6 January 2003
Turkmen, Iranian Foreign Ministers Discuss Bilateral Ties
4 January 2003
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who paid a one-day visit to Ashgabat at the head of a politico-economic delegation, left for Tehran on 4 January and was seen off by his Turkmen counterpart, Rashid Meredov, IRNA reported the same day.
During his visit to Turkmenistan, Kamal Kharrazi met Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to discuss matters of mutual interest, in particular key issues such as the project of the friendship dam, the issue of the Caspian Sea, and cooperation in the gas sector.
Before leaving Ashgabat, Kharrazi also exchanged views with Meredov on bilateral and regional issues such as an assessment of the developments in Afghanistan, the crisis in Iraq, as well as other international matters. They also discussed ways of bolstering mutual ties.
During his one-day stay in Ashgabat, Kharrazi also conferred with the Turkmen president and vice-president for oil and gas affairs. His visit follows the agreements signed between the two states on broadening of mutual political and economic ties. (IRNA)
Turkmen, Russian Security Councils Sign Cooperation Protocol
The Security Councils of Russia and Turkmenistan will cooperate in the search and extradition of criminals under a cooperation protocol signed in Ashgabat on 3 January, ITAR-TASS reported, citing sources in the Turkmen president's staff.
Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, on a two-day visit to Ashgabat, and Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Redjepbai Arazov, who was appointed secretary of the State Security Council on 2 January, signed the document. The State Security Council of Turkmenistan was set up by a resolution of the National Council following the coup attempt on 25 November 2002, when the motorcade of the Turkmen president came under fire.
Most of those accused of organizing the alleged coup attempt have double citizenship in Turkmenistan and Russia. The 3 January protocol stipulates cooperation in the handling of criminals with double citizenship.
The accused are former Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who has been sentenced to life in custody, former Deputy Prime Minister Khudaiberdy Orazov, and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov. Orazov and Khanamov are in exile. (ITAR-TASS)
Turkmenistan To Hold Early Parliamentary Elections
3 January 2003
Turkmenistan's state-owned daily newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" reported on 3 January that the country will hold parliamentary elections on 6 April, nearly two years ahead of schedule.
The last election for the 50-seat Halk Maslakhaty, or parliament, was held in December 1999 and widely criticized for being neither free nor fair. In that election, 103 candidates took part, a notable improvement over the 51 candidates who competed for the same 50 seats in 1994.
Turkmenistan's parliament is widely seen as a rubber-stamping body for the decisions of President Niyazov, who prefers to be called "Turkmenbashi," head of the Turkmen.
One of the first actions of the parliament elected in 1999 was to name Niyazov president for life. There is only one officially registered political party in Turkmenistan, headed by Niyazov. ("Neitralnyi Turkmenistan," AP)
U.S. Calls For Due Process For Turkmen Suspects
31 December 2002
The U.S. State Department called on 31 December for due legal process and consular access for people arrested in Turkmenistan after an attempt to assassinate President Niyazov in November, RTR reported. One of those is a U.S. citizen, Leonid Komarovsky.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said in a written statement that the United States is concerned by the conduct of authorities in Turkmenistan. The statement says that the Turkmen authorities carried out summary trials, arrested opposition members and civil-society activists apparently unconnected to the attack and denied U.S. requests for consular access to Komarovsky.
Reeker said there were "credible reports" of torture and abuse of suspects. Reeker said any trials should meet the standards set by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and by international practice. (RTR)
Russia, Iran Seeking To Protect Caspian Energy Interests
6 January 2003
By Michael Lelyveld
Moscow moved swiftly to protect its energy interests from damage last week as it sent a top official to meet with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov following the country's alleged coup attempt.
On 3 January in Ashgabat, Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo emerged from a five-hour meeting with Niyazov to declare Russia's firm support for the autocratic ruler, after the purported attack on his motorcade on 25 November.
Speaking on Turkmen television, Rushailo said, "Russia has always stated its position, and we would like to stress once again, that we consider the incident as a manifestation of terrorism, and we are ready to cooperate in the context of the law-enforcement bodies and secret services."
The visit may be seen as an effort to mend ties after a Turkmen government spokesman accused unnamed "politicians in Russia who connived with the organizers of the attempt" on Niyazov. Russian officials dismissed the charge, but Niyazov's information department said that three of the plotters were on Russian territory.
Niyazov had long sought the extradition from Russia of former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was captured last month in Ashgabat under mysterious circumstances. He has since confessed on television and received a life sentence. Critics suspect the confession was forced.
