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Turkmenistan: Government Forcibly Relocating Uzbeks Away from Border

The president of Turkmenistan has ordered the forced relocation of ethnic Uzbeks living along the Turkmen border with Uzbekistan. With relations between Ashgabat and Tashkent at an all-time low, Turkmenistan is using a decree on the relocation of unspecified "unworthy people" to force ethnic Uzbeks from its border region.

Prague, 15 January 2003 (RFE/RL)-- The Turkmen government is forcibly relocating part of its ethnic Uzbek population based along Turkmenistan's border with Uzbekistan. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov reminded officials earlier this month that he wanted so-called "unworthy people" moved away from the Uzbek border area and replaced by ethnic Turkmen.

The issue first surfaced in November, when Niyazov announced his decree on relocating "unworthy people" away from three southeastern regions along the Uzbek border. The decree did not originally appear to target ethnic Uzbeks specifically, but has been used to force their ouster since they came under suspicion following the reported assassination plot against Niyazov on 25 November.

One Uzbek woman living in Uzbekistan recently visited her relatives across the Turkmen border. The woman, who declined to give her name fearing for the security of her kin, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service about her impressions of who, in Turkmenistan, is "unworthy" to live by the Uzbek border: "The people [the Turkmen government] consider unworthy or inappropriate are Uzbeks living in Turkmenistan. If they are Uzbek citizens or it's in their [Turkmen] passports that they are ethnic Uzbeks, they are separating them, trying to keep them from being in contact with their relatives [across the border]. They are considered unworthy [to live by the border]."

Another Uzbek woman with relatives in Turkmenistan said she traveled to Turkmenistan late last year and said she heard that ethnic Uzbeks were being targeted in a campaign to replace local leaders. "When we traveled there recently we heard talk that Uzbek [local administrative] leaders were replaced by those whose passports showed them to be ethnic Turkmen. That's what we heard," she said.

The alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov was first blamed on Turkmen businessmen inside the country and former government officials who had fled Turkmenistan to live abroad and work in opposition to the Turkmen regime.

Since then, however, the investigation into the attack on Niyazov took an unexpected turn. On 16 December, Turkmen security personnel raided the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat. The Turkmen government claimed Uzbek Ambassador Abdurashid Kadyrov had helped conspirators in the plot, brought across the border to Turkmenistan secretly by Uzbek security services.

Niyazov said that the man he regarded as the mastermind in the plot to kill him, former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, had been hiding in the Uzbek Embassy from the time of the assassination attempt until at least 7 December.

Despite protests from Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry over the raid, Uzbek Ambassador to Turkmenistan Kadyrov was declared persona non grata and ordered out of Turkmenistan on 21 December. By then, both countries had sent additional troops to their common border.

Last week, Niyazov reminded a meeting of the cabinet that he wanted his November decree on moving unworthy people from the border area fulfilled. Niyazov ordered their relocation to a "new place," where "the unworthy people will have an opportunity to cleanse their sins through good deeds."

That new place, by order of Niyazov, is the northwestern part of the country, by the border with Kazakhstan. It is a desert area that is sparsely inhabited and boasts no cities or towns of note.

As one Uzbek woman with relatives in Turkmenistan said, even the Turkmen regard the area of new settlement as isolated and inhospitable. "For the Turkmen this is a remote place. They say [the Turkmen government] will move [the ethnic Uzbeks of Turkmenistan] out there," she said.

Niyazov also chose last week to remind Turkmen citizens, and others, that violation of Turkmenistan's state borders is an offense that carries a five- to 10-year jail sentence. Niyazov may have been thinking of the Osh riots of 1990 when ethnic Uzbeks crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan to join with relatives who were fighting with ethnic Kyrgyz over land. More than 200 people were killed in three days of rioting that only stopped when the Soviet Army showed up in force.

Reports of discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks in Turkmenistan predate Niyazov's November decree. The Russian human rights organization Memorial has in the past few years documented cases of ethnic Uzbek schoolchildren being ordered to wear Turkmen national dress or be refused entry to school.

A possibly related incident came last week with the dismissal of Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, Turkmenistan's mufti, or supreme Islamic cleric, and an ethnic Uzbek. He was replaced by 35-year-old ethnic Turkmen Kakageldy Vepaev.

It remains unclear how many people are affected by this decree. Nor is it known what, if any, compensation they will get from leaving their homes behind or what awaits them when they arrive at their new place of residence.

(Adolat Najimova and Biloliddin Hasanov of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)