30 September 2003
Turkmen Opposition Announce They Will Consolidate Efforts
29 September 2003
Representatives of Turkmen opposition parties and movements meeting in the Czech capital Prague announced that they are uniting their efforts, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported on 29 September. Aleksandr Dodonov of the Watan Opposition Movement, Avdy Kuliev of Turkmenistan's United Democratic Forces, and Nurmuhammed Khanamov were among those who attended the weekend strategy meeting in Prague. At a press conference on 29 September they said they had agreed to formally unite their efforts and become the Union of Democratic Forces opposition party. The group released a communique that said their goals were to free Turkmenistan from the dictatorship of President Saparmurat Niyazov and his regime and to form a democratic government based on a parliamentary system of rule. The group called for economic and political sanctions against the current Turkmen government. They also called on the international community to pressure Niyazov's government into allowing representatives of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent to visit political prisoners in Turkmen jails. (RFE/RL)
OSCE Chairman Says Turkmenistan Must Meet Human Rights Standards
26 September 2003
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, on 26 September called on Turkmenistan to meet the organization's human rights standards, AFP reported the same day. OSCE chairman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a written statement that he is appealing to Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov to live up to human rights standards Turkmenistan agreed to when the country joined the OSCE. De Hoop Scheffer called on Turkmenistan to take "positive steps" regarding rules, which require residents to obtain exit visas to travel abroad, and prevents females under 35 years of age from leaving the country unless accompanied by a male relative. De Hoop Scheffer also said he raised the issue of providing the International Red Cross/Red Crescent with full access to Turkmen prisons. International criticism of Turkmenistan has been mounting since last November when a reported assassination attempt on the Turkmen president started a major crackdown on perceived government opponents. (AFP)
Turkmen Police Clamp Down On Petrol Smuggling To Uzbekistan
24 September 2003
High quality and cheap Turkmen petrol is being smuggled across the Turkmen-Uzbek border, turkmenistan.ru reported on 24 September, citing ITAR-TASS. Over 115 motorbikes, which are used to smuggle petrol in their tanks, were seized after a raid on farms in four border districts in the Dashoguz region by law-enforcement agencies. The motorbikes didn't have license plates and were abandoned by their owners during the raid. Over 15,000 liters of petrol were seized in five days, according to the Dashoguz regional prosecutor's office. In Turkmenistan, 50 liters of petrol costs just $1, while in Uzbekistan it costs $12, the regional law-enforcement agencies said. Apart from petrol, smugglers are attempting to smuggle Turkmen flour, cooking oil, and meat into neighboring districts of Uzbekistan. (ITAR-TASS, Turkmenistan.ru)
Turkmen President Announces Prisoner Amnesty At End Of Ramadan
23 September 2003
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov announced an amnesty for more than 6,000 prisoners that will coincide with the end of the holy fasting period of Ramadan, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and AP reported on 23 September. Niyazov made the announcement on 22 September at a meeting of his cabinet. Niyazov said the amnesty will apply to 6,125 prisoners, among them 181 foreigners. Niyazov said those who committed serious crimes, repeat offenders, or those who stole from the state are not eligible for the amnesty. Such amnesties are routine in Turkmenistan ahead of national holidays and at the end of Ramadan. According to the country's Prosecutor-General's Office, more than 120,000 people have been amnestied from jail since the country became independent in late 1991. Ramadan ends on 21-22 November this year. (RFE/RL, AP)
Niyazov 'Proposes' City Mayor Atone For Crimes Through Labor
23 September 2003
President Niyazov has "proposed" that the mayor of the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi be relieved of his duties and go into internal exile for crimes he has committed. The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS on 23 September cited Niyazov as saying that Mayor Ashirberdy Cherkezov is guilty of serious shortcomings in his work. Niyazov said that Turkmenistan's prosecutor-general discovered that Cherkezov had illegally privatized state property including a naval vessel and a power station. Niyazov said Cherkezov also gave family members more than 200 plots of agricultural land and housing in Turkmenbashi and Ashgabat. Niyazov recommended that Cherkezov receive a plot of land "where he can work and atone for his guilt in front of the people." (ITAR-TASS)
