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Central Asia Report: May 1, 2003

1 May 2003, Volume 3, Number 16

TURKMENISTAN GIVES ITS DUAL CITIZENS TWO MONTHS TO CHOOSE. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's decree of 21 April, abruptly ordering holders of Turkmen-Russian dual citizenship to renounce one or the other within two months, has got local Russians furious, frightened, and clamoring to leave Turkmenistan. Niyazov's immediate target was probably not the Russian community as such, but his Turkmen enemies with Russian passports who have found safe haven in Moscow. That said, although "ethnic cleansing" is probably too strong to describe the move, the likely exodus of a significant proportion of the country's Russian community can be seen as part and parcel of Niyazov's nationalist push to lessen Russian influence on Turkmen culture, to ensure that state officials are racially "pure" by checking their genealogy, and to eliminate Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication in the country. The decree has also had repercussions in Russia: Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has been accused at home of selling his compatriots down the river -- or rather, trading them for a steady stream of Turkmen natural gas in a deal struck last month.

Apprehensions among Turkmenistan's Russian community were already acute after Putin and Niyazov signed a measure on 10 April, during the latter's state visit to Moscow, agreeing to end dual citizenship of Turkmenistan and the Russian Federation. The protocol was published in Turkmen media about a week later, reported on 18 April. The main purpose of Niyazov's visit to Moscow was to seal a lucrative intergovernmental agreement on gas cooperation. For the next 25 years the Russian hydrocarbon giant Gazprom will purchase and market the lion's share of Turkmen gas, potentially yielding Turkmenistan $200 billion and Russia $300 billion (see "Turkmenistan: Niyazov Seals Energy, Security Contracts With Russia,", 11 April 2003). The two sides also signed an agreement on bilateral security in which they declared their intention to cooperate in combating international terrorism and made provisions for the mutual extradition of "terrorist" suspects.

Putin's rationale for agreeing to eliminate dual citizenship with Turkmenistan, as he expressed it on 10 April, was that the provision, instituted in 1993, was no longer necessary since ethnic Russians who wanted to leave Turkmenistan had already done so. This is a patent fiction, however: according to officials at the Russian Embassy in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, processing all the outstanding applications for Russian passports would take years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2003). Putin's remark therefore aroused suspicion that revoking the right to dual citizenship was part of the price for securing this gas deal, which Moscow has been pursuing for several years. Putin also came under strong pressure from Niyazov to axe dual citizenship during talks in January, but refused. The breakthrough in gas negotiations occurred only after Putin granted this concession -- a concession that many analysts predicted he would never be able to accept, according to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) on 17 April.

From Niyazov's viewpoint, meanwhile, annulling dual citizenship with Russia is a step toward neutralizing his political opponents, including former government ministers and intellectuals who found refuge abroad, many of them in Russia by virtue of having dual citizenship. Many of those accused of staging the November 2002 assassination bid against him, subsequently dubbed a "terrorist" attack, operate or have operated out of Russia. Consequently the provision against dual citizenship may be thought of as a security measure -- falling, in Niyazov's mind, under the same heading as combating international terrorism.

Meanwhile, reported on 23 April that the Foreign Ministry had repeated a request to Sweden to extradite former Deputy Agriculture Minister Saparmurat Yklymov and dissident Halmurat Esenov, accused of being "the organizers of an attempted violent seizure of power and change to the constitutional system in Turkmenistan by means of terrorist acts and an assassination attempt." On the same day the newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" said the two men "are hiding from the Turkmen justice system, not without the help of foreign sponsors." Both men have been living in Sweden for a number of years and publicizing developments in Turkmenistan. Niyazov has asserted that Turkmenistan is being defamed by people who say that human rights are violated there, adding that no one can prove that anyone has been subjected to persecution or reprisals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2003). On 23 April, the Swedish Justice Ministry stated that it had rejected the request for Yklymov's extradition six weeks ago and was not prepared to review the case, AFP reported. (As for Esenov, the ministry said it was not aware of any pending extradition request against him.) The ministry's stated reason for not handing over Yklymov was that he had a Swedish passport. Niyazov's frustration in trying to get his hands on someone like Yklymov illuminates why he has been so intent on removing the protection of Russian citizenship from his enemies holed up in Moscow.

Immediately after 10 April, Russians in Turkmenistan began worrying what the new agreement would mean for them. Within one day, housing prices in Ashgabat began to tumble, a press release by Russia's Memorial Human Rights Center said on 23 April. Apartments that had cost $9,000 in March were being snapped up for $3,000 by speculators in mid-April. IWPR said on 17 April that a spacious three-room apartment in the capital could be had for as little as $1,000. Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat offered reassuring statements, guaranteeing that there would be no change to Russians' status without consultation and agreement by both countries, and that individuals with dual citizenship "remained citizens of the Russian Federation."

Then on 22 April Niyazov promulgated a decree, "On Settling Issues Relating to the Termination of Dual Citizenship between Turkmenistan and the Russian Federation." The decree's draconian approach to settling matters has reportedly precipitated widespread panic within Turkmenistan and a stampede to the borders. According to the decree, Turkmen-Russian dual citizens have two months to choose which passport they want to keep. Those residing in Turkmenistan must inform internal-affairs agencies of their decision by 22 June or else will automatically be considered Turkmen citizens. Those residing outside the country will automatically lose their Turkmen citizenship unless they apply to a Turkmen embassy to retain it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 April 2003).

While the tight two-month deadline will cause predictable hardship, heartache, and bureaucratic nightmares, Turkmenistan's law forbidding foreigners to own property in the country potentially spells disaster for those affected by the 22 April decree. The moment a dual citizen renounces his Turkmen passport in favor of his Russian one, his property is subject to confiscation by the state. Some individuals have found themselves face-to-face with this dilemma in a particularly cruel fashion. reported on 28 April that, despite the official two-month grace period, dual citizens rushing back to Turkmenistan from Russia to put their affairs in order were being met at the airport by Turkmen police, who forced them to determine their citizenship preference on the spot. If they opted for a Russian passport, they forfeited their Turkmen property.

On the other hand, if they opted for a Turkmen passport, they found they could not easily leave the country again. One of the innovations of the 21 April decree is that "persons with dual citizenship ... are to observe common regulations set for Turkmen citizens entering and leaving the country." This means that, even if they travel on Russian passports, dual citizens now require exit visas, which have become almost impossible to obtain since 1 March when tighter restrictions were introduced. The Memorial Human Rights Center reported that armed patrols appeared on the streets of Ashgabat on the morning of 23 April, while at 10 a.m. airline offices stopped selling tickets to Russian passport holders unless they had an exit visa. As panic and fury erupted, the Foreign Affairs Ministry minimally eased the situation by permitting Russians to buy short-term exit visas at the airport, for two days only (24-25 April), upon payment of 172,000 manats (about $33).

Up until now, many Russians have remained in Turkmenistan because they were relatively protected from Niyazov's measures to isolate the country. In lieu of official information, it is usually estimated that there are about 100,000 Russian-Turkmen dual citizens in Turkmenistan. (However, this number does not include those who obtained Russian citizenship in Russia, or those who are concealing their possession of a Russian passport. Furthermore, there are another 100,000 applications for Russian citizenship waiting to be processed by the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat.) Russians could leave the country and return without exit visas; they could reside in Turkmenistan but take advantage of work opportunities in Russia; and thus they had access to news, information, and publications beyond the ambit of Turkmen censorship. Since July 2002 it has been impossible for residents of Turkmenistan to subscribe to foreign publications, and the importation of foreign periodicals has been banned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 April 2003). But Niyazov's 21 April decree has finally spurred the country's Russian community to bolt (see "Turkmenistan: Local Russians Pack Their Bags As Dual Citizenship Nears End,", 28 April 2003). Deutshe Welle reported on 28 April that hundreds of people had flocked to the Uzbek-Turkmen border in an effort to get out of Turkmenistan using their Russian passports as exit documents. Once in Uzbekistan they hoped to board trains to Russia, according to the report, which added that Turkmen border guards were not letting them pass. Meanwhile in Moscow, newspapers were calling Russians in Turkmenistan "outcasts" or simply "refugees," referring to the likelihood that many of them would be obliged to quit the country after 22 June leaving much of their property behind. Some could opt to remain as foreign residents, AFP pointed out on 23 April. But the application process is arduous and uncertain, and as non-nationals they would still lack property ownership rights. Moreover, foreigners wishing to marry a Turkmen have to pay a colossal fee of $50,000.

