6 May 2002
Ashgabat Transfers To Digital System Of Street Notation
6 May 2002
Ashgabat has changed to a digital system of street addresses, a system widely known and used in many cities of the world. In the near future, personnel of the Ashgabat hakimlik (city administration) will begin renaming city streets while taking into account the complicated configuration of urban construction. Only the names of main roads will stay unchanged, as they reflect the modern history of the Turkmen capital, turkmenistan.ru reported on 6 May. (Turkmenistan.ru)
Turkmenistan Marks 10th Anniversary Of National Airline
4 May 2002
Turkmenistan marked the 10th anniversary of its national airline on 4 May turkmenistan.ru reported. On 4 May 1992 President Saparmurat Niyazov issued a decree on the creation of the modern infrastructure of civil aviation in Turkmenistan.
Today Turkmenhovaellary (Turkmen Airlines) is a participant in global air transport and a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The Turkmen air transport framework was built in cooperation with such well-known companies as Boeing and Thomson. Today Ashgabat is connected by regular air flights to Great Britain, India, Turkey, Pakistan, UAE, and many other countries. (Turkmenistan.ru)
New Industrial Installation Under Construction In Turkmenistan
4 May 2002
A large consignment of manufacturing equipment arrived in the eastern Turkmen Naip settlement, where construction will begin on a complex for the production of liquefied gas. The full capacity of the installation is designed for processing 9 million cubic meters of gas per day, turkmenistan.ru reported on 4 May.
The Canadian Thermo Design Engineering company is assisting Turkmen builders in the construction of the new complex, which is expected to receive an initial batch of condensed gas by the 11th anniversary of Turkmen independence. (Turkmenistan.ru)
Turkmenistan Suggests Ukraine Join Gas, Pipeline Projects
30 April 2002
Turkmen President Niyazov has suggested to Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma that Kyiv participate in gas exploration and pipeline projects in Turkmenistan, AFP reported on 30 April.
Turkmen state television quoted Niyazov as telling Kuchma during talks today in the Caspian Sea port of Turkmenbashi that Ukraine and Turkmenistan should together explore the Caspian Sea for oil and gas. Niyazov said Ukraine has "pipes, builders, compressors and good technology" that would be helpful in the project.
Niyazov said he also invited Ukraine to join in the construction of a proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan. A project to build the 1,600-kilometer pipeline was suspended in 1998 due to the civil war in Afghanistan, but the idea was revived after the collapse of the Taliban regime.
The two leaders also discussed Ukraine's debt to Turkmenistan for gas deliveries, which is estimated at more than $280 million for gas supplied in 1993-94. But no decision was announced. Kuchma arrived in Turkmenistan on 29 April for a three-day visit. (RFE/RL, AFP)
OSCE Says Turkmenistan Lacks Any Freedom Of Expression
30 April 2002
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned Turkmenistan for what it called an "absolute lack of any freedom of expression," RFE/RL reported on 30 April.
In a letter to Turkmenistan's foreign minister, OSCE media freedom representative Freimut Duve wrote that he plans to commission a special report on the media in Turkmenistan due to the government's many violations of freedoms. Duve noted that all copies of the Moscow-based newspaper "Komsomolskaya pravda" had been confiscated because of an article describing the situation in Turkmenistan, and that authorities blocked access to related Internet news sites.
Duve said that restrictions on freedom of expression in Turkmenistan are unparalleled in the organization's 55 member countries in North America, Europe, and Central Asia. (RFE/RL, AFP)
Lukashenka Will Visit Turkmenistan On 15-17 May
30 April 2002
The official visit of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to Turkmenistan will take place on 15-17 May, Niyazov's press service told turkmenistan.ru on 30 April.
Lukashenka's visit to Turkmenistan was rescheduled several times. (Turkmenistan.ru)
Niyazov, Kuchma Discuss Bilateral Ties, Ukraine's Gas Debt To Turkmenistan
29 April 2002
President Niyazov and Ukrainian President Kuchma vowed to develop further bilateral ties between their countries and discussed ways to settle Ukraine's natural gas debt toward Turkmenistan, RFE/RL reported on 29 April.
Last year, Ukraine and Turkmenistan signed an agreement under which Ashgabat is to deliver 250,000 million cubic meters of natural gas to Kyiv by 2006.
Turkmenistan has been complaining about payment overdues owed by Ukraine and has repeatedly halted gas shipments over Kyiv's mounting debt for past deliveries. (RFE/RL, Interfax, ITAR-TASS)
U.S. Defense Secretary Meets Turkmen President
28 April 2002
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Turkmenistan on 28 April and held talks at the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi with President Niyazov, Defense Minister Redjepbai Arazov and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, AP and Reuters reported.
The talks were centered on the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld and Niyazov discussed border security and Turkmenistan's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
Turkmenistan has provided humanitarian assistance for displaced persons inside Afghanistan. (RFE/RL Turkmen Service, AP, Reuters)
Twilight Of Democracy In Glittering Ashgabat
3 May 2002
By Jean-Christophe Peuch
To the traveler familiar with the former Soviet Union, the capital of Turkmenistan offers an unusual sight, especially when flown over at night.
In contrast to most former Soviet capitals, which inevitably plunge into darkness as soon as the sun sets, the city of Ashgabat glitters from sunset to daybreak like a diamond necklace sparkling from the depths of a black velvet backdrop.
That there is not a single nighttime stroller on the deserted avenues to admire the artistically lit public buildings covered in white marble, or to hear the continual murmur of the numerous public fountains, does not seem to matter. What matters is the impression of public wealth this profusion of water and electricity might leave with the hurried or inattentive visitor.
In the midst of this lavish show, a golden, rotating statue of the master of ceremonies, President Saparmurat Niyazov, dominates the Arch of Neutrality, the rocket-shaped monument that celebrates Turkmenistan's stated nonalignment policy.
Niyazov also keeps a watchful eye on his fellow citizens from the countless portraits that decorate almost every building in this city of 400,000. State television broadcasts endless addresses made by the "Great Turkmenbashi" or "Great Leader of the Turkmens" -- as official propaganda refers to Niyazov -- interspersed with folk singers and poets praising his wisdom and constant care for his people.
News broadcasts invariably start with the same excerpt from one of Niyazov's old speeches, in which he urges his countrymen to work hard for the benefit of the country, to live in peace with its neighbors, and to defend Turkmenistan's neutrality.
Before reading the headlines -- all dedicated to the deeds of Niyazov -- the newscaster then recites what sounds like a profession of faith in the country's leader.
"May the best wishes of our beloved 'serdar' (leader) materialize in the golden century of the Turkmens (the 21st century that Niyazov says should bring prosperity to his country). May the Great Turkmenbashi, who works day and night for the sake of his country and people, remain alert and in good health. May his sound plans become reality. And now, let us start our news bulletin."
Assigned to cover the Caspian Sea summit that took place last week (23-24 April), I and Aliriza Taheri from RFE/RL's Persian Service were met at the Ashgabat airport -- named after Turkmenbashi (Niyazov), as is every other public building in the city -- by a reception committee consisting of two smiling young men who presented themselves as Foreign Ministry officials.
Ignoring our protests that we had rooms already booked in downtown Ashgabat, the young men drove us to another establishment built on the outskirts of the city, confiding us to the care of another "Foreign Ministry official" who would act as our guardian angel for the rest of our stay.
Trapped in our golden cage, we had no alternative but to rely on the means of transportation -- buses or taxis -- put at our disposal by our amiable guardians. Travel outside the hotel was discouraged, though not impossible.
During a rare solo escape into downtown Ashgabat, I went to one of the city's few bookshops. Much to my disappointment, the only volumes on sale were eulogies describing in great detail Niyazov's life and deeds, or opuses written by the 62-year-old head of state himself, like the "Rukhnama" or "Book of the Soul," a 400-page spiritual constitution that parliament has declared a holy text and that local religious leaders
have likened to the Koran.
But what does Niyazov himself, the main character in this theater of the absurd who has been ruling the country since 1985 -- first as Communist Party boss, then as president -- think about this personality cult?
In a rare meeting with foreign journalists on the sidelines of the Caspian summit, Niyazov pleaded not guilty, claiming -- as so many authoritarian rulers have done before him -- that he cannot prevent his fellow citizens from worshipping him.