Russian Parliament Drafting Statement On Human Rights In Turkmenistan
23 September 2003
The Duma committee for international affairs is concerned over the situation of Russian citizens in Turkmenistan after it denounced the agreement on dual citizenship, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 September. The committee is drafting a corresponding statement to be adopted by the Duma, its chairman Dmitry Rogozin told journalists on 23 September, commenting on the results of discussion with First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchilin. According to Rogozin, deputies are going to create a special parliamentary commission, which will analyze the "gross violation of the rights of Russian citizens living permanently in Turkmenistan." He said there were now 90,000 of them. Parliamentary hearings on the problem are scheduled for November. Rogozin said 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." Rogozin does not agree that the situation is becoming less acute: "No concrete resolutions have been adopted. We have not received any documents proving the stabilization of the situation in Turkmenistan." According to Rogozin, the date of the meeting of the Russian-Turkmen commission on the settlement of the problem has not been set so far. Ashgabat has not made it clear when it is going to receive a delegation from the State Duma and the Federation Council. (ITAR-TASS)
Turkmen Opposition Leaders Align, Seek International Support
29 September 2003
By Charles Carlson and Bruce Pannier
Representatives of three main Turkmen opposition groups based abroad have concluded a three-day meeting with a pledge to work together to establish a parliamentary democracy.
Attending the meeting, in the Czech capital, Prague, were former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, of the United Democratic Opposition, Alexander Dodonov of the Vatan Opposition Movement, and Nurmuhammed Hamanov of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan. Also attending were Vitalii Ponomarev of the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center and Peter Zalmaev of the International League for Human Rights.
The leaders pledged to formally unite efforts to create an opposition Union of Democratic Forces to free Turkmenistan from the dictatorship of President Saparmurat Niyazov. It's not clear yet who would head the new union.
Kuliev said the opposition is guided by three principles. "We agreed that in our joint struggle we will be guided by three principles -- the principles of democracy, freedom of speech and [respect for] human rights," Kuliev says.
He added that Turkmenistan needs a new constitution, and that the opposition alignment is in the process of drafting one. The union has set an ambitious goal of putting their pledge into action within a year.
"I hope that on September 29, 2004, [one year from today] the Turkmen opposition will no longer be the opposition but will head a democratic process in Turkmenistan," Dodonov said.
Rights groups have repeatedly condemned the Niyazov regime as being the most repressive to emerge after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. They say it is a virtual one-man state, with Niyazov having appointed himself the country's "president for life."
Ponomarev says Turkmenistan is the only country of the former Soviet republics where any form of opposition is banned.
"You probably know already that the situation with human rights in Turkmenistan is catastrophic and at the same time it is the only country of the former Soviet republics where there is not an openly functioning opposition or rights activists. And there is not even a hint that President Niyazov, who personally controls all the structures of power, is ready for even minimal dialogue with the international community," Ponomarev says.
The three groups also called on the international community to impose economic and political sanctions against the Turkmen government. They said outside pressure is needed on Niyazov to allow representatives of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent to visit political prisoners in Turkmen jails.
Those prisoners include two former foreign ministers, Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdev, both sentenced for their alleged participation in a purported assassination attempt against Niyazov last November. Western analysts point to a number of serious discrepancies in the official Turkmen reports of what happened. Some even question whether any such assassination attempt took place at all.
The participants also urged authorities in Turkmenistan to abolish the institution of president-for-life and hold fair and free elections under international observation.
Khanamov, who served as Turkmenistan's ambassador to Turkey until early 2002, said he now sees no possibility of dialogue with Niyazov in the present circumstance.
