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Central Asia Report: October 3, 2003

3 October 2003, Volume 3, Number 33

TURKMEN OPPOSITION UNITES... Turkmenistan's opposition-in-exile, a hitherto fractious collection of parties and movements operating primarily out of Moscow, and known as much for fighting amongst themselves as offering a serious alternative to President Saparmurat Niyazov, took a potentially major step towards professionalizing and consolidating their efforts with a two-day, closed-door strategy meeting on 27-28 September in the Czech capital Prague. A communique issued by representatives of four major opposition groups announced that they were joining forces as the Union of Democratic Forces of Turkmenistan (UDFT) with the goal of replacing Niyazov's regime with a democratic government based on a parliamentary system.

Among those gathered in Prague were former Turkmen Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, now leader of the United Democratic Opposition; former Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Dodonov, now deputy chairman of the Watan sociopolitical movement; and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmuhammed Hamanov, co-founder of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan's Renaissance movement was also represented at the meeting. It was these four groupings that have come together as the UDFT. Also attending were representatives of the New York-based International League for Human Rights and the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, which co-sponsored the meeting (see "Turkmenistan: Opposition Leaders Align, Seek International Support,", 29 September 2003). One prominent oppositionist, the former Turkmen National Bank chief Hudaiberdy Orazov, who now heads Watan, was not at the meeting because he was refused entry by Czech authorities. Reportedly he did not have a valid Czech visa (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October 2003).

Dialogue between Turkmen dissident groups only began in June 2002 even though opposition to Niyazov began to organize, albeit in embryonic form, a decade ago. Moreover, as commented on 30 September, this week's conference was the first occasion when they have signaled a willingness to cooperate. Kuliev, however, played down their differences. "We were able to come to this agreement rather easily because we know one another, and we are acquainted with each other's [political] programs, and our unification is founded on basic principles," he said on 29 September (see "Turkmenistan: United Opposition May Be 'Missing Link' To Effect Change", 1 October 2003). Kuliev was skating over, among other things, a well-publicized rivalry in the past with former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, currently imprisoned in Turkmenistan on charges of masterminding the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in November 2002. Kuliev added that the opposition's joint struggle was founded on shared principles of respect for democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights. These are also given as the UDFT's core aims in its communique.

The Prague meeting had two, mutually supporting goals: To forge a strategy for common action within the opposition for influencing events in Turkmenistan from abroad, and to push the international community to put more pressure on Niyazov's regime. Towards the first goal participants established the UDFT. However, fundamental administrative and organizational issues still have to be resolved including its leadership structure, decision-making processes, and finances.

The UDFT said on 29 September that, as a priority task, it was setting out to draft a new national constitution to serve as a blueprint for a post-Niyazov Turkmenistan, RFE/RL and AFP reported. As mobilizing the international community against Niyazov, the UDFT called for economic and political sanctions against his regime. It also said that Ashgabat should be pressured into allowing representatives of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent to visit political prisoners in Turkmen jails.

...AMID RENEWED INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM OF ASHGABAT. Turkmenistan's opposition forces have been driven to reconcile their differences by the marked deterioration in the country's political and human rights situation over the past year, as Niyazov cracks down on all sources of real or imagined resistance to his rule in the wake of the November 2002 assassination bid. But his opponents must also have been emboldened by the crescendo of complaints against him from the international community, which have recently resulted in some sharp knocks for Ashgabat.

For all its fighting talk, the opposition is small, weak, and impoverished. A statement such as that produced last week by Watan Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Dodonov -- "I hope that on 29 September 2004, [one year from today] the Turkmen opposition will no longer be the opposition but will head a democratic process in Turkmenistan" -- even when accepted as political hyperbole, would probably be ignored as too lunatic to be newsworthy if there were not a sense that some important international players, slowly, were swinging the opposition's way. No less critical were hints that Ashgabat, although outwardly unperturbed by criticism, was at least taking notice and reacting.

In a written statement on 26 September, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the current chairman in office of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE), called on Turkmenistan to abide by the human rights commitments it made as an OSCE member, AFP reported. He repeated the message in person to Turkmen Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Rashid Meredov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York, RIA-Novosti reported on 29 September. De Hoop Scheffer demanded "positive steps" regarding freedom of movement, interpreted to mean an elimination of exit visas, as well as current regulations that prevent females under the age of 35 leaving the country unless accompanied by a male relative. He added that he raised the issue of letting the International Red Cross/ Red Crescent inspect Turkmen prisons.