"There is a lot of talk about my portraits. But what can I do? I've told them not to do it, not to display these portraits. But if I were a simple citizen and if I had a leader who would give me free gas, free electricity, free water, free salt, almost-free apartments, free public transportation, I would also love him from the bottom of my heart."
The citizens of Ashgabat may have access to free utilities, but they face constant electricity shortages. As for free apartments, Niyazov's grandiose construction projects for the capital -- including an Olympic stadium -- have required the destruction of many homes, whose owners have received little or nothing in compensation.
New residential buildings are currently under construction, notably in Ashgabat's Berzengi southern suburb. But the selling price of these penthouse flats -- from $12,000 to $120,000, according to local residents -- is likely to discourage any potential buyers in a country where government estimates put the average monthly salary at $25 and where 60 percent of the population is believed to live below the poverty rate.
One local resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me of the country's high unemployment and of the difficulty he has had finding a job in Ashgabat. "The government tells us to leave the city and buy land in the countryside. But how are we supposed to pay for that land? And even if we had the money, we would have to pay for the water to irrigate our land."
The Turkmen government does not compile unemployment statistics, but Western analysts generally believe that between 10 and 20 percent of the country's 4.6 million people are jobless.
Niyazov's regime is described as one of the most repressive in the world, continuously stifling all forms of dissent -- whether political or religious.
Adherents of so-called "nontraditional" religious faiths -- Baptists and Shia Muslims, notably -- are harassed. Political opponents are either jailed or forced to leave the country, such as former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who currently lives in Turkey.
Although there is no available data on the number of political prisoners or believers in Turkmen prisons, Western reports suggest scores of them are being held in overcrowded, squalid jails. Niyazov claims less than one dozen petty criminals and corrupt officials are kept in custody.
Despite international criticism over human rights issues, Niyazov has succeeded in raising his international profile in the wake of the U.S.-led war on terror -- a circumstance largely due to Turkmenistan's proximity to Afghanistan and Iran.
On the eve of the Caspian summit, a United Nations delegation visited Ashgabat to discuss with Niyazov the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The Central Asian leader seized the opportunity to justify the path he has chosen for the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, blaming democratic countries for what he described as ill-considered political pressure.
"We, of course, turned [for help] to the United States and to Western European countries. All of them stated their conditions, saying that we should set up a multiparty system, that we should start implementing reforms, political reforms, that the state should reduce its control over the economy. They said, 'Accept our conditions first, then we'll see.' They exerted political pressure on us. Maybe they did not understand our local environment. Obviously they did not understand that our country was on the verge of an economic crisis and that our people were on the brink of starvation. This was no politics."
In Niyazov's view, his country has not yet reached the level of economic development that would allow the existence of what he describes as "constructive" opposition.
"Society is following a healthy path. There will be a multiparty system. There will be an opposition. But it will be a healthy opposition. It will be political groups made of organized and lucid people, not of offended people."
The Turkmen leader reportedly promised to authorize pluralistic elections in 2010 -- without opposition candidates, however. Niyazov, who also chairs the government and the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan -- the only political group authorized in the country -- has so far failed to explain how such a pledge could fit with his nomination as president for life 2 1/2 years ago.
Meanwhile, Niyazov's regime has witnessed the defection of several ministers and diplomats in recent months. In addition, the Turkmen president recently dismissed the top leadership of the National Security Committee -- including its chief, Mukhammed Nazarov -- for alleged misuse of power. Defense Minister Gurbandurdy Begenzhov was also reportedly removed from office that same day.
Analysts believe these defections and sackings bode ill for Niyazov's regime. Should they prove right in their assessment, the Turkmen leader might well end up like Pere Ubu, the character invented by 19th-century French absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry, who was forced into exile after years of ruthless domination over the imaginary Kingdom of Polonia. (RFE/RL)
Turkmen Opposition Leader Says Time Ripe For Democratic Change, Analysts Doubtful
2 May 2002
By Jeffrey Donovan
A leading opposition figure from Turkmenistan is in Washington this week seeking support for what he calls a surefire strategy to oust Saparmurat Niyazov, Central Asia's most dictatorial ruler: Just ask him to leave.
Boris Shikhmuradov, who stepped down as Ashgabat's ambassador to China late last year after serving as foreign minister from 1993 to 2000, told a group of journalists and policy-makers in Washington yesterday that the time is ripe in Turkmenistan for a peaceful transition to democracy.
