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Turkmen Report: December 24, 2001

24 December 2001
Elderly Blind Woman Threatened With Eviction

21 December 2001

Mariya Zadorozhnaya, an elderly, blind Baptist, has been threatened with eviction from her flat in the town of Khazar (formerly Cheleken) on the Caspian Sea after hosting a Baptist service raided by the political police on 16 December.

"They threatened her that if believers gather in her flat again, they will take it away from her," declared a 20 December statement from the Khazar church, passed to Keston News Service by the U.S.-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries.

"They have banned the believers even from visiting this sister." The officers issued a "final warning" to the Baptists that if they continued to meet for worship or distribute Christian literature, they would be expelled from the town or would be taken to court under Article 205. (Keston News Service)

President Criticizes Wheat Planting, Plowing

19 December 2001

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov held a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers on 19 December. The governors of the central Ruhabat, Geokdepe, and Baherden districts attended the meeting, as well as the heads of the state-owned Turkmengallaonumleri (Turkmen Grain Products), the state-owned Turkmenobahyzmat (Turkmen farm service), and the Geok Gysak (Green Belt) joint-stock company. District agricultural issues were discussed at the meeting.

Niyazov criticized the poor state of plowing and stressed shortcomings in wheat planting (Turkmen TV)

Niyazov, Russian Envoy Discuss Relations, Caspian Sea Status

19 December 2001

President Niyazov met with Anatolii Shelkunov, the Russian ambassador to Turkmenistan, on 19 December.

A wide range of issues relating to bilateral and regional international relations was discussed at the meeting. Niyazov and the Russian envoy exchanged opinions on speeding up the process of defining the legal status of the Caspian Sea, expanding and strengthening cooperation in the oil and gas sector, and prospects for the development of Turkmen-Russian partnership in many other fields. (Turkmen TV)

Turkmenistan, Iran Delay Sixth Session On Caspian Status

18 December 2001

The sixth session of the working group on the Caspian Sea status -- meetings aimed at resolving the disputed status of oil in the Caspian Sea -- were postponed indefinitely after protests from Turkmenistan and its ally Iran. Deputy foreign ministers of the five Caspian littoral states -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- were due to attend. The new date of the session will be coordinated later.

Turkmen Foreign Ministry spokesman Rashid Meredov said the day before the session that "there is no need to have it because the draft final document of the Caspian summit on the position of Turkmenistan is almost ready." The remaining details can be coordinated on the bilateral basis.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry called for delaying the session in connection with the position of Turkmenistan. (ITAR-TASS, AFP)

Uraza-Bairam Celebrated In Turkmenistan

17 December 2001

The Uraza holiday, which signifies for Muslims the end of the sacred month of Ramadan, was celebrated in Turkmenistan on 17 December. President Niyazov had issued a decree to proclaim Uraza-Bairam a day off.

Officially, the Uraza in Turkmenistan was celebrated for the fourth time. During Ramadan, believers keep a fast, which ends on 16 December, by a common service Eid Fetr, after which Muslims congratulate each other on the holiday. (RIA-Novosti)

Turkmen Religious Leaders Compare 'Rukhnama' With Koran

16 December 2001

The heads of the Council on Religious Affairs of Turkmenistan, Yakshymurad Atamuradov, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah (the mufti of Turkmenistan), and Murad Kariev compared "Rukhnama," the spiritual code written by President Niyazov, with the Muslim holy book, the Koran, declaring that "the holy 'Rukhnama' is put on a level with the holy Koran at all the mosques in Turkmenistan" at the end of Ramadan and the Id al-Adha Muslim religious holiday marking the end of the hajj are celebrated. (Turkmen TV)

Turkmen-Turkish Relations In 2001

24 December 2001

By Nadir Devlet

Turkey's relations with Turkmenistan could be considered normal or at least not as problematic as with Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan has deeper relations with Turkey than with other Central Asian republics. Currently some 10,000 Turkish businessmen, workers, teachers, and students stay in Turkmenistan, especially in Ashgabat, and some 300 small and large Turkish companies have business in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan's exports to Turkey in 1992 were valued at $17.9 million; in 1999 it had grown to $67 million. Turkish export to Turkmenistan in 1992 was worth $17.3 million, which has grown to $106.6 million. Turkey gave Turkmenistan $163 million in credits from Turkish Eximbank in order to promote economic relations.

Turkey has also established close official and nonofficial cultural relations with Turkmenistan. There are 18 private Turkish schools, which are sponsored and coordinated by a Turkish NGO, Bashkent Education Corp. These schools are also known as Fethullah Gulen schools. Gulen is well-known as a religious leader in Turkey and Turkish authorities claim that he is trying to undermine the secular system of the country. The International Turkmen-Turkish University, which was opened in 1994, has approximately 700 students and is also sponsored by the Bashkent Education Corp. There is a newspaper called "Zaman" (Time) which is believed to have close ties with Fethullah Gulen, who is now living in U.S. This newspaper has a circulation of some10,000 and is printed in the Turkmen and Turkish languages. Moreover, the Turkish government opened a high school and a language center in Ashgabat. Every year Turkey also selects some 150 Turkmen undergraduate students and awards them scholarships to study in Turkish universities. Today the number of Turkmen students in Turkey numbers more than 1,000. Turkey also restored in Mary the Sultan Sandjar Tomb historical monument.

In other words, these facts show that Turkey considers Turkmenistan an important political, economic, and cultural partner. Turkey has established with Turkmenistan as good relations as with Azerbaijan or better. It is hard to define which Turkish interest is more important -- political, economic, or cultural -- but business relations could be judged as the most important. The Turkish dream of receiving natural gas from Turkmenistan could be a reason for that, too, even though there is no such possibility in the short term.

Turkish officials and private persons have a very difficult task when they have to deal with Turkmen officials, who are under heavy pressure from President Niyazov. They know that without praising "Turkmenbashi" their wishes cannot be fulfilled. Therefore, we sometimes see on Turkish TV, in magazines, or in special pamphlets many compliments, ovations, and glorifying comments about Niyazov and Turkmenistan. These are mostly private initiatives organized by businessmen who have economic connections or interests in Turkmenistan.

Turkish political involvement in the Turkic states has slowed down, especially in the last few years. The Turkish government has to fight against high inflation, unemployment, and other components of its current economic crisis. Even the National Action Party (MHP), a right-wing party with some pan-Turkish elements and a coalition partner of Prime Minister Ecevit's government, was not able to establish more lively relations with the Turkic republics, though Turkish Vice Premier, Minister of State, and MHP leader Devlet Bahceli did make an official visit to Turkmenistan on 18-20 February. It is also interesting to note that this was his first visit abroad, after he became the vice premier 2 1/2 years prior to that.

Iran's Maneuvering Said To Have Blocked Caspian Sea Meeting

21 December 2001

By Michael Lelyveld

Iran has apparently brought the issue of Caspian Sea division to a halt by blocking a meeting of deputy ministers that was due to take place in Moscow this week.

The Caspian talks scheduled for 18 and 19 December were called off at the last minute. Diplomatic sources told the Interfax news agency last week that its purpose was "to complete the final statement on the status of the Caspian that should be approved at the summit of the five Caspian states."

This week, Interfax reported that no reason was given for the postponement. Azerbaijan's AssA-Irada news agency said it was the result of a Russian request. But Agence France-Presse cited the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying that "Iran and Turkmenistan saw no need for talks."

Before the cancellation, there were signs that Russia might try to override objections to a long-delayed summit of Caspian leaders in Ashgabat. Interfax quoted a diplomatic source in Moscow as saying that "if the document is not coordinated at the upcoming expert meeting, it will be possible to insist on the speedy organization of the Caspian Five summit."

The delay of the meeting of deputy foreign ministers follows diplomatic maneuvers by Iran since a CIS summit in Moscow suggested that the border-marking issue might be settled separately among the Caspian's four post-Soviet states.

At the Moscow summit last month, Presidents Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a bilateral accord to divide the seabed along a modified median line. The agreement embraced Russia's formula for a legal split of the Caspian, which has eluded the five shoreline states since the Soviet breakup.

Tehran opposes the formula, in part because it leaves Iran with only the 13 percent of the Caspian that is covered by its coast. The other main reason that it would keep the Caspian waters in common, giving free range to Russia's powerful Caspian fleet.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry lodged a strong objection to the pact between Astana and Baku, calling on its neighbors "to avoid unilateral and provocative actions" on the Caspian issue. Tehran's fears were heightened by reports that Aliyev and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov had agreed to restart talks on a disputed oil field that has stalemated progress since 1997.

On 11 December, Iran's Caspian envoy Mehdi Safari launched a shuttle mission to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan aimed at preserving Iran's right to reject the division formula, demanding that all parties repeat their pledges to pursue to a consensus among the littoral states.

In Baku, Safari met with Aliyev and other top officials without apparent progress. Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry issued a bland statement reported by AFP, saying the meetings would "give an impetus for achieving mutual understanding and resolution of the Caspian question."

Azerbaijan seemed careful to keep relations on an even keel following a dangerous incident last July, when an Iranian gunboat threatened two of its research vessels in a disputed oil field. Aliyev also has tentative plans to visit Tehran early next year after countless delays due to bilateral rows.

In Ashgabat, Safari may have been more successful. After meeting with Niyazov, the Turkmen president "declared his opposition to unilateral or bilateral moves by littoral states to exploit the sea's resources," the Iranian official news agency IRNA said.

Turkmenistan's ambassador to Kazakhstan, Muhammet Abalakov, also flatly called the approach of Russia and Kazakhstan "wrong," according to the "Almaty Herald." In upholding the consensus requirement, Turkmenistan seems to have put aside its consideration of another bilateral pact on Caspian borders with Kazakhstan to placate Iran.

The move may save Tehran from isolation on the division issue. By canceling the Moscow meeting, it may also succeed briefly in keeping pressure in check. But the moves also seem to have sparked anger all sides.

On 19 December, Aliev's adviser on the Caspian, Rustam Mamedov, told AFP, "In the 10 years of negotiations to settle the status of the Caspian, Iran has not taken a single constructive step."

Mamedov said, "That position is designed to undermine the development of new states like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan whose only means of survival in difficult conditions is to exploit their energy resources."

The remarks were similar in tone to those of Darigha Nazarbaeva, reported by ITAR-TASS a week earlier and carried by the independent newspaper "Ekho" and "RFE/RL Newsline." The powerful daughter of President Nazarbaev, who controls a media empire in Kazakhstan, called Iran's stand "the main brake on the negotiating process." She also criticized Turkmenistan for changing its position "too often."

Anger is also evident in Iran at the country's minority position. In a snipe at Aliev, a column in the "Tehran Times," carried by IRNA, charged that "some Caspian leaders prefer short-term interests to long-term advantages or are prepared to undermine regional unity to serve foreign powers."

Although the Moscow talks were called off, some form of them may still take place on Iran's terms. This week, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that deputy foreign ministers will meet on the sidelines at an annual Caspian conference in Tehran that starts on 22 December.

They will need extreme patience to pursue a solution to the division problem, which has kept the Caspian countries at odds for the past 10 years. (RFE/RL)