Subsequently, without explanation Turkmenistan withdrew from the list of speakers at the UN General Assembly session, RFE/RL reported on 1 October. Meredov had been scheduled to address the assembly on 26 September. A UN spokeswoman noted to RFE/RL that Turkmenistan joined Libya and Djibouti as the only countries of the UN's 191 members not slated to speak.

On 18 September the European Parliament presumably annoyed Niyazov by nominating four Central Asian political prisoners, one of them Turkmen, to receive the 2003 Sakharov Prize for their efforts to bring effective democratic change, freedom of the press, and the rule of law to each of their respective countries. The nominees were Batyr Berdyev from Turkmenistan, Mukhammad Bekjanov from Uzbekistan, Feliks Kulov from Kyrgyzstan, and Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov from Kazakhstan. Berdyev was sentenced to 25 years in prison in connection to his alleged participation in the attempted coup against Niyazov in 2002. According to an 18 September press release from the International League for Human Rights, Berdyev's relatives and friends were concerned about his failing health, while some feared he was already dead.

On 23 September RIA-Novosti reported that the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament) planned to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Ashgabat by asking the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to protect the rights of Russian nationals resident in Turkmenistan. A decree of Niyazov in spring 2003 that abruptly abrogated a decade-old dual-citizenship treaty between Russia and Turkmenistan grossly infringed on the rights of some 90,000 Russians, according to the chairman of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, Dmitrii Rogozin. Rogozin told ITAR-TASS on the same day that the Duma would demand "the toughening of the stand of the Russian Foreign Ministry with regard to the violation of the civil rights of Russians in Turkmenistan." He added that parliamentarians were proposing to establish a special commission to investigate the alleged violations of their compatriots' rights, and that the Duma would commence special hearings into the issue in November 2003. He complained that the date of the meeting of the Russian-Turkmen commission to discuss Russians' rights was still in limbo, and that the Turkmen government was dragging its feet on honoring a promise to invite a delegation from the Duma and the Federation Council to Ashgabat.

The Turkmen opposition website reported that Ashgabat had angrily decided to postpone further formal consultations with Russia on the dual-citizenship question altogether. After an inconclusive meeting in Ashgabat in August, a follow-up conference was due in Moscow in September. That second meeting has failed to materialize.

Worsening relations with the United States were also in evidence as U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Stephan Minikes spoke out against the regime's lamentable democratization record during a two-day visit to Turkmenistan on 17-18 September. "My visit to Turkmenistan is connected with issues which are being discussed at the OSCE: the introduction of exit visas by the Turkmen government, facts of violation of human rights and media freedom," Minikes told journalists in Ashgabat as quoted by ITAR-TASS. He added that, while economic cooperation with the resource-rich country was desirable, it could not come at the price of ignoring human rights violations. "The reason for that is that the United States cannot stand by vis-a-vis any country with which we have diplomatic relations and close its eyes to the human rights issue, even though in the commercial area and in other areas of cooperation where there can be very productive relations -- on that front we can't separate the two," he said.

Minikes forthright message was delivered one week after Saparmurat Ovezberdiev, an Ashgabat correspondent for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, was abducted by Turkmen National Security Ministry (MNB) agents on 11 September and threatened with a 20-year prison sentence as a "traitor to the homeland" if he continued reporting (see Ovezberdiev's abduction was the third attack against RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents in the last two months (see

NIYAZOV RESHUFFLES HIS GOVERNMENT. Meanwhile, Niyazov has made a reshuffle of major cabinet and government posts in the last 10 days. High turnover of officials has become a standard feature of Turkmen government, and the latest round of dismissals and demotions may merely be part of Niyazov's general policy of keeping his subordinates off balance (or on their toes, depending on one's point of view). Alternatively it may reflect the latest burst of frustration on the president's part at corruption and incompetence among his senior officials. But it is also suggestive that the reshuffle at home has coincided with the growing chorus of criticism abroad of Niyazov's authoritarian rule and human rights abuses. The attacks on his regime, newly focused by the formation of a (currently) united opposition movement, may have alarmed the president to scrutinize the loyalty of his allies yet again and circle his wagons even tighter.