"Today, people are ready to forget their fear and publicly declare their opposition to Niyazov. The political elite and the opposition are ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause."
But Shikhmuradov's comments baffle analysts, who question the readiness of Turkmen society -- or of other, "less repressive" Central Asian countries -- for the kind of democratic tumult that shook Eastern Europe from its communist chains in the late 1980s. And analysts wonder whether a democratic upheaval in Turkmenistan would be peaceful or spill into violence, including a possible military coup d'etat.
They say that even extreme authoritarian countries like Belarus under Alyaksandr Lukashenka or Serbia under former President Slobodan Milosevic have had much more developed civil societies and political participation than Turkmenistan, where Niyazov has developed a cult of his own personality and declared himself president for life.
This week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the Turkmen government's restrictions on freedom of expression the worst in any of the OSCE's 55 member nations of Europe, North America, and Central Asia.
But that doesn't appear to faze Shikhmuradov, who like many in Ashgabat's small opposition, lives in exile. He heads the Provisional Executive Committee of the National Democratic Movement, an opposition group that includes several former top Turkmen officials and diplomats.
He is also said to be close to some in the Russian government -- a fact he denied when asked about it at another Washington forum earlier this week, though he admits he is friends with some Russian officials with whom he attended university.
Shikhmuradov says he and other exiled Turkmen opposition leaders have good contacts with their allies at home, even if communication is difficult. He says they also have potentially significant support from the people: "What is needed is a massive protest action against Niyazov. And in order to begin this process, a brave political step is needed."
Shikhmuradov insists his recipe for change involves no violence. He says it simply entails a visit to Niyazov's office: "It's very simple. We go home. We go to Niyazov with the people's support, and we tell him to leave his post."
The former foreign minister adds that opposition leaders could then assist Niyazov in leaving the country -- or, if he wants to stay and play by new rules -- in running for office in democratic elections.
But analysts are skeptical of such ideas. Fiona Hill is a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Hill says it appears that opposition to Niyazov in Turkmenistan is rising but admits it's hard to tell whether activism can actually replace apathy in Ashgabat.
"The big question, however, is what levers do they [the opposition] have at their disposal? And you know, do we really have an accurate read of what the political mood is in Turkmenistan? We really don't have enough information. But it will be really difficult to change the situation in Turkmenistan."
Abdumannob Polat is closer to the problem. A Central Asia analyst for the Union of Councils, a Washington think tank, Polat is a former Uzbek opposition leader. In 1996, he returned home to press for change -- much as Shikhmuradov wants to do -- but without success. Polat had this to say about Shikhmuradov's plan: "Let's advocate for democracy. Let's try to bring more openness to these countries. But I don't expect such naive schemes to be realized anytime soon."
Polat worries that Shikhmuradov's expectations -- at least his public ones -- are exaggerated and could end up having a negative effect on political developments. He also worries about the real possibility for peaceful change in Turkmenistan and Central Asia -- a region without any democratic traditions.
"If you look at the transition to more open, to more liberal, to more democratic political systems, we can see different scenarios. Even in much more modern countries, with more liberal environments like in Eastern Europe, it was not a smooth process."
Polat says not all the Eastern European revolts of the late 1980s were as peaceful as in Poland or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, both countries with strong dissident movements and democratic histories. And those countries that did experience violence -- such as Romania or, later, Yugoslavia -- still had stronger traditions of civil society than any place in Central Asia.
"I don't expect in Central Asian countries -- in such closed countries with very poor structures of civil society and openness like Turkmenistan -- I don't expect a Velvet Revolution."
Shikhmuradov, however, insists he is not advocating any kind of violence or military coup. He says simply that the people of Turkmenistan are suffering greatly, that they are earning no more than $10 a month -- and that they need and are ready for democratic change.
He won't say when he and other exiled opposition leaders will return to Ashgabat and ask Niyazov to leave power, but adds, "The situation has reached a point where this process can begin." (RFE/RL)
Turkmen Leader Asks For UN Support In Moving Ahead With Pipeline Deal
2 May 2002
By Antoine Blua
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov last week (24 April) called for the United Nations to support a plan to build a gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Niyazov said the project would help bring stability to Afghanistan, through which the proposed 1,500-kilometer pipeline would run.
