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Turkmenistan Faces Human Rights Issues
The Washington Diplomat / September 2004

By Larry Luxner

Imagine a California-sized desert nation whose citizens, in order to get a driver's license, must first memorize the sacred writings of the country's self-appointed president for life.

Imagine that this same president has renamed all 12 months of the year after national heroes (including himself and his mother), and where journalists who dare to criticize the regime are beaten, tortured and sometimes threatened with death.

Yes, such a country exists, and its name is Turkmenistan an obscure former Soviet republic ruled by autocratic President Saparmurat Niyazov ever since independence in 1991.

Bordered by the Caspian Sea to the west, Uzbekistan to the north and Iran and Afghanistan to the south, Turkmenistan is home to 5.6 million people. Despite enormous potential oil wealth, it remains the poorest of any of the 15 former Soviet republics.

According to the Paris-based human rights group Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan is also among the world's five worst violators of press freedoms, right up there with China, North Korea, Bhutan and Burma.

Human Rights Watch calls Turkmenistan one of the most repressive countries on Earth.

"The government systematically violates virtually all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights," HRW said in a May 2004 update. "Little has changed in Turkmenistan's human rights record since the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] adopted its country strategy for Turkmenistan in 2002. If anything, conditions have worsened."

Since an attempted assassination against Niyazov on Nov. 25, 2002, said the report, "persecution of real and perceived opponents of the government has intensified. The rights of ethnic and religious minorities have particularly deteriorated during the past year."

That doesn't make Meret B. Orazov's job any easier.

Orazov is Turkmenistan's ambassador in Washington, and he clearly doesn't feel comfortable being interviewed about such things.

"I don't like this subject," Orazov told the Diplomat over a strong cup of Turkish coffee, as his second-in-command, Parakhat Durdyev, translated his words into English.

The two men and a receptionist comprise the entire staff of the embassy, housed in a four-story mansion fronting Massachusetts Avenue. The main reception room is decorated by a satellite photo of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. Colorful woven carpets cover the floor, while a collection of Turkmen rocks sits in a glass display case against a far wall.

In 1994, three years after Turkmenistan declared its independence, the country opened an embassy in a rented apartment on K Street. A year later, it purchased the current building. The mission is probably the smallest of any of the former Soviet republics, which makes sense, considering that Turkmenistan is the least-known country in Central Asia.

In fact, phone calls intended for the nearby Turkish Embassy are frequently routed here because of the name confusion.

But Orazov says there's no confusion when it comes to Turkmenistan's national objectives.

"We only gained our independence in 1991. At that time, we had no foreign ministry, no defense ministry and no money. We were starting from zero," said the diplomat, who spent 15 years as a university chancellor and served as minister of foreign economic relations and vice-prime minister before arriving in Washington three years ago.

"Since then, Turkmenistan has faced a lot of problems in building a sovereign and stable nation. This process consists of drafting and adopting a constitution, and creating all the necessary government infrastructure," he said. "In this situation, our president chose the evolutionary way of nation-building, rather than shock therapy. Our primary focus was to avoid social and political instability, to avoid the widening gap between rich and poor."

Along with the instability came a profileration of new religions, as missionaries poured into the former Soviet republic looking for converts. That led Turkmenistan to crack down on religious freedom, outlawing all religions other than Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity a move that sparked outrage around the world.

"We grew out of Communism, and the country had no experience in how to handle all these new religions," said Orazov. "Traditionally, we had two big religions, Islam and Orthodoxy. Suddenly, Communism was destroyed, a lot of people started to express different faiths, and we weren't ready for all these new religions."

About 85% of Turkmenistan's inhabitants are Muslims, while another 7% profess Christianity. There are also small Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish minorities, though the government keeps close tabs on these groups. No synagogues are allowed in Turkmenistan, and both Baptists and Hare Krishnas are harrassed by police. In March 2004, President Niyazov announced that construction of new mosques would be forbidden.

Where's the justification for this kind of religious repression? Orazov says it's all a big misunderstanding.

"Human rights organizations want us to immediately apply the same kind of religious freedom which you have here. We're trying to explain to these people that we support human rights, but that we need a little time," said the ambassador, a friendly yet somewhat suspicious type. "People don't want to recognize that this country faced enormous political problems, and sometimes in this situation human rights is not a priority, because you have to feed people. As you know, democracy is a very expensive thing."

Orazov points out that Turkmenistan has generally been immune from the kind of religious fanaticism that has gripped other Central Asian republics. In mid-August, suicide bombers attacked the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent, the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan.

"Unfortunately, the situation in Uzbekistan is difficult, but our situation is different," he said. "Since 1991, Turkmenistan has had no clashes based on ethnic, religious or social differences, and we haven't had any violence or acts of terrorism."

Except for one: the attempted assassination of Niyazov in November 2002. That resulted in the arrest of at least 100 people and the conviction of 57, including relatives of the exiled political opposition. According to HRW, "the trials were closed and defendants were held incommunicado and denied meaningful legal representation."

Yet Orazov defended the draconian measures, insisting that most of those convicted in the plot had infiltrated into Turkmenistan illegally.

"Since then, we have introduced very strict security regulations. These measures consist mainly of an entry and exit control system which has led some critics to say we're returning to the old practices of preventing people from leaving. But we have never had restrictions on immigration. Whoever wanted to leave the country was allowed to leave, as long as they've done all the paperwork and weren't involved in the assassination attempt."

