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Turkmen Report: June 30, 2001

30 June 2001
OSCE Concerned Over Limitations On Turkmen Citizens

29 June 2001

At a seminar on "Freedom of Religion or Belief in the OSCE Region: Challenges to Laws and Practice" held in The Hague on 26 June, several speakers expressed their concern that the gross violations of freedom of religion and belief in Turkmenistan is one way of repressing dissident voices in Turkmen society.

Turkmenistan joined the OSCE in 1992 and pledged to adhere to all OSCE commitments, including the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief. Almost ten years later, the worrisome situation in Turkmenistan as to respect for religious minorities' rights was criticized at the OSCE seminar.

The U.S. delegation highlighted Turkmenistan as one of the most obvious examples of repression of the freedom of religion and belief in the OSCE region.

Mr. Johnson, the U.S. OSCE representative, said many sections of current Turkmenistan legislation "fall short" of OSCE standards. He mentioned in particular that the U.S. is disturbed by a recent presidential decree that severely limits marriages between Turkmen citizens and citizens of foreign states.

In addition, exit visas and the government's reduction in the number of years of education are increasingly restricting the opportunities for Turkmenistan's population to travel and to study abroad. In combination, these actions tend to further isolate the Turkmen population and diminish Turkmenistan's human capital. This will ultimately, perhaps even very soon, have negative consequences for the Turkmen economy.

He also emphasized persecution of certain religious groups in Turkmenistan, especially those that remain unregistered.

"We call on the Turkmen government to end pressure against religious groups, and to revise its legislation on registration," said the U.S. representative.

Special concern was raised with regard to the methods applied to crack down on religious groups in Turkmenistan, such as imprisonment, torture, confiscation of property, and deportation.

Ronald Wallenburg from "Open Doors," a Protestant mission that has helped persecuted Christians in communist countries for more that 30 years, proposed that the OSCE should issue a separate declaration on the violations of freedom of religion and belief in Turkmenistan. (RFE/RL, Turan)

Families To Finance Baptists' Deportation?

28 June 2001

Two Baptists who have been living and working in Turkmenistan have been detained and are believed to be on the brink of deportation, Keston News Service reports. Yevgeny Potolov and Vyacheslav Kalataevsky are both believed to be Russian citizens.

A 27 June statement from local Baptists -- passed on to Keston by the German-based Friedensstimme mission -- reported that Potolov and Kalataevsky were seized the previous day while traveling from the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) to the town of Balkanabad (formerly Nebit-Dag) 155 kilometers (95 miles) to the southwest. "They had their residence permits taken away and their relatives were asked for money for air tickets for their deportation," the statement added. "The current whereabouts of the two brothers are unknown." Local Baptists called on the authorities to free the two and allow them to return to their families.

Six Baptist families active in local congregations of the Council of Churches are known to have been deported from Turkmenistan in the past few years despite having legal residence in the country. All were Russian or Ukrainian citizens. Hundreds of foreign citizens active with other faiths -- including members of other Protestant churches, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishna devotees -- have also been deported. (Keston News Service)

Turkmen President To Visit Kazakhstan

27 June 2001

Saparmurat Niyazov will pay his first official visit to Kazakhstan on 5-6 July. Six documents, in particular a treaty on the delimitation and demarcation of the border between the two countries, an agreement on cooperation in protection of their common border, and an extradition treaty are planned to be signed.

According to the protocol of the intergovernmental talks held in Ashgabat in March, Kazakhstan's debt exceeds $55 million, more than $21 million of which is payment for Turkmen gas delivered in the early 1990s.

Kazakhstan intends to limit the volume of Turkmen transit gas exported to Ukraine. According to the state-owned Kazakh Oil and Gas Transport company, the volume of gas supplied from Turkmenistan to Ukraine by Kazakh gas pipelines might be reduced by 1.45 billion cubic meters a month from today. The company decided to do so because of the gas supply operator's debts to the international Itera group.

According to Itera itself, the debts for transporting gas via Kazakhstan have accumulated due to Ukrainian power companies' nonpayment for previous gas supplies. The debts currently stand at $56 million. Itera has more than once warned the Ukrainian authorities that the country could completely lose Turkmen gas supplies as a result of this. (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, Kazakh Commercial TV)

Turkmen Airport Gets New French Radar System

27 June 2001

Modernization of the air traffic control system at Turkmenbashi (former Krasnovodsk) airport has been completed. Specialists from the French company Thomson have commissioned there a new radar station that meets international air traffic control standards. It was built on a ready-to-operate basis 3 km from the airport of this coastal town.

The facility, which has a powerful radar system with a coverage radius of roughly 400 km, has been built of particularly strong materials, since special attention was paid to its earthquake resistance.

The air traffic control center is also outfitted with modern aeronautical equipment made by Thompson and modern computers. As a whole the modernization of the air traffic control system of Turkmenbashi airport will increase the safety of air traffic over Turkmenistan on international and domestic routes, and will also increase the capacity of the country�s airways. (Turkmen State News Service,

Niyazov Appoints New Defense Minister, Railways Head

27 June 2001

President Niyazov has appointed Gurbandurdy Begendzhov as the defense minister. Previously, Begendzhov was deputy chairman of the National Security Committee, heading the military counterintelligence department.

Former Defense Minister Batyr Sarjayev was appointed head of the Turkmendemiryollary (Turkmen Railways) national company, a position that had remained vacant after the death of former head Khalmurat Berdiyev, who died while crossing a railroad track in Ashgabat on 14 June.

There was no reason given for the latest shake-up in Niyazov's government. (RFE/RL, Interfax)

Turkmen President Closes Islamic School

26 June 2001

Turkmen President Niyazov shut down one Islamic religious school on 26 June, and was quoted by local media as saying that there is no place in Turkmenistan for schools that confuse children.

Niyazov gave little explanation but criticized the madrassah school in the western Dashoguz region for employing relatives of the mufti, or Islamic religious leader, in Turkmenistan.

The chairman of Turkmenistan's religious council, Yagshimurad Atamuradov, said the school would follow the president's order. He said existing students would continue their studies at a theological institute in Ashgabat.

Central Asian leaders have become wary of Muslim religious activity following incursions into the region last August by Islamic extremists said to be based in Afghanistan (see Features And Analysis below). (RFE/RL Turkmen Service, AFP)

Niyazov Criticizes State Broadcasting Company

25 June 2001

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov criticized the work of the national radio and television broadcasting company on 25 June, saying there was not enough quality domestic programming available.

Niyazov called on television and radio employees to produce more original programming, which dealt with themes familiar to the Turkmen people and using Turkmen artists. Niyazov said the heroes of these productions should be "active participants in the transformation of the country."

Niyazov said the programs should not only reflect social opinion but form it, taking into account the ethnic and moral priorities of the Turkmen people.

Niyazov earlier this year recommended closing theaters showing ballet and opera, saying they were not traditional in Turkmen culture.

Niyazov sacked the head of the government's coordinating council on culture and print media Akmurad Mukhadov from his duties for poor work. (RFE/RL, ITAR-TASS, Interfax)

Turkmen Gas To Flow To Armenia Via Iran-Armenia Pipeline

22 June 2001

Despite the absence of direct contracts for the sale and purchase of gas between Ashgabat and Yerevan, Turkmen natural gas is getting to Armenia anyway. Armenian Deputy Energy Minister Karen Karapetyan confirmed this in a reply to a question from a Business News agency correspondent on the prospects for the construction of the Iran-Armenia pipeline.

Karapetyan pointed out that construction of the Iran-Armenia pipeline could start as early as next month. He said all financial issues as well as the problem of the price of the gas had been virtually solved. The price problem was slowing down the start of construction until recently, because Iran was offering its natural gas at a price almost 50 percent higher ($53 per 1,000 cubic meters) than that of the Turkmen gas currently being delivered to Armenia.

Gas is currently supplied to Armenia by the Itera company, which this year will be buying 10 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas under a contract signed in February [2001]. (

Turkmen Leader Tightens His Grip On Unofficial Islam

28 June 2001

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkmenistan's authoritarian president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has taken a new step toward repression of religious freedom by ordering the closing of the only independent Islamic religious school still officially functioning in the country.