For a week after the 21 April decree, the Kremlin apparently did nothing. Russian state-controlled television studiously ignored the news from Turkmenistan, according to Memorial and At the same time, angry and desperate crowds were gathering outside the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat demanding assistance and action. Local Russians were calling Putin a "traitor," and Turkmenistan a huge gulag from which they would never escape. The newspaper "Moskovskii Komsolets" reported that on Orthodox Good Friday, 25 April, a crowd at the embassy gates burned a portrait of Putin and stamped on a Russian flag. The paper also said that the Turkmen authorities had intensified efforts to smoke out dual citizens. Schoolchildren were being grilled on whether their parents had two passports; rectors of Russian universities had received demands for information on students coming from Turkmenistan; and Niyazov's secret police were trying to hack into the Russian embassy's database of passport holders, said "Moskovskii Komsolets."

On 26 April, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called his Turkmen counterpart Rashid Meredov. On the same day the ministry in Moscow issued a press release expressing "serious concern" about "the unilateral and hasty actions of the Turkmen side" regarding the 22 June deadline. "Enforcement of this rule would deal a serious blow to the interests of our fellow citizens in Turkmenistan and affect their fundamental rights," said the release as quoted by Interfax. It said that the Turkmen ambassador to Moscow was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told that until Turkmenistan receives written notification that Russia has ratified the protocol revoking the dual-citizenship agreement, the agreement remains in force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2003). The Turkmen parliament has already ratified the protocol. Even if the Duma does vote it into force, however, Moscow said the document could not be made retroactive, as Niyazov was doing. In other words, people who already have dual citizenship must be allowed to keep it: "The protocol governs only relations that can arise in the future," Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told Interfax on 26 April. A senior official at the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat told AFP on 23 April that "under Russia's constitution nobody can be stripped of their citizenship in Turkmenistan."

On 29 April, Boris Nemtsov, the leader of Russia's liberal Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) party, issued a statement on its website that strongly attacked the government for "making hundreds of thousands of our compatriots into outcasts, forced to lose their property and abandon Turkmenistan," thanks to what the statement described as a "gas-for-people deal." It accused Putin of dooming "thousands of families of our compatriots, whose fates have paid for the well-being of Gazprom ... Russia can be strong and rich only through its citizens, not gas." Nemtsov also criticized the weak response of the Foreign Ministry to the developments in Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2003). Meanwhile local Russians� frenzied preparations to leave their homes for often uncertain destinations continue.

BUSY DAYS IN DUSHANBE: PUTIN'S VISIT, EEC, CSTO. Russian President Vladimir Putin killed three birds with one stone during a state visit to Tajikistan on 26-28 April, holding bilateral talks with his Tajik counterpart Imomali Rakhmonov in the capital Dushanbe, attending a presidential session of the Eurasian Economic Community's (EEC) Interstate Council, and opening a session of the CIS Collective Security Council, whose chairmanship he handed over at the meeting to Rakhmonov.

Putin's talks with Rakhmonov on 26 April focused on economic cooperation, especially in the energy sphere, in which the Tajiks are seeking foreign assistance to develop their hydropower resources (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 2003). The two sides inked an agreement on Russian investment in the Roghun hydropower plant in eastern Tajikistan, whose construction was begun in the early 1980's but never completed for lack of funds. Not only will the plant be the largest hydropower facility in Central Asia, producing electricity that could be sold to markets as far away as Iran and Pakistan, it will also provide a measure of control over the distribution of water resources in the region -- thus allowing Russia to use its investment in Roghun to influence the regional competition for water, according to some analysts (see "Tajikistan: Putin to Visit Dushanbe Amid Warming Russian-Central Asia Ties,", 25 April 2003).

A closer security partnership with Tajikistan is the second pillar of Russian strategy towards Tajikistan. "An important theme of this meeting was our countries' collaboration in ensuring security and military-technical cooperation," said Putin as quoted by Asia-Plus on 28 April. Visiting a Russian military facility on the Tajik-Afghan border, he told commanders of the 201st Motorized Division that the Kremlin planned to bolster its military presence in Tajikistan in response to reports that Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants were regrouping (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April). It was not clear how much Moscow intends to strengthen its contingent beyond the approximately 20,000 Russian soldiers currently in Tajikistan. The two countries are expected to sign an accord before the end of May formally elevating the Russian military installation to a base.

The EEC session was held on 27 April, and endorsed a program of priority activities from 2003 to 2006. The EEC consists of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russian, with Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine as observers. The group's priorities, according to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who was in Dushanbe in his capacity as EEC chairman, included creating a common customs area, developing energy resources, accelerating the development of a transport union, setting up a common agricultural market, pooling efforts to combat drugs trafficking, devising a common migration policy, and coordinating dates of accession to the World Trade Organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April). The last point does not concern Kyrgyzstan, which has already joined the WTO. Tajik presidential press secretary Safar Zaidov added that the group also approved the notion of joint projects between EEC members, and that the first one to be discussed was the construction of Tajikistan's Sangtudinskii hydroelectric plant, Asia-Plus reported on 28 April. Speaking of the three-year program of envisaged activities, President Askar Akaev said, "If we succeed in realizing this program, then by 2006 we really will be one community with a free-trade zone without restrictions, which will in turn allow the volume of production to increase and will stimulate the sustainable economic development of our countries." But the "If" is significant, as is the very length of the laundry list of goals to be achieved, practically amounting to an admission that the achievements of the EEC have been meager to date.

On 28 April in Dushanbe, the presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan created a new military-political organization on the basis of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, called the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Its charter and legal status were approved at a meeting in Moldova in October 2002, but the final resolutions needed to bring it to life were only taken this week. "At today's session we finally agreed on military and military-political mechanisms, resolved to form a joint headquarters and a rapid deployment force, and made a decision on coordinating political approaches," Putin told reporters. He added that the CSTO's purpose was "to guarantee the security, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of its member states," Interfax reported. To this end, a CSTO charter was drawn up with an article stipulating that an act of aggression against one member state would be considered as an attack against all. "Rossiya" television channel commented on 28 April that the article was reminiscent of Article 5 of the NATO charter.

Askaev confirmed at the meeting that Kant air base, near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, would be open to receive Russian air defense units and fighter jets starting in July. On the same day in Bishkek, Nikolai Bailo, chairman of the committee for CIS affairs in Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Chamber (lower house of parliament) urged fellow legislators to ratify the decision about Kant without long debate, ideally in one day, Interfax reported on 28 April. Meanwhile, weapons for the new grouping will be provided by Russia. "It is an open secret that Russia is the main supplier of armaments for the countries in this organization, and will be sold on the same terms as to the Russian armed forces," Nazarbaev noted, as reported by ITAR-TASS. "This creates a brotherhood in arms," he added. The CSTO's Unified Headquarters is due to start operating in January 2004. But how this new piece of Central Asia's security architecture will fit with other existing initiatives -- in particular the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which held its own foreign ministers meeting in Almaty on 29 April, and NATO's Partnership for Peace program -- remains to be seen.