Even during this emergency decree, which was in effect from March 2003 to the end of January 2004, many people left the country legally, he said.

"Turkmenistan fully supports the issue of human rights, no question about that. But the question is how we achieve it. We would like to make it a real working instrument, rather than just on paper. We don't want to make some fictitious political party. We have one party now, the Democratic Party, but we have a law which allows the creation of new parties. Since then, we haven't had any legal attempts at creating other parties, not yet."

Asked how free Turkmenistan is on a scale of 1 to 10, Orazov declined to answer.

"Making an assessment like that is wrong, but you can say that we're moving up very fast on that scale, from the bottom to the top," he told us. "We are moving to democracy step by step, because we have to prepare our society for civil transformation. We have to create a middle class."

He says Niyazov has on several occasions insisted that the country is "adequately responding to objective criticism" and that the president doesn't feel offended by such criticism.

"We are doing it very slowly, and we are very determined. But the question of human rights must be considered in its complexity with other problems," he said. "Try to think of society as one body; every part of the body is important, some more than others. You cannot cut off one part without the rest being affected."

Orazov added: "Human rights organizations don't understand what's happening in Turkmenistan. Our laws are not to suppress human rights, but to keep discipline in society. As a result, we have almost no crime. You can walk freely in the streets day or night."

You can also walk the streets of Pyongyang or Havana day or night without worrying too much about crime, as is usually the case in totalitarian regimes.

Yet unlike North Korea or Cuba, Turkmenistan is no longer Communist and it has lots of oil.

According to Orazov, Turkmenistan has total petroleum and gas reserves of around 40 billion metric tons. The country produces 10 million tons of oil and 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, while a refinery produces polypropylene for export. It's also the second-largest cotton producer in Central Asia.

Last summer, despite its horrendous human rights record, Turkmenistan was invited to sign a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the United States, along with four other countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

TIFA, signed by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and the five countries' ambassadors in Washington, creates a United States-Central Asia Council on Trade and Investment that will provide a forum to address trade issues that hamper regional economic development, such as intellectual property, labor and environmental issues. It will also seek to boost the participation of small and medium-sized businesses in world trade.

As such, Turkmenistan eagerly courts U.S. investment, and has convinced several Fortune 500 firms to do business with the Niyazov regime. These include General Electric, Sikorsky, Boeing, John Deere and Caterpillar.

"Turkmenistan was the first former Soviet country to buy Boeing aircraft," Orazov said proudly, adding that both John Deere and Caterpillar are training local farmers and selling them tractors and other equipment thanks to a grant from the State Department.

In the meantime, Turkmenistan is proving a useful ally in the war against terrorism. Orazov pointed out that 42% of all humanitarian aid going to Afghanistan moves through Turkmenistan. Because of the country's neutrality status, no U.S. military bases are located there, though Turkmenistan has allowed the Pentagon to use its territory for overflights and refueling.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, but especially after 9/11, the United States began paying very serious attention to this region," he said. "The U.S. recognizes how important this region is from a geopolitical standpoint. TIFA will serve in the long term to develop our country's prosperity and good relations with the United States, while helping to encourage democracy in the region."

Tell that to Saparmurat Ovezberdiev, an Ashgabat correspondent for Radio Liberty's Turkmen-language service.

In late 2003, authorities twice detained and tortured Ovezberdiev following radio reports critical of the government. Even journalists working in Russia are in danger of abuse apparently orchestrated by the Niyazov regime, according to Human Rights Watch. Last April, another Radio Liberty journalist, Makhamedgeldi Berdiev, was seriously injured by unknown men who raided his home in Moscow and violently attacked him.

In fact, HRW says torture is systematic in the country Orazov represents.

"Methods of torture used by police and security services in Turkmenistan include beatings, electric shock, asphyxiation with gas masks or plastic bags, and injection with psychotropic drugs," according to the organization's recent report. "In the past year, credible reports emerged of police and security agents' ill-treatment and torture of suspects as well as a number of deaths in custody resulting from such treatment."

At the same time, Niyazov has decimated Turkmenistan's education system by ordering the elimination of core subjects such as foreign languages. Instead, schools now emphasize the Rukhnama (Book of the Soul), written by the president. A copy of the Rukhnama is kept next to the Koran in Turkmenistan's state-controlled mosques, and is now required reading for anyone hoping to get a driver's license.

According to an official decree, "a 16-hour course of the sacred Rukhnama is one of the most important innovations in the learning program, to ensure that future drivers are educated in the spirit of high moral values of Turkmenistan's society."

And let's not forget the calendar issue.

"The decree of the president on establishing names of months says that simultaneously with the Christian calendar, the Turkmen calendar will also be used. All the names of the months have been translated into Turkmen, using national heroes," said Orazov.

So January is now called Turkmenbashi (the second name of President Niyazov), while April is Gurbansoltan Edzhe (the president's mother) and September is Rukhnama (the president's book). The days of the week were also renamed, by the way.

Orazov denied that all this constitutes a personality cult

"He is not glorifying himself, but people honor him in Turkmenistan because he created a new country without any civil clashes," says the ambassador.

Interestingly, Orazov got a taste of American democracy at work in late July, when he attended the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He called the event "a great experience" but when asked if the convention offers any lessons for Turkmenistan, he frowned.

"It's very difficult to take lessons, because America is such a big country," he said, "and so different from ours."

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