On 22 September at a meeting held in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi, attended by cabinet ministers, chiefs of local energy companies, and regional mayors, Niyazov fired the city's mayor, Ashirberdy Cherkezov, and told him not to use his official car but to walk home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2003). The president announced the dismissal, and added that Cherkezov would be sent into internal exile, after a lengthy denunciation of his alleged crimes by Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atajanova. As reported by ITAR-TASS and Turkmen TV on the same day, Cherkezov was accused of embezzlement and nepotism for giving his family and friends more than 200 plots of agricultural land and apartments during his tenures as mayor of the Turkmen capital Ashgabat between 1997-2000 and subsequently as mayor of Turkmenbashi. He was also charged with illegally privatizing state property including a power station and a naval vessel, and profiting from them by setting up holding companies in the names of his associates.

Niyazov strongly hinted that he had in fact known about Cherkezov's misdeeds while he was mayor of Ashgabat but had forgiven him. "I treated you well when you worked in Ashgabat and did not pressurize you...I told you to work honestly. I said I would make you a deputy chairman of the government. What did you do? You started selling land again. You have done unimaginable things! I told you then, go and work for three years. And now you have started selling land again. You are not just guilty, you are a criminal.... I sack you for grave shortcomings," Niyazov said on Turkmen TV. The implication is that the president had sent Cherkezov to Turkmenbashi to give him a second chance, and quietly promised to bring him back to the capital with a promotion if he could stay clean in the provinces for three years.

Thus it would seem that embezzlement makes an official merely "guilty" in Turkmenistan, but breaking a deal with Niyazov makes him "a criminal." Instead of imprisonment, the president recommended that Cherkezov be given a hectare of land near the town of Bereket in Balkan Oblast and be forced to farm it, "where he can work and atone for his guilt in front of the people." This punishment has already been given to a number of former National Security Committee officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September 2003). Niyazov identified an official named Aganiyaz Akiev as his replacement, and ordered the chairmen of the state-owned Turkmenbashi oil refinery and the Turkmen Sea Transport Company to assist the new mayor in his duties.

Earlier in the month, Niyazov also appointed Orazberdy Hudayberdiev to head up the new Ministry of Railways, and named three new deputy chairmen of Turkmen TV, the Turkmen State News Service reported on 16 September. The transformation of Turkmendemiryollary (Turkmen railways state directorate), which resulted in the creation of a Ministry of Railways, followed a 12 September cabinet meeting at which the president criticized the directorate for financial incompetence: "You have no proper accounts, you people! ...expenditure and profits must be calculated. You don't make any calculations. Your system of accounts is the same as it was during the Soviet Union," Niyazov said on Turkmen TV.

On 29 September Niyazov dismissed the country's civilian Defense Minister Rejepbai Arazov and moved him to chair the National Trade Union Center, and RIA-Novosti reported. He simultaneously stripped Arazov, who previously served as oil and gas minister, of his position as deputy prime minister. Explaining the move the president said, "Even though Arazov has performed well in every position, he found it hard to work in the Defense Ministry, because he does not know certain things and this is not his field," ITAR-TASS reported. Niyazov added: "A civilian cannot be a defense minister. This is a position for a man in uniform." The man in uniform chosen to replace him was Major General Agageldy Mamedgeldiev, previously head of the State Border Guard Service. He also became chairman of the State Security Council. His former deputy at the border service, Colonel Annageldy Gummanov, now fills the position he vacated. Niyazov did not explain why he thought a civilian could not be a defense minister. It is a fair guess, though, that if Niyazov is feeling threatened from abroad he reckons that a military professional will provide an added measure or security, while a revivified opposition-in-exile, to be effective, will need to work on spreading its influence across the border into Turkmenistan; elevating the border service chief to the top defense slot may reflect this worry.

Other changes included the advancement of Rejepdurdy Ataev, the head of Turkmenneftegazstroi (the state firm responsible for construction in the oil-and-gas sector) to become deputy prime minister responsible for construction, transport, and communications. Meanwhile the former holder of that post, Muhammetnazar Hudaikuliev, lost his deputy-premiership but retained his position as minister of construction and building-materials production (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 September 2003) Batyr Erniyazov, former justice of the Ashgabat City Court, was moved up to first deputy justice minister. All the new appointees are subject to the usual six-month probation period, during which they can be summarily sacked for poor performance without being offered another job.