On 26 June, the state Russian-language newspaper "Neutral Turkmenistan" quoted Niyazov as saying that he believes education provided at the Muslim theology seminar, or madrassah, in the northern city of Tashauz is not satisfactory.

According to the newspaper, Niyazov said: "We don't have anything against spiritual education. We are against education that confuses children. There is no place in our country for such schools."

In comments broadcast on state television on 25 June, Niyazov provided a far more down-to-earth explanation for his decision. He criticized the country's chief mufti, or religious leader, Nasrullah Ibn-Ibbaddulah, for allegedly employing relatives in the Tashauz theological seminary. An ethnic Uzbek, Ibn-Ibbaddulah is a native of Tashauz.

"Nasrullah Ibn-Ibbaddulah has a madrassah in Tashauz where some of his relatives are working. Last week, I summoned him and told him to close down his madrassah. I told him: 'If I don't order you to close it down, you will not do it. Even a mufti should not infringe laws or consider himself above the others. People are watching you. You must be an example. You must be humble and faithful.'"

Yagshimurad Atamuradov, the chairman of Turkmenistan's religious council -- the government body that oversees religious activity in the country -- said later that, in keeping with Niyazov's order, the Tashauz school would not admit young people this year. Atamuradov said religious students would instead attend a government-approved madrassah in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat.

Religious freedom and other basic rights have been progressively restricted in Turkmenistan over the past decade. Religious activists, notably representatives of Protestant confessions and adherents of other "non-traditional" faiths, have been imprisoned or deported from the country.

Turkmenistan's Constitution provides for freedom of religion, but attacks on minority religious groups have been common practice since the country gained independence in 1991.

For the past five years, to gain official recognition, religious organizations have had to prove they have at least 500 adult citizens over the age of 18 as adherents. In addition, all of them must live in the same district of a city or town.

This double requirement has so far allowed only the majority Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians -- who are estimated to comprise between 7 and 9 percent of the country's population -- to attain legal status. All other religious groups which had been awarded the status before 1996 had it revoked.

Felix Corley is a researcher for the Oxford-based Keston Institute, a non-governmental organization which monitors religious freedom in communist and post-communist countries. In an interview with RFE/RL, Corley said both registered and unregistered communities fall victim to the Turkmen authorities' arbitrariness.

"The government says that unregistered religious activity is illegal. But that is not actually the case. There is no law that bans unregistered religious activity, but the government treats it as illegal. The law says [religious] communities need 500 adult citizen members, but there is nothing in the law that says that these 500 people must be in the same district of a town. But various people have been told that verbally by officials. And even groups that do meet the requirements often do not gain registration."

Despite its legal status, Sunni Islam has also often suffered from government arbitrariness and faced restrictions imposed by state bodies.

Vitaly Ponomariov chairs the Central Asia Program at the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group. He told RFE/RL that the Turkmen authorities are progressively tightening their grip on unofficial -- that is, non-state-sponsored Islam.

"After the [500-member] requirement was adopted, more than half of Turkmenistan's mosques were unable to acquire registration. As far as I know, they continue to function in a large number of regions. The authorities are turning a blind eye to the fact that these mosques are functioning without proper registration. But one thing to stress is that the government's policy [toward unofficial Islam] is taking a tougher [turn]."

Since the mid-1990s, Niyazov has increasingly involved himself in Islamic affairs. He has banned the import of religious literature and imposed severe restrictions on private religious education. Analyst Corley says:

"[Niyazov] wants to abolish religious education. I think he needs a limited Muslim education just to keep mullahs [Islamic priests] functioning on the basic level. But he does not really want any serious religious study."

Last year, some 300 foreign Islamic preachers or individuals suspected of being involved in religious activities, mostly Iranians of the Shia Muslim faith, were deported from Turkmenistan. At the same time, the chief imam of the southern town of Mary was removed after being accused of committing unspecified economic crimes.

A few weeks before, Turkmen authorities had arrested Hoja Ahmed Orazgylych, an Islamic cleric whose translation of the Koran from the Uzbek to the Turkmen language had been called into question by Niyazov. All available copies of Orazgylych's translation, which Niyazov described as "evil" and inaccurate, were burnt and two mosques associated with the cleric were razed.

Orazyglych -- who had strongly opposed Niyazov's instructions to Turkmen Muslims to celebrate New Year with a Christmas tree -- was later pardoned and sentenced to internal exile in his hometown of Tejen.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Niyazov suggested that he was committed to fighting what he described as the "unjustified expansion" of Islamic religious schools, especially in the region of Dashkhovuz near the Uzbek border.

About one-third of the population in Dashkhovuz -- a region that includes the city of Tashauz -- is made of up of Uzbeks and other non-Turkmen ethnic groups.

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this year (20 April), Ponomaryov said regional authorities in Dashkhovuz had reportedly ordered all schoolgirls, regardless of nationality, to wear Turkmen national attire or be dismissed.

By ordering the Tashauz seminary closed down, Niyazov is perhaps trying to kill two birds with one stone. First, the move may be an attempt to exert greater control over the activity of the Muslim community. Second, it could also be the latest development in the policy of "Turkmenization" the Turkmen president launched recently in a effort to keep the country free of foreign influence. (RFE/RL, the Turkmen Service contributed to this report)

U.S. Patrol Boats Are Gifts to Promote Caspian Regional Security

26 June 2001

By Michael Lelyveld

The United States said last week that a gift of patrol boats to Azerbaijan was aimed only at promoting regional security, despite criticism from other Caspian states.

In a phone interview with RFE/RL, a U.S. government official in Washington stressed that the first of two boats delivered to Azerbaijan on 16 June would pose no threat to its neighbors.

Reading from a prepared statement, the official, who asked not to be named, said, "The patrol boats are non-lethal, and they have no infrastructure such as mounting devices to support lethal military equipment."

The assurance was similar to one last month by the American ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ross Wilson, who said that it would be "almost impossible" to install weapons on the vessels, which are used as coast guard cutters in the United States.

The official in Washington said the 15-meter boats were donated under an export control and border security program. The initiative is aimed at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms, and militarily useful goods, the official said.

Despite the assurances, reactions in the region have been strong and in some cases inaccurate.

A report that Turkmenistan would respond by buying 20 patrol boats from Ukraine raised alarms in Azerbaijan, until President Leonid Kuchma reportedly corrected the account to say that the number was only two.

But Turkmenistan raised concerns again this month after an official of the Russian arms trader Rosoboronexport announced that Ashgabat would exchange gas for arms including patrol craft.

Commentaries by the "Tehran Times" and the Tehran Voice of Iran radio have criticized the United States for interference and alleged attempts to create a crisis in the Caspian.

One of the more exaggerated reports last week came from Russia's Independent Information Center Glasnost, which published a story with the headline, "U.S.-made cannon-boats are to patrol the Caspian Sea."

In addition to the U.S. denials, Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev noted last week that Turkmenistan had also received patrol boats from the United States.

When asked about the statement, the U.S. official confirmed that Turkmenistan was given a boat under a military surplus program one year ago. The United States has donated equipment under export control programs with over 20 countries and is seeking to establish similar cooperation with Turkmenistan, the official said.

The U.S. government also argues that there is no link between its initiative and the issue of militarization in the Caspian.

The official said, "We have carefully designed our non-proliferation assistance programs to ensure that they do not affect the military balance in the Caspian or in the Caucasus."

The reports over the past month suggest that Azerbaijan's neighbors see political value in the issue at a time when the question of Caspian borders remains unresolved.

The question may be particularly contentious in light of Turkmenistan's dispute with Azerbaijan over ownership of oil fields in the middle of the Caspian and Iran's concern that a division formula could allow passage of Russian warships too close to its shores.

But Azerbaijan is not the only country that has had to deal with suspicions about its Caspian activities.

Last August, Iran denied that it had embarked on a buildup after the Azerbaijani press reported that Tehran planned to increase its Caspian force by adding 6,000 troops, 75 armored vehicles, eight fighter planes, 34 patrol craft, a frigate, and a submarine. In the past year, there have been no reports to suggest that any such buildup has taken place.

