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Turkmen Report: June 29, 2004

29 June 2004
Central Asia Warned Of Impending AIDS Disaster
A senior World Bank official warned the Central Asian republics on 28 June that they must face up to the impending threat of AIDS or face "unimaginable" consequences, AFP reported the same day. Dennis De Tray, the World Bank's Central Asia director, issued the warning as officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan gathered in the Kazakh commercial center Almaty for the launch of a $25 million program aimed at jointly combating the disease. Turkmenistan was absent from the meeting, having claimed that it has only two HIV carriers.

De Tray said that by the end of 2006 the total number of people infected with HIV in the five Central Asian countries could reach 1.5 million, out of a total population of 58 million.

Central Asia's HIV boom is mainly attributable to the flow of Afghan-produced heroin through the region to Russia and the West. (AFP)

Putin, Niyazov Discuss Russian-Turkmen Cooperation
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on 25 June to discuss bilateral relations, trade, and economic cooperation, primarily in fuel and energy, ITAR-TASS reported, citing the Kremlin press service. (ITAR-TASS)

Human Rights Group Moves To Initiate Suit Against Niyazov For Plagiarizing 'Rukhnama'
The Turkmen opposition did not steer clear of the celebrations of the 12th anniversary of President Saparmurat Niyazov's inauguration, but rather prepared a memorable present for him. Recently, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office received a complaint from the human rights organization Turkmenil asking it to file criminal charges against Niyazov and officers of the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow involved in disseminating a book, "Rukhnama, "Novie Izvestia" reported on 23 June.

The suit refers to the article of the Russian Criminal Code that deals with collective violation of copyright. The opposition claims that the "Rukhnama," which in Turkmenistan has acquired the status of a "moral code" and "the second constitution," is plagiarized. According to their allegations, Niyazov put into the book the results of research conducted by specialists of Turkmenistan's National Institute of Manuscripts and copied several pages of the book "Muslim dynasties. Directory of Chronology and Genealogy," (Moscow, Nauka publishing house, 1971).

The Prosecutor-General's Office has sent the complaint to the Moscow prosecutor's office. The Moscow prosecutor's office told Turkmenil that the district prosecutor will "examine the issue of initiating criminal charges" against Niyazov and the officers of the Turkmen Embassy. ("Novie Izvestia")

Niyazov Says Turkmenistan Not Infringing On Minority Rights
President Niyazov has said he disagrees with reports by foreign media alleging that the country infringes upon the rights of ethnic minorities, Interfax reported on 22 June. "Some newspapers say that the Russians are being oppressed here, but we know well that not a single Russian is oppressed in Turkmenistan. Envy stands behind all this," Niyazov said at a meeting with the chiefs of law-enforcement and military agencies, excerpts of which were broadcast by Turkmen television.

"We need to develop the Turkmen language, and we just cannot speak Russian, since 95 percent of those living in the country are Turkmens," Niyazov said. "It was in the past that -- despite the fact that there were 80 percent of us -- we had to speak Russian. In those times, we were barred from entering a university or school or from being employed if we did not know the Russian language. This is when history was distorted. The time will come, and everybody will get used to the new realities," Niyazov said.

The president pointed out that there is a law stipulating that the Turkmen, Russian, and English languages must be taught in the country's schools. (Interfax)

Niyazov Opposes Personality Cult
President Niyazov told his government to stop spreading his personality cult, ITAR-TASS reported on 22 June. "You praise me too much. I am upset when all the achievements of the epoch of independent Turkmenistan are linked only to my name. In reality they are the merits of the whole Turkmen people", the president said on 21 June while receiving congratulations on the 12th anniversary of his election as the head of state.

"The glorifying odes make me wish the Earth could swallow me up. Each song is about me. Shame makes me look aside," Niyazov conceded.

On 20 June, the president skipped the opening of a monument to himself in front of the parliament building. The Turkmen capital has over 10 major monuments to the "first and lifetime president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov the Great."

A month ago the president ordered his numerous portraits to be pulled down from administrative buildings. (ITAR-TASS)

Turkmenistan, Russian Companies Reach Oil Agreement
President Niyazov has approved a draft production-sharing agreement with the Zarit consortium on the development of oil deposits in the Caspian Sea, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 June. The agreement was reached in a meeting with the top officials from the consortium founding companies -- Rosneft Vice President Aleksei Kuznetsov, Itera President Igor Makarov, and Zarubezhneft Deputy Director-General Aleksandr Vorinin.

In 2001, these companies set up the closed joint-stock company Zarit for the development of three promising oil fields in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea.

Negotiations on the production-sharing agreement continued for two years. "We have solved all questions pertaining to the competence of the president of the country, and we hope to sign the production-sharing agreement with the government of Turkmenistan in the near future," Voronin said. Zarit will be the biggest project in Turkmen-Russian economic cooperation after the 25-year agreement with Russia's Gazprom gas concern on Turkmen gas supplies. (ITAR-TASS)

Turkmen Leader Says He's 'Ashamed' By His Cult Of Personality
23 June 2004

By Mark Baker

Could Turkmenistan's president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, be having a change of heart?

After covering the country with statues and posters of his image -- and even renaming months of the year -- Niyazov appears to be having second thoughts about his cult of personality.

On 21 June, at celebrations marking the 12th anniversary of his election, Niyazov rebuked the government for praising him "too much."

"It's a bit hard for me [to accept all of this adoration]. [It] makes me ashamed, as if I can't leave my house. Today, again, I watched the concert program. Again, [all the] songs and other things about me. You should not praise me [so much]," Niyazov said.

He continued: "[Turkmenistan's achievements] should not be understood as only the president's achievements. Not only me, but the whole nation is taking part. I'm only leading in that. All the Turkmen citizens are working, creating, building. In reality, the achievements are due to the work of the entire Turkmen people."

Last month, Niyazov apparently gave an order to remove some of his portraits from the walls of administrative buildings in Ashgabat. Residents of the capital were said to be shocked -- and many secretly encouraged – to see the posters removed.

So what's going on? Has Turkmenbashi -- the president's nickname, which translates to "leader of the Turkmen" -- finally found a humbler side?

Saule Mukhametrakhimova, the program manager for Central Asia at London's Institute for War and Peace Reporting, said she doubts it, adding that this is not the first time he has called for less adulation.

"I don't believe he's telling the truth because he himself is the reason why the cult of personality is so widespread in Turkmenistan. And I think if he would be genuine in his thoughts -- that he really wanted to eradicate the cult of personality -- he has to do much more than just mention it in his speech," she said.

Trying to interpret the Turkmen leader's actions is never easy, but Mukhametrakhimova said she thinks the remarks might be a way for Niyazov to deflect criticism of his absolutist rule.

"I think this is a way for Turkmenbashi to present it both to his own people and the outside world that it is not him who is behind the cult of personality," she said. "I think it's just a way of telling the outside world that, 'It's not me, it's all the work of my overzealous entourage.' He's trying to put the blame on others."

The U.S. State Department, in a report in May, was frank in its criticism of Turkmenistan -- describing it as a "one-party state" dominated by Niyazov. The report said: "The government severely restricts freedom of speech and does not permit freedom of the press. There were no domestic human rights groups because of restrictions on freedom of speech and association."

Mukhametrakhimova said, given this level of concern, nothing Niyazov says is likely to make any difference. "Maybe, the way [Niyazov] looks at things, he believes that these remarks are going to be a big thing -- that it will be perceived as a step forward by the international community or by his own people," she said. "Maybe this is naive thinking -- that if he will do that, he can score a lot of points. But I think he just doesn't realize it is not enough for people to genuinely believe that things will change in Turkmenistan."

Observers say, in any event, there are strong signs to indicate Niyazov hasn't completely lost his taste for public approval. Niyazov recently ordered words from his spiritual guide, the "Rukhnama," to be inscribed alongside passages from the Koran on a giant mosque being constructed near the president's ancestral village.

The mosque, being built by a French company at a reported cost of $90 million, will be the biggest in Central Asia. Niyazov reportedly wants to make it a pilgrimage destination. (RFE/RL)

U.S. Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson Talks To RFE/RL Turkmen Service
22 June 2004

RFE/RL: In a letter he wrote on 3 June, U.S. President George W. Bush decided to "extend normal trade relations with Turkmenistan for one more year." Madam Ambassador, what prompted this decision?

Jacobson: Under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the U.S. government is obliged to levy trade sanctions against a country which doesn't permit freedom of movement and free emigration, unless the president signs a waiver. This year, the U.S. government determined that although Turkmenistan still does not permit completely free travel or emigration for its citizens, it has made substantial progress in this area. Therefore, the president decided to sign a waiver for Turkmenistan, extending normal trade relations for another year. We hope to see more progress in the area of freedom of movement this year as well.

RFE/RL: Did the January 2004 cancellation of the exit-visa regime, previously introduced in March 2003, allow citizens to exit the country freely? According to numerous sources inside the country, there are many obstacles and "blacklists" for those who try to exit the country. Would you, please, comment on this?

Jacobson: We were very pleased with the decision to lift exit visas in January, and by the decree in March permitting more people to travel freely. We still receive reports that some people are not able to leave the country for political and social reasons, for example, relatives of those accused of participation in the November 2002 attack on President Niyazov's motorcade, or members of some religious minority groups. We believe that any individual who is not the subject of a court proceeding should be able to travel freely outside Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL: The U.S. Congress and a coalition of eight human rights groups made a recommendation to designate Turkmenistan as a "country of particular concern." Does the recent decree on Turkmenistan mean that this decision will be postponed?

Jacobson: The decision on designating "countries of particular concern" has not yet been announced, although we expect it shortly. It is true that several members of Congress and human rights groups have urged the CPC designation for Turkmenistan. However, I am certain that Washington decision makers are also taking note of several positive recent steps, including the repeal of criminal penalties for religious activities, the reduction in harassment of religious minority group members, and the registration of the Seventh Day Adventists and Bahais. We hope to see this positive trend continue.

