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The Dictatorship Returns

On September 15, they called me in again.… If you do [what we say], you’re our guy, they told me. If not, we’ll get you, and how we do it is our own business.… I refused. I will never compromise my conscience. I walked out.

I had crossed a barrier. From then on, they followed me, threatened me, watched me.… I was afraid and my wife was afraid.… I thought they would kill me. But I overcame my fear. They are capable of killing me, of course. They could kill me right now.”

These chilling words are familiar. They could have been said in Moscow or Prague during the early 1980s, when Communist dictators tolerated no dissent. But I heard them in May 1993 from a journalist in the newly independent state of Turkmenistan,1 formerly the Soviet republic of Turkmenia, where communism is a thing of the past, but its practices continue.

Turkmenistan is a country of some four million people with borders on Iran and Afghanistan in the south, the Caspian Sea in the west, and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the east. Dissenters there are detained, persecuted, and beaten up; every word that appears in print has to be reviewed by a censorship board. Antigovernment demonstrations are unthinkable, and there are no opposition parties. Daianch (“Support”), a Turkmen cultural newspaper printed in Moscow, has virtually ceased publication, partly because copies arriving in Turkmenistan are confiscated. Its editor, Mukhamadmurat Salamatov, has been tried and fined three times for what he has published, and he has been beaten up by unidentified thugs.

Saparmurad Niyazov, the former Communist Party leader, was elected president of Turkmenistan in June 1992, in an uncontested election in which he received 99.5 percent of the vote. Niyazov has become the object of a cult of personality. His authority is strengthened by his country’s relative prosperity within the Confederation of Independent States and its strong economic potential: Turkmenistan has prospects of being a “second Kuwait” because of its vast reserves of natural gas—the fourth largest in the world (after the US, Russia, and Iran)—and oil and minerals, which have already lured numerous foreign investors to this remote desert land.

We talked one night to the journalist who is quoted at the beginning of this article. We met together in a park outside a theater in the capital city of Ashgabat, a brilliantly green, manmade oasis bordered by the Kara Kum desert and separated from nearby Iran by the Kopet Dagh mountains. The heat of the day had given way to a damp evening chill, but we stayed outdoors in a vain attempt to escape notice. While we spoke a bright red car circled the park every half hour or so, and two men sitting directly behind us left abruptly when we moved to another bench in the otherwise deserted spot.

A man in his thirties, Mukhamed (not his real name) said that he was constantly under surveillance. He talked animatedly about being a member of Agzybirlik (“Unity”), an illegal, nonviolent organization that is highly critical of the rule of President Niyazov. Agzybirlik was formed in September 1989 and banned in January 1990. It originally had several hundred members, mainly intellectuals, but now, after threats and persecution, only between fifteen and thirty people remain, according to various estimates we received. Those we met told us that they have become “non-people,” shunned by their friends and relatives, many of whom have been punished for associating with them. Members of Agzybirlik and others we spoke to who disagree openly with the government have lost their jobs and are regularly followed. They believe that their telephones are tapped and that their mail may be read, and they are not allowed to leave the country. When then Secretary of State James Baker came to meet President Niyazov in February 1992, activists were either called in to police headquarters and detained there or placed under house arrest to prevent them from getting in touch with Baker. The same procedure was used to prevent some Turkmen intellectuals from attending a human rights conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in December 1992, and from meeting a delegation from the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) that visited Ashgabat this past April.

The original, mildly nationalist demands of the Agzybirlik organization called for the independence of Turkmenistan, the establishment of Turkmen as the state language, and the observance of a previously ignored Turkmen national holiday. Ironically, the same program was subsequently enacted by the Niyazov government. Niyazov also has succeeded in making the opposition Democratic Party all but defunct by establishing another “Democratic Party,” which is, in fact, the old Communist Party with a new name. Niyazov, who is fifty-three, rose through the Party ranks to become first Party secretary in the Republic of Turkmenia in 1985. He is a canny leader, whose first instinct seems to be to coopt rather than fight the opposition. Several of the dissidents we met described being summoned for meetings with the president and asked such questions as “What do you need?” or “What would you like?” He tried to dissipate their zeal for reform by hinting at possible rewards.

Our guide from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told us with some pride that President Niyazov makes more money than any other leader in the Confederation of Independent States. He lives, others told us, in a villa in the mountains forty kilometers outside Ashgabat, and is driven to the presidential palace each day, Brezhnevstyle, in a formal procession of official cars with militia lining the thoroughfare as he passes. Educated in Moscow and married to a Russian woman, he is considered to be thoroughly Russified. Within the Party apparatus that shaped him, Niyazov was a conservative, and no perestroika was allowed in Turkmenia during the Gorbachev years. Indeed, Niyazov is believed to have supported the August 1991 Putsch against the Gorbachev government, and Turkmenia was one of the last of the former Soviet republics to declare its independence.

Niyazov has had it up to here with human rights,” an American diplomat told us after the president refused to meet with us. The diplomat described Niyazov’s disappointment during an unofficial visit to Washington in March. His hopes of meeting with President Clinton and with Secretary of State Christopher were dashed by, among others, the US embassy in Turkmenistan, which advised the State Department against high-level meetings because of Turkmenistan’s deplorable human rights record. American businessmen, on the other hand, reportedly told Niyazov not to worry about human rights. They want to invest in Turkmenistan, and appear to value the country’s “stability,” regardless of how it has been achieved.

The government of Turkmenistan has been granted most favored nation status by the United States government and is talking to the World Bank about financing a number of projects, including a $250 million credit agreement for the reconstruction of the Krasnovodsk refinery. It is negotiating or has concluded agreements with companies such as Boeing, Mitsubishi, Lockheed, and McAndrews & Forbes. “Wherever we drill, we find gas,” Niyazov said during his Washington visit. “Our confirmed estimates of gas reserves right now total over 12 trillion cubic meters”2—equivalent to many billions of dollars at current world prices.

Niyazov’s visit to the United States was organized by Alexander Haig, former NATO commander and US secretary of state, who is registered with the Treasury Department as a Turkmenistan foreign agent; his Worldwide Associates, Inc., represents Turkmenistan in the United States and is acting as broker in Turkmenistan’s business dealings with American firms. One of these deals, not yet concluded, is a multibillion-dollar arrangement with an American gas company called Enron to build natural gas pipelines through Iran, Turkey, or through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it involves a consortium of countries including Turkey and Iran. Also involved in this transaction is another former secretary of state, James Baker, who serves as a consultant to Enron along with Robert Mosbacher, former secretary of commerce.

The Baker connection is particularly distressing. During a rapid, belated tour of Central Asia for the Bush administration in February 1992, Mr. Baker issued statements in each capital affirming, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, that the former Soviet Central Asian republics respected human rights, democratic institutions, and the free market, and that therefore it was appropriate to grant them diplomatic recognition. In Turkmenistan, at the very moment that Baker was expressing his approval of the regime, members of the opposition were kept under house arrest to prevent them from trying to see him.

Although we did not see Niyazov himself, his presence hangs heavily over Ashgabat, not just in the omnipresent photographs and posters (a special order was passed on March 5, 1992, dictating how to display portraits and sculptures of Niyazov), and not just on the face of Turkmenistan’s new currency, but also in the statements of dissidents who have made their opposition a personal matter, directed against Niyazov rather than the government. Niyazov, in effect, is the government; he holds three posts, including that of Party chairman. He has been awarded many medals and prizes and proclaimed “Leader of All Turkmen.” Lenin Street has been renamed Saparmurad Turkmenbashi in his honor. As in all but one of the fifteen former Soviet republics, a law has been passed against insulting the honor and dignity of the president, and violators can be fined or put in jail, although so far there have been no known prosecutions in Turkmenistan. “Of course, it’s difficult to be praised, to meet with people who treat you as an idol, when I’m just a person like any other, who likes to drink, to laugh,” Niyazov recently told a Washington Post correspondent. “I ask people not to do this, but I have become a kind of national symbol.”3

Turkmenistan is the southernmost Central Asian state of the former USSR. It is about the size of Spain, but sparsely populated, since 80 percent of its territory is desert. Occupied by the tsars in the nineteenth century, it was a land of nomads until the Soviet takeover, when industry and agriculture were introduced on a considerable scale. Seventy percent of its four million citizens are Turkmen, 10 percent Russian, and 9 percent Uzbek. Their language is Turkic, as is the case throughout Central Asia with the exception of Tajikistan. Variations in alphabet, dialect, and pronunciation have led to a movement to establish a “simple Turkish” accessible to all, and in March of this year Turkmenistan joined with Turkey and four former Soviet republics in an agreement to establish a twenty-nine-letter Latin-based alphabet. Turkish influence, both cultural and economic, is strong in the region, and Turkey is by far the largest investor in Turkmenistan. It seeks to establish pipelines through Turkish territory for Central Asian oil and natural gas. The main religion in Turkmenistan is Sunni Muslim, but religious traditions are not strong there because the nomad way of life did not provide a solid base for Islam, and the official policy of atheism under the Soviets discouraged religion still further. Continuing the Soviet practice, Niyazov works with “pocket mullahs” who remain dependent on the state and support it.

Ashgabat was completely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1948; its low, reinforced concrete buildings are obscured by a deep screen of trees which, thanks to an intricate system of irrigation, stay green despite the punishing summer heat, which can rise to 130° F. According to official information, 35,000 to 40,000 trees are planted in the city each year. Most of the people dress in the ethnic Turkmen style; the men wear huge Persian lamb hats, despite the heat, and young urban women with long black braids and wearing ankle-length, flowing gowns of bright blue, ruby red, and emerald green stand out against the peasant women in the market in their clashing, colorful prints. Yet their non-Russian appearance is deceptive: the harsh conventions of seventy years of Soviet rule are more evident in Turkmenistan, perhaps, than in any other corner of the former Soviet Union.

We used to be strong, now we are weak Soviet men,” a poet with strong nationalist views told us. “It will take one hundred years to become Turkmen again.” Yet, later in the evening, as we sat in his study among his books, our host mused about the backwardness across the border in Afghanistan before the Soviets came: “When I look south, there’s nothing but darkness,” he observed. “Our people are more enlightened because of the Communist Party.”

Before the recent interest of foreign investors, Turkmenistan was a backwater and, in many ways, it still is. A doctor told us that there are no antibiotics in Turkmenistan, explaining that “our people are allergic to them.” Members of the small US embassy staff, which has its offices on the third floor of the Hotel Yubeleinaia in Ashgabat, receive extra pay for serving in what is considered a “hardship post.” “There’s no information here,” one of them told us, “no English-language press, radio, TV. There are no dollar stores. There is nothing to do. Until recently, there was no diplomatic pouch.” Outside Ashgabat, he said, there are officials who have never even met a Westerner. “But there is stability here. And prosperity…. The Russian minority, on the whole, is not leaving. Some, in fact, are coming here because it’s considered a good place to live.”

The Niyazov government has reportedly deposited one billion dollars of hard currency in Western banks, and it recently became a donor country, giving Uzbekistan twenty-five billion rubles worth of credits for developing natural gas and oil. The government continues the Soviet practice of subsidizing rents and food; water, gas, and electricity are free, and each citizen has recently become entitled to a gift of five hectares of land. Critics point out that the government, by combining repression with old-style subsidies, is doing nothing to encourage individual initiative, privatization, or market reforms, to say nothing of promoting democracy and human rights.

The government, on the other hand, describes Turkmenistan as a little paradise, a small, unified country where the leaders consult with the population and have its full endorsement. “The people support the President’s policy: it guarantees stability,” we were told at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The chairman of the parliament’s Committee on Social Policy said, “Because we’re small, we’re used to resolving problems ourselves. We just gather groups together and ask their opinions.”

Charnazar Annaberdiev, the first deputy foreign minister, denied reports that people who oppose the government have been subjected to house arrest or persecution: “They are not being prevented from speaking. It’s just that no one wants to hear them. They have no support.” According to Mr. Annaberdiev, only a handful of oppositionists remain, “about ten people…mainly criminals,” and they are “trying to take advantage of this moment to turn themselves from criminals into activists.”

