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Turkmenistan: A study in democracy denial
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as "Turkmenbashi" (Father of all Turkmen), has challenged the opposition and introduced stricter controls in an apparent attempt to forestall regime change in Turkmenistan. Yet it remains to be seen whether self-exiled Turkmen opposition members will be able to replicate a "velvet revolution" in their homeland, which happens to contain the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves.

Niyazov has urged exiled dissidents to return, saying that there would be no persecution if the courts acquitted them of being "thieves and terrorists". Meanwhile, his critics are now increasingly seeking Western backing, disillusioned of getting Russian support. "They band together in Austria and declare they are creating Turkmenistan's democratic party," Niyazov told his security ministers in televised remarks. He referred to a meeting of the Turkmen Union of Democratic Forces (TUDF) on November 23-24 in Vienna. The TUDF urged the international community to back democratization of Turkmenistan.

Former foreign minister Avdy Kuliyev, ex-ambassador to Turkey Nurmukhammed Khanamov, former central bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov and former deputy agriculture minister Saparmurat Yklymov have set up the TUDF to take on Niyazov.

And Kuliyev, the head of the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan (ODOT), said that he would not mind going back to Turkmenistan - given Western moral support. Kuliyev told Asia Times Online: "If I got US support, I'd go to Turkmenistan to face trial on all charges against me." Kuliyev, now based in a Moscow suburb, added that in 1998 he traveled to Turkmenistan without hurdles as he had received the backing of the United States on the eve of Niyazov's visit to Washington.

The leaders of self-exiled Turkmen political opposition groups established a united front and announced the creation of the TUDF on September 29 in the Czech capital Prague, where the first actual "velvet revolution", a term describing a bloodless takeover of power, took place in 1989. Turkmen opposition activists pledged to restore the principles of democracy, human rights and freedom of the media in their homeland. In other words, they vowed to work for regime change in Turkmenistan.

The united front includes four major groups: the ODOT; the Watan socio-political movement; the Renaissance movement; and the Republican Party of Turkmenistan. Driven out of their homeland, the Turkmen opposition groups now operate in exile.

Meanwhile, Niyazov has repeatedly demanded that Russia and Western governments extradite his opponents. "It's a pity that many states that pretend to be democratic give them the floor," he said. "But shouldn't these states extradite criminals and terrorists?" Niyazov described the opposition "and their likes cowards and traitors who stole that much money that it did not fit their pockets".

"All of them are thieves, terrorists and fugitives, but if they are not guilty, we will not persecute them. Let them face the court here and then open their parties in Turkmenistan," Niyazov said in televised remarks, calling his offer a "democratic initiative".

Conversely, Niyazov has recently come up with a series of new repressive measures and has announced yet another overhaul of his security institutions. On November 28, the national security minister, General Batyr Busakov, was replaced by the former border guard commander, Annagueldy Gummanov. It is understood that Niyazov is now promoting young loyalists in order to forestall a situation such as arose in Georgia recently, where former president Eduard Shevardnadze was abandoned by his security personnel and ultimately resigned.

The Turkmen regime has also introduced new measures against non-governmental organizations (NGOs), seen as a vehicle of velvet revolutions. According to a presidential decree that was signed into law on November 21, and which went into force on the same day, unregistered NGOs are subject to confiscation of their property, and repeat offenses can be punished by up to one year in prison.

In November, Turkmenistan also introduced a Draconian law on religion outlawing all unregistered religious activity. This specifically declares illegal all unregistered religious groups, while a new amendment to the criminal code prescribes penalties for breaking the law of up to one year of "corrective labor".

Niyazov also counterbalanced reprisals by some populist moves. On November 21, more than 7,000 prisoners were reportedly released in Turkmenistan in an amnesty. Candidates for amnesty were required to swear on the Koran and Niyazov's book Rukhnama that they repented and would not repeat their crimes. Many of those given amnesty were farmers who had been jailed for hiding grain instead of handing it to the state.

Members of the Turkmen opposition are charged with crimes ranging from abuse of office to embezzlement. Orazov and Khanamov have been sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for their alleged complicity in a reported assassination attempt against Niyazov in November 2002, in which Niyazov's motorcade was fired on in the capital, Ashgabat, but the president emerged unhurt. After the incident, hundreds were arrested and a series of televised show trials resulted in the conviction of some 70 men, including Russian citizens, who are now serving prison terms of up to life. Orazov and Khanamov deny involvement in the alleged assassination attempt.

In a sort of moral blow to the Turkmen opposition, earlier this year Russia publicly agreed with claims by Niyazov that alleged assassination and coup attempts against him last November could be defined as international terrorism. In doing so, Moscow distanced itself from the theory that Niyazov staged the attempts as a pretext to crack down on opponents.

Meanwhile, Russia has repeatedly voiced concern over alleged discrimination of ethnic Russians in Turkmenistan, thus giving the Turkmen opposition some bleak hopes of Moscow's possible support. Around 95,000 Russian-speakers are believed to hold dual citizenship in Turkmenistan. In April, residents in possession of both Turkmen and Russian citizenship were given two months to choose one or the other. If a person was unable to meet the deadline, he or she automatically became a Turkmen citizen. The decree followed a reported agreement between Niyazov and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 10, revoking a dual-citizenship agreement signed in 1993.

On November 27, the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, held hearings on the human rights situation in Turkmenistan. However, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexey Fedotov told the gathering that there was no "migration rush" among Russian citizens in Turkmenistan. Since April, some 1,500 people per month have applied to move to Russia, he said. In response, Dmitry Ragozin, head of international committee of the Duma, pledged to continue putting pressure on Turkmenistan. Last May, Ragozin claimed that he had "serious information about Turkmen authorities' support given to Taliban militants" in neighboring Afghanistan. He also alleged that the "Turkmen leadership was engaged in drug trafficking and supported international terrorism". However, Ragozin's verbal assault has had no followup as of yet.

It has been widely believed that Moscow agreed to cancel the dual citizenship agreement with Turkmenistan in exchange for a major gas deal. In April, Niyazov traveled to Moscow and signed a framework agreement on gas cooperation with Putin, as well as a 25-year contract on gas supplies to Russia with Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom. Niyazov pledged to supply up 100 billion cubic meters of gas to Russia from 2010 onward or a total of 2 trillion cubic meters in 25 years. Russia would pay Turkmenistan US$44 per thousand cubic meters, 50 percent of the payment in barter and 50 percent in cash. Turkmenbashi claimed that the deal would bring Turkmenistan $200 billion and $300 billion to Russia.

Prior to the deal, Niyazov accused Russia of "robbery" for buying Turkmen gas at rates as low as $18 per thousand cubic meters while selling gas in Europe at $120. He demanded a rate of $44 to $45, in line with Turkmenistan's price in the Ukraine. Under the agreement, Russia will pay $44 per thousand cubic meters until 2006, but only half in cash, with the rest in goods and services, a lucrative deal for Moscow.

Against this backdrop, the plight of the Turkmen opposition became a matter of minor importance for Moscow. Russia is unlikely to intervene in the Turkmen human rights crisis, Kuliyev said. The Russian political elite got all they wanted from Niyazov, a lucrative gas deal, he told Asia Times Online.

By clinching the deal to buy virtually all of Turkmenistan's gas, Moscow hoped to outmaneuver the trans-Afghan pipeline plan. In December 2002, leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan met in Ashgabat and signed an agreement to build the 1,400 kilometer trans-Afghanistan pipeline that will carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. The $2.5 billion pipeline, which will transport gas from the Dauletabad field near the Iranian border, could also be extended to India.

The trans-Afghan pipeline was expected to carry 20 billion cubic meters per year for Pakistani markets. Meanwhile, Dauletabad is still hooked up to the old Soviet pipeline network, and Russia's Gazprom still can take gas from there into Russia.

However, now the Turkmen opposition is increasingly becoming more West-oriented, and if it is successful, regime change in Turkmenistan would result in a major rethink of Turkmen policies, including the possibility of it skipping the gas deal with Russia. In this case, the bulk of Turkmen gas may eventually flow to Pakistan and possibly to India, leaving Russia out in the cold and with all the more reason to oppose to a velvet revolution.

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Dec 6, 2003

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