But the Rushailo visit and Niyazov's warm welcome are signs of larger interests. They may also raise more questions about whether the entire coup incident was staged.
The mission carefully blended security and business interests, as Rushailo took pains at a press conference to note that Russian Energy Ministry officials had also held talks with their Turkmen counterparts. Among other things, officials discussed the long-standing legal issue of how to divide the Caspian Sea, the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported.
The only immediate result was a Russian offer to pay cash for Turkmen gas as part of a long-term supply deal reached last September. The 15-year accord has had little effect because the two sides have kept haggling over the price of the gas. In Moscow, Russian Deputy Energy Minister Gennadii Ustyuzhanin voiced hope that a contract would be signed next month. Although Russia would pay less than Ukraine does, Moscow's cash offer would be attractive because Kyiv pays for half of its gas with bartered goods, he said.
The two sides also considered the transit of Turkmen oil through Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and a plan to ship Russian oil to eastern Turkmenistan's Seidin oil refinery for possible fuel sales to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
But the centerpiece of the energy talks seems to have been Russia's latest push for a Caspian border accord. A post-Soviet formula for splitting the resources has eluded the five shoreline states of Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Iran for years. Tehran has been the main holdout against a Russian blueprint that would give it only a 13 percent share, but it has enjoyed tacit support from Ashgabat.
In its latest bid to break the deadlock, Russia has urged its neighbors to weigh the value of resources in contested areas instead of simply their territorial size. Although Iran has been trying to end a border dispute with Azerbaijan for over a year, Moscow's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhnyi recently pointed out that Tehran also has claims on some Turkmen offshore fields, which Russia wants to develop.
Kalyuzhnyi's comments may have been aimed at driving a wedge between Iran and Turkmenistan in their alignment against Russia's plan. Detailed Western maps show at least six of Turkmenistan's offshore blocks that could fall partly in Iran's Caspian sector. Whatever the strategy, Rushailo's mission seems to have sparked a sudden trip to Ashgabat by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on 4 January.
Kharrazi's one-day visit and meeting with Niyazov, immediately following Rushailo's departure, produced talks on "big joint projects" and Caspian cooperation, according to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi. The official news agency IRNA quoted Asefi as saying that the meeting would bring the two countries' Caspian positions "close to each other." Kharrazi also called for joint exploitation as the answer for the Caspian problem.
To all appearances, Kharrazi needed either an immediate briefing from Niyazov on the Russian meetings or an assurance that Tehran could still count on Turkmenistan's support.
An alternate, if less likely, view is that a solution to the division issue is finally starting to emerge in the southern Caspian and that cooperation with Niyazov is crucial for both Russia and Iran. (RFE/RL)
Turkmen Observers Denounce Sentencings As Pretext For Crackdown
3 January 2003
By Antoine Blua
Prominent Turkmen opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov was sentenced this week to life in prison for plotting to kill President Saparmurat Niyazov.
Niyazov escaped unhurt after, as he claims, gunmen opened fire on his motorcade on 25 November. The Turkmen president has since launched a fierce police crackdown against the suspected perpetrators. Some human rights watchdogs claim that more than 100 people have been arrested following the alleged assassination attempt.
Turkmenistan's National Assembly, the country's highest legislative body, approved the sentence for Shikhmuradov at a session in the capital, Ashgabat, on 30 December. The decision ignored calls by some Turkmen officials for the death penalty but also overruled a Supreme Court decision of 25-year prison sentences for traitors.
At the session, which was broadcast on state television, Niyazov said: "Let's drop the word 'death.' Life is given and taken by God. So let's impose a lifelong sentence by revoking the Supreme Court decision. Instead of a 25-year [sentence], let's adopt lifetime imprisonment."
Two other exiled former officials, former Central Bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov and former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov, received the same sentence, in absentia.
Shikhmuradov, a former Turkmen foreign minister and ambassador to China, publicly broke with Niyazov's administration in 2001, declaring himself an opposition leader in exile. He has since been accused of an array of crimes, all of which he was shown confessing to on Turkmen state television on 29 December.
During the confession, Shikhmuradov -- reportedly detained last week -- confessed to masterminding a coup attempt against Niyazov. He said Orazov and Khanamov had helped him plan the coup. "When we lived in Russia, we took drugs and, while in a state of intoxication, prepared people and recruited mercenaries to carry out a terrorist attack. Being part of a criminal conspiracy, we were making promises to those who agreed to carry out our order, which was to destabilize the situation in Turkmenistan, to undermine the constitutional order, and to carry out an assassination attempt against the president of Turkmenistan," Shikhmuradov said.