"I have proposed that the United Nations approve the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline [plan]. This is one of the measures that will permit the stabilization of Afghanistan. It is a large project that will create jobs and income for the population. But this project should not have a political character."
Niyazov says he will meet Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai this month to discuss the project.
Turkmenistan has immense gas reserves but currently only one major export route, which runs through Russia. The proposed $2 billion pipeline will have an annual throughput capacity of up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs. He tells RFE/RL that Turkmenistan sought support for the pipeline project even during the Taliban regime: "Turkmenistan in fact sought security guarantees from the United Nations for this pipeline even before the Taliban demise. It was about two years ago. Turkmenistan was heavily involved in this attempt to built the pipeline during the Taliban rule -- this Unocal story."
The U.S. oil and gas exploration and production company Unocal in the late 1990s began feasibility studies on the pipeline. But in 1998 it withdrew, citing the deteriorating political situation in Afghanistan.
Now, Blagov says, support from the UN could boost the status of the project, clearing the way for guarantees from international institutions like the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Blagov warns, however, that drumming up the large investments needed to jump-start the project may prove difficult: "The United Nations Development Program could have an advisory role, which would be important just to provide more weight -- more international status -- to this project. But [where] the substantial [financial] support to the project [could come from] right now is far from certain."
This, Blagov says, is why Niyazov's position toward his country's official neutrality could soon be changing, particularly with regard to the United States: "Turkmenistan initially was reluctant to commit itself to U.S.-led [operations] in Afghanistan. But sooner or later, given the importance for Turkmenistan to build this alternative pipeline on Afghan territory, it is not impossible that Turkmenistan will change its position."
Ten years ago, Turkmenistan declared itself a neutral country, a decision recognized by the UN. At a meeting of his cabinet ministers following the 11 September attacks on the U.S., Niyazov reaffirmed his country's status, and said international efforts to root out terrorism should be coordinated by the UN, not the U.S.
Blagov says Niyazov's stance may reflect the Turkmen leader's desire to win UN support for the pipeline project. Turkmenistan was the first Central Asian nation to open its borders for humanitarian operations into Afghanistan, even before the events of September precipitated the U.S.-led campaign in the country.
Ted Pearn is senior humanitarian affairs officer for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat. He tells RFE/RL that the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) had a food pipeline operating through Turkmenistan nine months prior to September.
Pearn stresses that the country has since increased the volume of aid passing into Afghanistan, including to its northern regions, which have been particularly hard hit. Last September, 20 percent of all WFP food aid to Afghanistan passed through Turkmenistan. By December, the amount had risen to 40 percent.
Pearn says Ashgabat has been a "substantial and proven" channel of support, "It is an untold story and the government should sort of raise their efforts in making sure that the humanitarian aid does flow to Afghanistan."
With many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) facing difficulty operating in Turkmenistan, much of the responsibility for coordinating aid has fallen to the UN in Ashgabat. Pearn says the government helped facilitate efforts by allowing NGOs to register with the UN: "Because the government and the UN worked together they were able to ease those controls and those NGOs who had a proven track record as operating partners with the UN were given the authority to operate through Turkmenistan's territory."
Pearn says that despite the Turkmen government's cooperation in the aid efforts, many of its achievements went unnoticed by the world community because of the country's media restrictions and its policy of watching over its neutral status "very closely."
"That could be to the detriment of what's been achieved in Turkmenistan because the government restricted the number of reporters. Then the achievements over the last seven or eight months have been untold. But recently the government has been more open and agreed that their achievements should be recognized. And this is being done."
Relief efforts in Turkmenistan are scaling back as conditions improve in Afghanistan. Agencies are shifting their focus to Uzbekistan, which has better accessibility to northern Afghanistan.
During his stop in Turkmenistan last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thanked the country for its role in supporting humanitarian aid shipments to Afghanistan. Rumsfeld said, "[Turkmenistan's] humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan have undoubtedly saved the lives of Afghan people."
Niyazov has not yet sought any particular reward for his country's cooperation. But his recent remarks concerning the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline may be an indication the mercurial leader is now seeking to reap the fruits of his cooperation with the UN. (RFE/RL)