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Central Asia Report: June 26, 2003

26 June 2003, Volume 3, Number 22

DID NIYAZOV BLINK? Sunday 22 June marked the deadline set unilaterally by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov terminating Turkmenistan and Russia's 10-year-old dual-citizenship agreement. By that date holders of dual citizenship residing in Turkmenistan were required to decide which passport they wanted to retain. After that date, Russian citizens supposedly have to obtain visas to stay in Turkmenistan, while ethnic Russians who retain their Turkmen citizenship cannot travel using their Russian passports, but instead must obtain hard-to-acquire Turkmen exit visas (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 12 June 2003).

But reports were mixed, and official pronouncements confused, over whether Ashgabat was actually enforcing the new arrangement or had quietly backed away under pressure from Moscow. Facing a barrage of criticism from Russian media and lawmakers, the Turkmen authorities initially stood up to it. Then last week they indicated they had reconsidered their position. Then on 24 June they reasserted that Niyazov's decree on revoking dual citizenship was operative after all. Yet reports from Turkmenistan suggested that it was not being implemented. In short, the outcome of the Turkmen-Russian face-off is unclear. Did Niyazov blink or not?

Evidence that he did came from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told a press conference on 20 June about a telephone conversation he had had with Niyazov on the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June 2003). According to Putin, Niyazov assured him that no actions would be taken in connection with the revocation of dual citizenship until a bilateral commission, tasked to resolve the issue, finished its work. (The commission has not begun its work yet but is due to start soon.) Further confirmation that the Turkmen authorities had apparently deferred their precipitous step came two days later from Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin. In an interview with the newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta," published on 23 June, Loshchinin said that Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov had recently assured him over the telephone "once again" that there would be no change in the status of dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship holders after the 22 June deadline. The Russian diplomat did not specify when he had received previous assurances from Meredov. Loshchinin said, "tension surrounding many aspects of this issue has been reduced," although he acknowledged that he and his Turkmen colleague "did not achieve complete mutual understanding."

Thus it seemed that a mixture of Russian diplomacy and threats had finally borne fruit. Throughout the preceding week, Russia had been applying unprecedented pressure on Turkmenistan to retract the 22 June deadline, with Russia's State Duma (lower house of parliament), which had never exhibited much concern about Turkmenistan's domestic goings-on before, uncharacteristically leading the charge. On 19 June, Russian NTV broadcast remarks by various Duma deputies, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Rogozin, harshly criticizing the situation in Turkmenistan. On the following day, the Duma deputies adopted a very tough resolution (see for the text) on the human rights situation of Russian citizens in Turkmenistan. It slammed the Turkmen government for harassing their Russian compatriots -- "preparations are underway for the massive deportation of the Russian-speaking population, about 100,000 people," it claimed -- and demanded that Ashgabat drop the requirement that Russian citizens obtain exit visas to leave the country, which it described as "especially insulting for the honor and dignity of Russian citizens." It also insisted that Ashgabat lift restrictions on teaching the Russian language, on rebroadcasting Russian television signals, on importing foreign publications, and on access to foreign media and the Internet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 June 2003). It wrapped up with a call to President Vladimir Putin "to consider the possibility of...taking measures together [with] other states and international organizations in order to exert the necessary influence on the leadership of Turkmenistan to improve the state of human rights in the country." The resolution was overwhelmingly adopted by a vote of 411 in favor and two against, Interfax reported on 20 June. This vote far exceeded the 226 required for its passage.

Meanwhile Ashgabat's defense against the avalanche of criticism has been that it is being persecuted by outsiders who, either out of ignorance or malice, misrepresent the true state of affairs within the country. On 19 June, its Foreign Ministry issued a press release attacking the "ongoing propaganda activities of the Russian media aimed at disseminating intentionally false information about the situation in Turkmenistan," RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported. The statement contained a toothless threat to appeal to the United Nations and other international organizations unless the so-called misinformation campaign ceased. Finally, the Foreign Ministry invited Russia to send a delegation "to study the actual situation in Turkmenistan, including matters related to the implementation of the protocol terminating dual citizenship."

According to Deutsche Welle on 18 June, the actual situation was that 70 to 80 Russian-speaking families were leaving Ashgabat daily, Deutsche Welle reported on 18 June. Many of them were reportedly abandoning their homes and most of their possessions in the rush to beat the 22 June deadline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 June 2003). Unabashed, Niyazov told a government meeting on 20 June that Turkmenistan could take pride in the level of interethnic and religious harmony in the country. He claimed that no one suffered discrimination because of national origin, reported.

However, despite promises that Ashgabat was softening its stance, a source in Turkmen law enforcement told Interfax on 24 June that the deadline was firm and Ashgabat regarded the dual-citizenship agreement as terminated after all. Citizens traveling to Russia were now required to use their Turkmen passports containing both Turkmen exit visas and Russian entry visas, the source was quoted as saying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June 2003). But was the requirement merely being honored in the breach? Andrei Molochkov, charge d'affaires at the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat, said the Turkmen authorities had taken no steps to infringe the rights of dual-citizenship holders, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 June. "Nothing tragic or terrible has happened," he said, as quoted approvingly by the semi-official website

Yet is Molochkov a credible source? He was also quoted as saying that the number of people waiting in line for multiple-entry visas to Russia had shrunk from 600 to 150. The Russian Embassy in Ashgabat reported recently that more than 2,600 Russian citizens have applied for entry visas to Russia. Molochkov added the dubious information that only 50 Russian citizens had informed the embassy that they were permanently leaving Turkmenistan. His remarks supported the Turkmen government's assertions that Moscow's thunderings have been wildly out of proportion to the real situation. Why Molochkov would act as an apologist for Ashgabat is another of the many murky questions currently surrounding the dual-citizenship rumpus.

AMENDMENTS TO TAJIK CONSTITUTION APPROVED BY A LANDSLIDE... Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov won the right to stand for two more seven-year terms of office when his current mandate expires in 2006, after an overwhelming majority of voters approved changes to the country's constitution in a national referendum on 22 June. Among the 56 amendments, which were submitted to voters as a single, take-it-or-leave-it package, were the extension of judges' terms of office from five years to 10 years, and the removal of guarantees of free health care and higher education (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 20 June 2003). But the key change was to Article 65 of the 1999 constitution, which had limited Rakhmonov to serving a single term. His referendum victory means the 50-year-old incumbent, who was first elected in 1994, can now theoretically remain at the helm until 2020.

Announcing figures reminiscent of Soviet-era elections, Tajikistan's Central Commission for Elections and Referendums said on 23 June that 93.13 percent of voters approved of the amendments (6.13 percent against). Furthermore, according to the commission's chairman Mirzoali Boltuev, 96.39 percent of Tajikistan's 3.1 million registered voters (out of a population of 6.3 million) participated in the referendum, RIA-Novosti and AFP reported. Opportunities for Tajik citizens to vote in the referendum were provided in the 16 countries where Tajikistan has embassies, and in several Russian cities where there are large numbers of Tajik labor migrants. A total of 220,506 Tajik citizens were outside the country on polling day, according to official figures. In Russia, 18,062 Tajiks voted in favor of the constitutional amendments and 273 voted against, commission officials told Asia-Plus on 23 June.

...WHILE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY VOICES GRAVE RESERVATIONS. Neither the UN nor the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored the voting since both organizations received official notice of the referendum from the Tajik government too late to assemble observer teams. But the OSCE cast doubts on the referendum's validity in a statement issued on 23 June, noting that, "The unusually high turnout of 96 percent raises concerns regarding the accuracy of the reporting of results." An unnamed Western diplomat in the capital Dushanbe underscored such concerns, telling AFP: "A lot of people out in the villages did not even know about the referendum." Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT), said on 23 June that his party regarded the referendum as invalid because, according to the party's own estimates, only about 20 percent of registered voters took part. Shortly before the referendum, Iskandarov said that the DPT would boycott the vote because the outcome had been determined in advance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June 2003). DPT Deputy Chairman Asliddin Sokhibazarov said the whole exercise was "a political farce," AP reported.

The U.S. State Department also expressed dissatisfaction with the plebiscite. "We have repeatedly stated that a constitutional referendum in [Tajikistan] should meet international standards for transparency," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said on 23 June, as quoted by AP. "And, unfortunately, this exercise that was held over the weekend did not meet those standards." He called on the Tajik government "to test its leadership and its policies through regularly scheduled free and fair elections."

The Kremlin has made few official pronouncements about the referendum, none of them critical. Its reticence is a sign that Moscow feels that having Rakhmonov in office is likely to keep the region stable, AFP commented on 23 June. Russia has stationed over 10,000 troops in Tajikistan to patrol the border with Afghanistan. A Russian diplomat in Dushanbe told Interfax on the day after the referendum, "it is a purely internal affair of Tajikistan." The diplomat added, "Russia will accept as legitimate the referendum results that Tajikistan's Central Election Commission officially publishes."

Meanwhile, Rakhmonov continued to insist that the amendment allowing a president to run for two terms of office was not specifically designed for him. Asking whether he planned to stand again, Rakhmonov was coy. "There are still three years to go and who knows what could happen -- whether we stay healthy or not -- who knows," he said on 23 June, as quoted by AFP. "I have no plans to think about this, and I have not thought about it yet." A number of opposition figures have accused him of wanting to be president for life and of creating a personality cult in imitation of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. But Rakhmonov told journalists that he opposed any personality cult and that he was taking unspecified, serious measures against such a development, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 23 June. "We must build society in such a way that people can elect its president freely and openly," he said. Last week's referendum did not appear to be a step in that direction.