"No dialogue between the opposition and Niyazov, or between the international community and Niyazov is possible, because this person does not respect the decisions of such large international organizations as the United Nations, or the recommendations of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]. Therefore, we consider dialogue with Niyazov to be useless," Khanamov said. "A dialogue is only possible with a normal person but with a sick person it is useless."
It's not clear how successful the new union can be. Previous attempts by the various opposition groups to forge common positions have largely failed. Niyazov's hold on power looks to be very strong.
Kuliev, for his part, said he felt "som
e guilt" for having been a part of a former Niyazov government, but he said that in the early 1990s officials believed Turkmenistan needed a strong leader. He said he realized by 1992 that further support for Niyazov would be a mistake. (RFE/RL)
Turkmen Opposition Groups Holding Three-Day Meeting In Prague
27 September 2003
By Bruce Pannier
Representatives from Turkmen opposition groups began a three-day conference in Prague today. They are meeting to devise a strategy to bring more international pressure on Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov to implement democratic reforms and ease controls on the media.
The group also hope to come up with a common strategy for influencing events in Turkmenistan from abroad.
Most of Turkmenistan's opposition now lives outside the country. Those opposition figures who remained in Turkmenistan are either in prison or under house arrest.
Turkmenistan's government has been criticized this month by Amnesty International, the OSCE, and the Russian Duma for its poor record on human rights.
Petr Zalmayev is the CIS coordinator for the New York-based International League for Human Rights. He is attending this weekend�s meeting and explained to RFE/RL what the group hopes to achieve in Prague.
"The purpose of [the conference] is for opposition forces, all of which are having to function in exile, to come together and strategize about how to try to influence the international community and policy-making establishment more effectively [and] to see if some kind of coordinating body or a forum, an opposition forum, can be created to act as a unified front, as a unified counterbalance to the regime of [Turkmen President] Niyazov."
Turkmen opposition groups are not free to hold such meetings in their own country, where human rights abuses and violations of democratic freedoms have been documented for years.
Reports say the groups are trying to recover after being implicated by Niyazov in a failed assassination attempt against the Turkmen president last November. The groups have distanced themselves from the attack, but reports say their domestic standing may have been diminished when former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov confessed on national television to plotting the crime. He had earlier come out on the side of the opposition.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe later criticized Shikhmuradov�s appearance, saying the confession appeared to be forced and recalled images of the Stalinist purge trials of the 1930s. Shikhmuradov also showed signs of being drugged during the appearance on television.
This weekend�s meeting comes at a time of mounting international criticism of the Niyazov regime.
The OSCE's Freimut Duve told Russian radio Ekho Moskvy on 16 September that the Niyazov government was manipulating the media in the same way as, "the Nazis" during World War II. Duve said the Turkmen media are forced to carry racist remarks in, "a clear language of fascism," and transmit show trials of opposition politicians.
U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Stephan Minikes said during a recent visit to Turkmenistan 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."
Amnesty International also had criticism for the Turkmen government this month. On 12 September it issued a press release that said, "the human rights situation in Turkmenistan has been appalling for years." The statement said the situation has become even worse since the reported attempt on Niyazov's life.
Turkmenistan remains largely isolated and relations with neighboring have Russian deteriorated sharply after the Niyazov government earlier this year abruptly ended a dual-citizenship agreement with Russia. The decision has led to the forcible expulsion of many ethnic Russians.
And a Russian newspaper, "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," earlier this month (10 September) reported that eight officials from the Turkmen embassy in Moscow had been asked to leave the country. According to the daily: "Russian special services caught some Turkmenistan special services agents and Turkmenistan diplomats red-handed. They are suspected of involvement in some crimes, including planning [to kill] Turkmenistan dissidents."
The paper said the eight may have had something to do with the beatings, in Moscow, of a Turkmen opposition leader, former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, and of a Moscow reporter for the Turkmen service of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in July, and the correspondent's son early this month.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)