Turkmenistan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2003

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Cracks in President Saparmurat Niyazov's tightly controlled regime became visible with an apparent attempt on the president's life in November 2002. The secretive nature of the country's authoritarian leadership fueled widespread speculation about who, including Niyazov himself, may have orchestrated the shooting. Several high-level government defections, along with a purge by Niyazov of Turkmenistan's intelligence service, further highlighted growing political tensions and challenges to the government.

The southernmost republic of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan was conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and seized by Russia in the late 1800s. Having been incorporated into the U.S.S.R. in 1924, Turkmenistan gained formal independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmenistan Communist Party, ran unopposed in elections to the newly created post of president in October 1990. After the adoption of a new constitution in 1992, Niyazov was reelected as the sole candidate for a five-year term with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. The main opposition group, Agzybirlik, which was formed in 1989 by leading intellectuals, was banned. Niyazov's tenure as president was extended for an additional five years, until 2002, by a 1994 referendum, which exempted him from having to run again in 1997 as originally scheduled. In the December 1994 parliamentary elections, only Niyazov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), the former Communist Party, was permitted to field candidates.

In the December 1999 elections to the National Assembly (Mejlis), every candidate was selected by the government and virtually all were members of the DPT. According to governmental claims, voter turnout was 98.9 percent. The OSCE, citing the lack of provision for nongovernmental parties to participate and the executive branch's control of the nomination of candidates, refused to send even a limited assessment mission. In a further consolidation of Niyazov's extensive powers, parliament unanimously voted in late December to make him president for life. With this decision, Turkmenistan became the first Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) country to formally abandon presidential elections. However, in February 2001, Niyazov announced that a presidential poll would be held in 2010, although he claimed that he would not run.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Niyazov announced that the United States could not use his country for military strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan, although Turkmenistan would serve as a base for humanitarian aid. Ashgabat cited the country's official political neutrality as a reason for not participating in the U.S.-led campaign. However, Turkmenistan had maintained good relations with the Taliban in recent years in an attempt to secure safe energy-export routes through Afghanistan to destinations including India and China.

Although Niyazov continued to exercise widespread power throughout the country in 2002, cracks in his regime became increasingly visible during the year. In February, former deputy prime minister and head of the central bank, Khudaiberdy Orazov, accused the government of falsifying data to disguise economic troubles and subsequently fled to exile in Russia. In April, another prominent government official, former prime minister Aleksander Dodonov, announced from his exile in Moscow that he was joining the opposition. Apparently fearing the influence and growing independence of the country's powerful security apparatus, Niyazov orchestrated a significant purge of the Committee for National Security (KNB), the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. According to Niyazov, 80 percent of the KNB's senior leadership had been removed for supposed abuse of power and other violations; several were subsequently sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Despite these preemptive efforts, the KNB appears to represent a serious potential challenge to the current regime, with the dismissals further provoking opposition to Niyazov's rule within the current and former ranks of the KNB.

On November 25, Niyazov was the apparent victim of an assassination attempt in which gunmen fired at the president's motorcade in Ashgabat; Niyazov was unhurt in the attack. More than a hundred people--including two chief suspects, Guvanch Dzhumaev, a prominent Turkmen businessman, and Dzhumaev's business partner, Leonid Komarovsky, a naturalized U.S. citizen--were reportedly detained on suspicion of their involvement in the shootings. According to the government, former foreign minister and opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov was a key organizer of the attack. Shikhmuradov, who had returned to Turkmenistan from exile in Russia, was arrested on December 25; he made a televised confession on December 29 that critics maintain had been coerced. He was sentenced on December 30 to life in prison after a one-day trial that human rights groups criticized as a Soviet-era-style show-trial.

Alternative theories quickly emerged as to who was responsible for the attack in this highly secretive society. Some speculated that Niyazov himself, out of a high level of concern over the influence of his critics, had planned the shooting as an excuse to increase repression of the opposition. Others argued that the attack was carried out by disgruntled members of the KNB. Regardless of who orchestrated it, the shooting highlighted growing political tensions in Turkmenistan and the internal and external challenges to Niyazov's leadership.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Turkmenistan cannot change their government democratically. President Saparmurat Niyazov enjoys virtually absolute power over all branches and levels of the government. He has established an extensive cult of personality, including the erection of monuments to his leadership throughout the country. In 1994, he renamed himself Turkmenbashi, or leader of the Turkmen. In 2002, Niyazov continued to enact often bizarre decrees enhancing his already extensive cult of personality. In August, he ordered the renaming of the days of the week and months of the year, including January (Turkmenbashi), April (his mother's name), and September (Rukhnama, after a spiritual guidebook allegedly authored by Niyazov).

The government has undergone a rapid turnover of personnel as Niyazov has dismissed many officials whom he suspects may challenge his authority. Niyazov relies heavily on the Presidential Guard, an elite and powerful group that monitors political developments in the country and carries out operations on Niyazov's personal orders.

The country has two national legislative bodies: the unicameral National Assembly (Mejlis), composed of 50 members elected in single-mandate constituencies for five-year terms, and is the main legislature; and the People's Council (Khalk Maslakhaty), consisting of members of the assembly, 50 directly elected representatives, and various regional and other executive and judicial officials, which meets infrequently to address certain major issues. Neither parliamentary body enjoys independence from the executive. The 1994 and 1999 parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair. Following the November 2002 assassination attempt on Niyazov, the president announced early parliamentary elections for April 2003.

Freedom of speech and the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls all radio and television broadcasts and print media. Reports of dissenting political views are banned, as are even mild forms of criticism of the president. Subscriptions to foreign newspapers are severely restricted. Foreign journalists have few opportunities to visit Turkmenistan and are often limited to certain locations. The state-owned Turkmentelekom is the only authorized Internet provider in the country. In 2002, the government took further steps to limit information coming into the country by ordering the removal of rooftop satellite dishes.

The government restricts freedom of religion through means including strict registration requirements. Only Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians have been able to meet the criterion of having at least 500 members to register. Members of religious groups that are not legally registered by the government, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and Baha'is, are frequently harassed or attacked by security forces.

While the constitution guarantees peaceful assembly and association, these rights are restricted in practice. Only one political party, the Niyazovled Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, has been officially registered. Opposition parties have been banned, and their leading members face harassment and detention or have fled abroad. Two of the leading figures of the opposition-in-exile are Avdy Kuliev, who founded the United Turkmen Opposition in 1992, and former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who established the National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan (NDMT) in 2001. In late 2002, Shikhmuradov was imprisoned for his alleged connection with the November assassination attempt against Niyazov. In June, exiled dissidents met in Vienna to discuss the human rights situation in Turkmenistan and to form a coordinating-consultative body of opposition members. However, the opposition continues to be plagued by rivalries and disagreements between different factions. Several small demonstrations were reported in 2002, including one in August at which some 200 women gathered in Ashgabat to protest against the government; they were quickly arrested by police and security personnel.

The government-controlled Colleagues Union is the only central trade union permitted, and there are no legal guarantees for workers to form or join unions or to bargain collectively.

The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and removes judges for five-year terms without legislative review. The authorities frequently deny rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys. There are no independent lawyers, with the exception of a few retired legal officials, to represent defendants in trials. Police abuse of suspects and prisoners, often to obtain confessions, is reportedly widespread, and prisons are overcrowded and unsanitary. The security services regularly monitor the activities of those expressing criticism of the government.

Freedom of movement is severely restricted, with citizens required to carry internal passports that note the bearer's place of residence and movements into and out of the country. Obtaining passports and exit visas for foreign travel is difficult for most nonofficial travelers and allegedly often requires payment of bribes to governmental officials. Although the government officially ended exit visa requirements for Turkmen in January 2002, unofficial controls remain at Ashgabat airport.

Corruption in the country's educational system is widespread, with personal connections and bribes playing a central role in admittance to higher-level institutions. The Rukhnama, a quasi-spiritual guide allegedly authored by Niyazov, is required reading throughout the school system and has largely replaced many other traditional school subjects. Primary- and secondary-school attendance has been reduced from 11 to 9 years, and higher education from 5 to 2 years of study, with 2 years of work.

Both a continuing Soviet-style command economy and widespread corruption diminish equality of opportunity. Profits from the country's extensive energy exports rarely reach the general population, who live in extreme poverty.

Traditional social-religious norms mostly limit professional opportunities for women to the roles of homemaker and mother, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common.