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, 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 …

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