In neighboring Tajikistan, rivalries among fractious political groups have erupted into civil war, and in Uzbekistan dissidents languish in prisons or are savagely beaten on the streets by “unknown assailants.” Turkmenistan officials meanwhile promote their country as a model of stability in a time of turbulent transition. The threat of Turkmenistan becoming another Tajikistan is used frequently by President Niyazov to justify censorship and other forms of repression. “The President fears social unrest,” Mr. Annaberdiev told us. “That is why he favors a gradual transition to a market economy.” A member of Agzybirlik had a different view:

The Tajik war terrifies Niyazov, but it is also his ace-in-the-hole.… He attacked the democrats in Tajikistan, saying that Islamic extremists would take power. Our press only reported events in Tajikistan when the hard-liners came back to power.… Niyazov is also afraid of Turkey’s pro-Western attitudes. Even the infinitesimal freedom of speech that exists in Turkey is frightening to Niyazov.

With Russians fleeing from the other republics of the former Soviet Union, the Niyazov government has committed itself to keeping its well-educated, highly skilled Russian minority from doing the same. The desire to avoid ethnic hostility is frequently used to justify press censorship and other abuses of basic rights. It would take only a few irresponsible, anti-Russian articles in the press to start an exodus, we were told. Government officials say that the citizens of Turkmenistan are not ready for democracy. “We have a specific mentality,” Mr. Annaberdiev told us, “We need time.”

Surprisingly, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev seemed to share this view when he met with us in Moscow just before we left for Turkmenistan. Mr. Kozyrev first encouraged us to report on specific human rights abuses in the countries of Central Asia; then, apologizing for having a “double standard,” he said, “Here in Russia we have difficult democratic process but [we also have] considerable maturity. This is not the case in Central Asia.” Although Mr. Kozyrev did not explicitly say so, he may favor stability over democracy in Central Asia, largely because it will protect the rights of the Russian minorities there.

Members of the US embassy staff in Ashgabat have a similar view, though for different reasons. Ambassador Joseph Hulings explained to us that “they have a different understanding of human rights here,” and that “this is not the time to have a free press. Even people on the embassy staff believe this.” Ambassador Hulings has been urging the Turkmenistan government to move toward a more open society in stages: “If not a free press, then just a few articles; if not an opposition party, then at least multiple candidates.” He seemed discouraged about the prospects of even this modest recommendation: “I am less optimistic in the area of human rights than I am in the area of a market economy.”

President Niyazov plans to return to the United States, possibly in November, and this time he hopes to see President Clinton. But the US embassy has informed the Turkmenistan government that it must take clear-cut action to improve human rights, if it wants the embassy to endorse a meeting with Clinton.

It was not very long ago that Soviet leaders were persecuting the “handful of dissidents” surrounding Andrei Sakharov and maligning them as criminals and malcontents. Now some of those people are in high positions in the Russian government and others are actively engaged in human rights work. Not very long ago there were people within and outside the former Soviet Union who believed that the Russian people were “not ready” for democratic reforms. Now Russia, for all its problems, has shown a clear preference for democracy, as the lively civil society that developed there almost overnight clearly shows. The same is true throughout Eastern Europe.

With the demise of communism, new perspectives are emerging among political activists in the former Communist countries. One of these suggests that it is precisely the suppression of free expression and legal rights, under the Communists and since, that has contributed to the ethnic and territorial conflicts that now plague much of post-Communist Europe. Attempts to stifle the growing opposition in Tajikistan, for example, led to the current civil war. Stability that is based on repression is very tenuous indeed.

If the opposition in Turkmenistan is, in fact, as small and isolated as the government would have us believe, how can the extreme measures the government has taken to suppress their views be explained? Perhaps President Niyazov has misread the lessons of the 1989 revolutions in Europe, and does not realize that they are there to be learned from Turkmenistan society as well. One of the Agzybirlik leaders told us how the militia meticulously cleaned his cell when he was detained: “I asked one of them why he was making such an effort and he said: ‘Who knows? You may come to power. Look at Havel!”’

  1. 1

    I traveled to Turkmenistan for Helsinki Watch in early May, accompanied by Erika Dailey and Alexander Petrov, research associates with Helsinki Watch.

  2. 2

    Platt’s Oilgram News, Vol. 71, No. 82 (April 28, 1993).

  3. 3

    The Washington Post, April 1, 1993.

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