Human rights groups and analysts have denounced the sentences as unfair and have compared the proceedings to the Stalinist trials of the 1930s that were designed to eliminate the opposition.
Aaron Rhodes is executive director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. He told RFE/RL, "It's quite clear that many, many people have been arrested there [in Turkmenistan] on an arbitrary basis and that the alleged assassination attempt is a pretext for a wave of repression in Turkmenistan that's quite unprecedented in recent years."
Shikhmuradov said he was making his confession voluntarily, but Elizabeth Andersen, the executive director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said she is almost positive the confession was dictated to Shikhmuradov.
Accounts of how Shikhmuradov entered Turkmenistan from his unknown place of exile vary. Turkmenistan's prosecutor-general said Shikhmuradov came to Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan on the night of 23 November to carry out the attack of 25 November.
In his 29 December confession, Shikhmuradov said that he entered Turkmenistan in September and had spent the fall preparing for mass protests against Niyazov. He said the protests were set to begin at the end of November.
But in a statement posted on 25 December on the website of Shikhmuradov's People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, he said he had turned himself in to end the mass arrests that followed the alleged attack. He admitted to nothing more than trying to organize mass demonstrations against Niyazov's rule.
Niyazov announced Shikhmuradov's arrest on 26 December.
The methods the Turkmen government has used to investigate the alleged assassination attempt have drawn international attention. In early December, the U.S. State Department accused Turkmenistan of violating international legal procedures in the arrest of a U.S. citizen, Leonid Komarovsky, who was detained in connection with the alleged plot. The State Department also called on Ashgabat to conduct its investigation in a "full, fair, and transparent" manner.
On 9 December, the European Union issued a statement criticizing the detention of numerous relatives of the alleged instigators of the attack. The EU statement demanded that Turkmen authorities act in "full compliance" with the country's international human rights obligations and follow due process of law.
And in a written statement on 31 December, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Turkmen authorities had carried out summary trials, arrested opposition members and civil-society activists apparently unconnected to the attack against Niyazov, and denied U.S. requests for consular access to Komarovsky.
Reeker said Washington is calling on Turkmenistan to respect its commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) by allowing an OSCE team to travel there to investigate alleged abuses. The U.S. representative to the OSCE, Douglas Davidson, has said there were reports that numerous confessions had been extracted by torture.
But Rhodes of the Helsinki Federation said that "regurgitating the old cliches" about how Turkmenistan should abide by its international agreements is not enough. The situation in Turkmenistan, he stressed, is desperate. "There's got to be a stronger form of engagement and pressure put on that government. It has to also involve international corporations and various business arrangements involving the natural resources of Turkmenistan in order to make it work," Rhodes said.
Further, Rhodes pointed out the danger that other Central Asian rulers will "mimic" the behavior of the Turkmen president. "That's the disturbing thing about governments like that of Turkmenistan. And another example is Belarus. The neighbors start getting ideas about how they can keep their populations under control and become increasingly autocratic. And they find that they can do these things and get away with it because the international system is pretty weak," Rhodes said.
Bess Brown is an expert on Central Asia. She told RFE/RL that she doubts that other Central Asian leaders will follow Niyazov's lead. She said Turkmenistan's long-standing isolationism makes it more difficult for the international community to put pressure on Niyazov than on the other Central Asian leaders. "For one thing, they're more dependent on international goodwill than Niyazov is. This is one of the things that makes it difficult to have any influence on what he's doing. He doesn't really consider that he's dependent at all on the goodwill of the outside world. One doesn't really have any levers that have an effect on him, or very few," Brown said.
Brown deplores the declining interest in Central Asia on the part of Western governments, which she says seem to have given up on the idea of trying to improve the human rights situation in the region. "I doubt if it would encourage them to become much more intractable than they already are, because they've already drawn their conclusions from what they've seen happening in the last few months, [that is,] that there just seems to be a declining interest in doing anything much to criticize or demand improvements in all of their human rights records," Brown said.
Brown said Central Asia has lost an opportunity to improve its standing on the world stage following the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. They squandered their opportunity, she noted, and said international interest is now shifting to Iraq and the Persian Gulf. (RFE/RL)