissed 10 days ago, as well as four out of five regional governors -- is something that has eroded Niyazov's domestic position considerably. So his undoing is very much a product of his own obsessive search for his domestic enemies," Zaslavsky said.

International human rights organizations are already warning of what may be the wave of arrests that is likely to follow yesterday's assassination attempt on Niyazov. Erika Daily of the New York-based Open Society Institute said, "In the past, the [Turkmen] government has arbitrarily detained and imprisoned civic and politically active individuals and their associates."

Zaslavsky agreed that the arrests that will follow the attempted assassination will likely prove no exception to the pattern already established. "It's certainly safe to assume he won't treat his opponents kindly," Zaslavsky said.

Similar assassination attempts against other Central Asian leaders have prompted a similar law-enforcement crackdown. There were widespread arrests in Tajikistan following the attempted assassination of President Imomali Rakhmonov in April 1997 and in Uzbekistan after the attempt on the life of President Islam Karimov in February 1999. The arrests in Turkmenistan -- dubbed "the hermit kingdom" for its airtight government restrictions on information and travel -- may be even more widespread.

Turkmenistan may not find other countries very receptive to helping in the search for those responsible for the attempt on Niyazov's life. Presidential press secretary Durdiev may have ruled out any possible assistance from Russia today by indirectly accusing Moscow -- which in the past has expressed its resentment of Niyazov's intransigence over natural-gas supplies -- of involvement in the plot. Reuters quoted Durdiev as saying, "I can't say it was done from Russia, but I can say there are political activists in Russia who are protecting the organizers and motivators."

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)