But in a region where distrust may be the most powerful force, the Caspian countries are responding to threats, whether imagined or real. (RFE/RL)

Turkmen Warm To Taliban

June 25 2001

By an IWPR contributor in Ashgabat

Despite international condemnation of the Taliban, Turkmenistan has chosen to foster closer links with the Kabul regime.

In defiance of the UN Security Council's new sanctions against the Taliban, the government of Turkmenistan continues to ignore the international community's concerted effort to isolate the radical Islamist regime in Afghanistan.

Why did Turkmenistan, unlike its neighbors, choose to be loyal and even friendly to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement, despite its formidable military threat and despite Afghanistan's notoriety as a major narcotics exporter?

Turkmenistan prizes safety along its frontiers, in particular, its border with Afghanistan, which is more than 800 kilometers long. Since Russian border guards were pulled out a few years ago, Ashgabat believes the maintenance of good relations with the Taliban will prevent incursions.

But more importantly, Turkmenistan's economic ties with Afghanistan have positioned it as a "friend of the Afghan people." Indeed, Ashgabat has been very keen on preserving and boosting its existing trade with the Taliban, focusing in particular on fuel and energy.

Last year alone, Turkmenistan made some 70 official contacts with 24 Afghan companies, resulting in contracts worth upwards of $10 million to supply petrochemicals to Taliban-controlled areas in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are particularly interested in petrol, diesel fuel, aviation kerosene, and liquefied gas from the Seidin oil refinery in Lebap Velayat, eastern Turkmenistan, and the Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) refinery in Balkan Velayat, western Turkmenistan.

In the first quarter of this year, deals were closed on 5,000 tons of petrol and 10,000 tons of diesel fuel. Meanwhile, there are suggestions that trade between the two nations will go much farther than that. According to Western press reports, tanks with aviation fuel have been crossing the border to Afghanistan on a regular basis.

Turkmenistan has recently launched construction projects for liquefied gas terminals in Atamurad (formerly Kerki in the east of the country) and Serkhetabad (formerly Kushka in the south), in order to cut gas transportation costs and boost petrochemical shipments to Afghanistan.

But Ashgabat's relations with the Taliban stretch much further than petrochemicals. Turkmenistan has gone ahead with its highly pragmatic effort to create a common power system in the region. A project is in the works to supply Turkmen electric power to Afghanistan and on to Pakistan.

A framework agreement to funnel power to Turkmenistan's southern neighbor was reached as far back as September 1999, when top officials from the Taliban's Waterways and Energy Ministry visited Ashgabat. Construction is reportedly in progress on a 70-kilometer power line spanning the Afghan towns of Andhoy and Shebargan, as well as a 120-kilometer high-voltage line between Serkhetabad and Gerat. Turkmenistan is fitting the line with transformer substations of varying capacity at its own cost.

Ashgabat is setting its sights on Afghanistan as a transit nation for its electric power. The final destination is Pakistan, which needs substantial quantities of electricity and has the money to pay for it.

In addition, Pakistan is keen on Turkmenistan's natural gas. Once again, the shortest and most convenient route goes through Afghanistan.

The only problem holding back the construction of oil and gas pipelines is internal instability in Afghanistan. In this light, Turkmenistan is prepared to back any Afghan government that can keep this unruly nation under control and ensure the safety of projects generating hard-currency revenues for Ashgabat.

The idea of building pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan has been enthusiastically backed by Pakistan. The Pakistani military leader, General Pervez Musharraf, pledged his full commitment to those projects during his recent visit to Turkmenistan. The Turkmen authorities are hoping that the pipeline projects will promote political stability in Afghanistan by creating new jobs.

In addition to fuel and power sales to the Taliban, Turkmenistan is looking to boost its exports of agricultural produce, fabrics, consumer goods, and chemicals to Afghanistan. In 2000, these export items netted $38 million for Turkmenistan.

What's clear is that Ashgabat is attempting to expand its trade and economic ties with the Taliban in the hope of obtaining solid political benefits should the Taliban gain full control of Afghanistan. (Institute for War & Peace -- This report was submitted by a Turkmen journalist who wishes to remain anonymous)