RFE/RL: Recently, a decree was passed on religious freedom, which was followed by the registration of two religious groups by the Ministry of Justice. Does this mean that the situation with freedom of religion in Turkmenistan is improving?

Jacobson: I believe that the situation for the Seventh Day Adventists and Bahais has improved, as they are now able to openly worship as registered groups. I believe the situation for other groups which have not yet registered has also improved -- harassment has been greatly reduced, and some people previously held in prison have been released. Of course, we would like to see all people able to practice their faiths, in whatever way they deem best, without fear of reprisals.

RFE/RL: The United States and international organizations demand freedom of religion in Turkmenistan. Our listeners from Turkmenistan ask why the issues of religious groups, which are small in number, are raised, while freedoms of speech, press, demonstration, assembly and movement, which relate to the majority of population, i.e. Muslims, are not promoted. Do you think there is difference in evaluation of these issues from within the country, where people see and know the situation, and from abroad? Jacobson: The U.S. government does indeed raise all the issues you mention, not only bilaterally, but also in multilateral forums like the United Nations and [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE. Recent resolutions from the UN General Assembly and UN Committee for Human Rights call on Turkmenistan to make improvements in the areas of freedom of speech, assembly, and movement. These freedoms are guaranteed by both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of the UN and OSCE Copenhagen Criteria, both of which have been signed by the government of Turkmenistan. So it is natural for the international community, including the United States, to encourage positive developments in these areas. Freedom of movement and religion have a special place for Americans, both because of our history and our legislation, including the Jackson-Vanik amendment and the International Religious Freedom Act.

RFE/RL: Madam Ambassador! According to information that comes to the RFE/RL's Turkmen Service from Turkmenistan, there are about 400 Krishna followers in Ashgabat, Turkmenabat, and Mary. But Krishna leaders were seriously threatened by Turkmenistan's special services. Do you have any information on this?

Jacobson: Unfortunately, at the embassy, we don't have any information on the Krishnas, but we would welcome receiving information either from the Krishnas themselves or from the government of Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL: Critics of the regime in Turkmenistan say: "The United States supports good relations with the Turkmen government, positively thinking that Turkmenistan can be influenced through maintaining relations with it. At the same time in the West, there is much criticism of Turkmenistan and its regime. But Turkmenistan's regime ignores that criticism." Representatives of some human rights organizations ask, "If America improves its relations with Turkmenistan and postpones sanctions and measures, won't this action encourage Niyazov, who fully controls the country, to ignore all the criticism?" How would you respond to such questions?

Jacobson: We believe that engagement, rather than isolation, is the best way to encourage positive development. We have cooperative engagement with the government of Turkmenistan in a variety of fields, including security, economy, education, and culture. As we expand this cooperation, we also see some improvements in the area of human rights, such as the elimination of exit visas and the beginning of registration of religious groups. Turkmenistan's additional and further engagement together with the international community is in the best interest not only of Turkmenistan but international community as a whole. (RFE/RL)

New UN Report Warns Aral Sea On Verge Of Disappearing
21 June 2004

By Nikola Krastev

A new UN report says the Aral Sea, wedged between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has shrunk by half.

The 106-page report warns, "If present trends continue, the Aral Sea will disappear altogether in the not-so-distant future, despite the many piecemeal efforts to save it."

It blames excessive use of its main feeder rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, and prolonged drought.

Bo Libert, a regional adviser for the UN Economic Commission for Europe, told RFE/RL that the damage is so devastating that no matter what revitalizing measures are taken, the sea will never be what it was.

Libert said that only cooperation among the five former Soviet Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- can save the sea. But he said convincing the five to work together will not be easy because of competing economic interests.

"In order to get electricity from hydropower [Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan] need to discharge the water in the wintertime when they really need the most electricity. That has created different interests on how to use water between the downstream countries [Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan], which want to use water in the spring and summer, and the upstream countries [Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan] that really want to generate the hydropower in the wintertime," Libert said.

He said Turkmenistan represents a separate obstacle altogether in that it usually refuses to cooperate in UN Central Asian initiatives.

Yevgenii Nadezhdin, a UN adviser and a project manager who helped to compile the report, describes his dealings with Turkmen officials as constant promises to participate but never really making good on the promises. Nadezhdin said theoretically it is possible to recreate the Aral Sea but that it would be prohibitively expensive.

"It is possible in principle to reestablish the Aral Sea and there [have been calculations of how much money it would cost to do this], but I think the world community does not have such an amount of money to invest. The rough estimate shows that [some $250 billion to $300 billion will be needed]," Nadezhdin said.

Nadezhdin said that last year there was an intense discussion in the Russian media about a project that would reverse the flow of rivers in southern Russia so that they could feed the Aral Sea. But he said this proposal borders on what he called fantasy.

The report says: "It is...essential to develop the legal framework for water and energy cooperation, to strengthen national and regional institutions, to improve monitoring and information on water resources, and to protect water and energy resources." It adds that Central Asian countries need to cooperate as the region faces "daunting environmental problems and a deteriorating infrastructure in the water sector."

Four of the five former Soviet nations in the region -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- have approved the UN cooperation strategy contained in the report. Turkmenistan is not participating. (RFE/RL)