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My Turkmen Odyssey

Ashgabat's Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great airport is not so welcoming after all.
Ashgabat's Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great airport is not so welcoming after all.
When my relatives first told me in late April that an official letter of invitation addressed to me had finally been approved by Turkmenistan's Migration Service, I couldn't believe my ears. No one from RFE/RL has been permitted to visit Turkmenistan since the last trip there in 1991 by former RFE/RL Turkmen Service director Zarif Nazar.

Even though the "clearance process" by the Migration Service took 3 1/2 months instead of the officially required two weeks (!), the confirmed invitation letter meant that my file was "clear" for my visiting Turkmenistan. That was the moment when, as Turkmen people say, "I felt I already had one foot on the ground there."

Since I left my motherland in July 1999, and was granted first Canadian permanent residency and then citizenship, I have tried to return to Turkmenistan only once, in early 2007, right after the death of the bizarre dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. Together with other journalists, I hoped to observe the so-called "free presidential elections." But my request, along with those of some of my colleagues, was rejected without explanation by the Turkmen Embassy in Berlin.

More than three years have passed since then, however, and according to the official Turkmen media, new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has ushered in an "era of great changes." The fact that my relatives finally obtained official permission to invite me for 20 days, and that the Turkmen ambassador in Vienna welcomed me very warmly and issued an official visa right away, gave me the impression that maybe something might really have changed in the country's policy toward Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

No 'Great Change'

Has much changed under President Berdymukhammedov?
It took just a week before my hopes were completely dashed. On May 18, when I was already in Istanbul on my way to Turkmenistan, I received an urgent telephone call from the Turkmen ambassador in Vienna. The ambassador informed me sadly that the Migration Service had made a "final decision" about me and concluded "a visit has been permitted to an impermissible subject." The news was like a proverbial cold shower.

If I had returned to Prague from Istanbul, I would have had no way of proving what had happened. So I decided to continue my journey as far as Ashgabat airport, where my relatives and friends were impatiently waiting for me after 11 years of separation, totally unaware of the sad news I was bringing with me.

The passenger sitting next to me on the plane turned out to be a European Commission representative for economic issues who was traveling to its newly opened center in Ashgabat. Mr. Inigo expressed sympathy when I told him about the "unique nature" of my journey, and he stood next to me in the line for passport control when we landed at Ashgabat airport.

A Border Service lieutenant issued periodic announcements in Turkmen to foreign passengers about what people with visas and invitation letters should do, which only intensified the confusion among foreign passengers in the narrow corridor of the airport. It was obvious that none of the young border officers or soldiers could pronounce even a few basic words in either Russian or English. That reminded me of President Berdymukhammedov's repeated complaints about the shortage of professional personnel in Turkmenistan.

Before approaching the passport-control booth, all foreign passengers with visas stamped in their passports were supposed to go to another window marked Turkmen Bank and pay $11 in cash to two Turkmen ladies in traditional Turkmen dress. The receipt they gave me described the payment as "commission." When I asked what for, they said that it was "for services," but when I asked them to specify what services, they didn't even bother to reply.

To my surprise, almost none of the foreign passengers asked the reason for that payment. Since I had paid for everything, including my visa and baggage, prior to my trip, I personally perceived it as officially organized bribe-taking. At that moment I recalled my compatriots' repeated complaints about all-pervading corruption.

Trapped Behind The Wall

Allamourad Rakhimov hadn't been home since 1999.
The young officer at the passport-control booth seemed a bit confused on seeing both my officially issued visa and the Migration Service's ban on my entry in their computer system (the officer in charge checks every visitor's name in the Migration Service's database). But it didn't take too long for the Border Service senior lieutenant to ask me to sign a "deportation form." When I asked why I was being deported, he said "I don't know, but you probably did something wrong, otherwise your name wouldn't be there" (meaning "on the black list"). I realized he had no idea who I was and what I was supposed to have done wrong.

When I was accusing the Border Service senior lieutenant of breaking the law and of being unjust, unfair, ignorant, brainwashed, etc., he advised me that I should direct those accusations against the officials who barred me from entering the country.

I insisted that the senior lieutenant give me a copy of the "deportation form," and he agreed. Strangely, of the 11 hypothetical grounds for refusing entry, only one category did not specify the reason. It was that category, which stops short of stating "subject not permitted to enter Turkmenistan," that was used against me.

While I was retrieving my baggage from the baggage area, I got the chance to inform the European Commission about my deportation. I also suggested that the European Commission should take the treacherous, untrustworthy, and abusive nature of the Turkmen government into consideration in its dealings with that country. If an officially confirmed letter of invitation and an official visa cannot guarantee a person entry into that country, how can it be trusted in serious business?

After 11 years of separation from my relatives and loved ones, this was the moment when I was so close to them. This time there was just one wall between us.... However, it wasn't just the airport wall. It was a huge wall made up of the Turkmen authorities' ignorance about modern civilization, their ignorance about what is good and bad for the country, their fear of free thought, their fear of being caught doing the wrong thing, their fear of any real or imaginary threats to the foundation of their regime....

The concern manifested by the Turkmen authorities in connection with my attempted visit seems to me to prove once again the truly rotten and shaky nature of the regime. And if that regime is so rotten that one journalist could destroy it, perhaps there is no point in trying to save it.

Allamourad Rakhimov is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL