Interview

Turkmen Activist Speaks Out on Passport Restrictions

  • Natalýa Şabuns (Foto: N. Şabuns)

A civil society activist in Turkmenistan has taken a rare public stand against officials who refuse to issue passports to people with dual nationality.

Natalia Shabunts, from the capital Ashgabat, issued a statement to the media on April 4 calling on the Turkmen authorities to explain why her application for a new passport was turned down.

Like many people in the Central Asian state, Shabunts holds Russian as well as Turkmen citizenship under a bilateral agreement concluded in 1993. The Turkmen government has since unilaterally decided that dual nationality is unacceptable, and has been pressing holders to renounce one or the other. Shabunts is convinced that withholding a Turkmen passport from her is a ploy to force her to renounce Russian citizenshop.

Shabunts warned that people in her position would be in a very difficult position from next year, when the new-style Turkmen passport will be mandatory for travel abroad.

Possessing a Russian passport is attractive because of Turkmenistan’s rigororous controls on travel. Holders of Turkmen passports have to apply for permission to leave the country even for a short trip. A Russian passport, on the other hand, only opens the door to visa-free visits to Russia and other former Soviet republics, and makes it a lot easier to go to other countries as well.

There are no official statistics on how many people hold dual nationality, but rights activists have put the figure at about 100,000.

The Turkmen government clearly sees the dual nationality provision as a loophole that is exploited by individuals it views as suspect – human rights activists and independent journalists, for example – who want to travel unhindered.

The campaign to force holders to renounce either Turkmen or preferably Russian citizenship dates from 2003, when decree came out indicating that those who chose to hold onto Russian citizenship would lose their Turkmen passports. This would technically make them foreigners, and leave them with no rights to their homes and property, and liable to expulsion from the country.

Because Moscow has not annulled the dual nationality treaty, it remains in force, and many residents of Turkmenistan are still travelling abroad on Russian passports. But the issue of a new Turkmen passport has presented the authorities with an opportunity to force the choice.

NBCentralAsia asked Shabunts about the explanation that officials were offering for the kind of difficulties people in her position were experiencing.

Natalia Shabunts: Although we have a law requiring officials to respond to formal requests from citizens within one month, I have not received any. I have sent letters everwhere – to the migration service and to [parliamentary speaker] Akje Nurberdyeva. At the migration service, I was urged to voluntarily renounce Russian citizenship; they cited amendments to the [Turkmen] constitution.

That is why, on May 9, I plan to appeal to the Turkmen president [Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov] to announce an amnesty for everyone with dual citizenship, and put an end to discrimination.

NBCA: How many people in Turkmenistan do you believe have been pressured into giving up Russian citizenship?

Shabunts: That kind of information is only available in the interior ministry’s archives, but it is a closed institution. The process of renouncing Turkmen citizenship is complicated, and sometimes people have to wait a year or longer to do so. The only case where it’s happened quickly is the well-known one in which the family of human rights defender Andrei Zatoka were deported. They were tricked – the authorities promised them time to sort out their affairs before leaving, but they were then told to depart within 24 hours.

NBCA: Are individuals who are experiencing difficulties prepared to speak out openly?

Shabunts: Unfortunately, they aren’t. Any attempt to raise concerns is given short shrift. And it isn’t just those who try to protest; those close to them are also persecuted.

The solution to this problem lies in the hands of one man, the president. Even senior law-enforcement officers bodies don’t really know who has the authority to rule on matters relating to people with dual nationality.

NBCA: What can people in Turkmenistan – a country where standing up for one’s rights can land one in prison – do to pursue justice?

Shabunts: I’m not aware of any examples where this has happened. When people fight for their rights, they are punished. The international community stands by when this happens, thus playing into the hands of the authorities.

NBCA: What are you going to do next, in your role as human rights defender?

Shabunts: I’m going to issue a public appeal to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev highlighting the discrimination facing dual passport-holders in Turkmenistan. I believe it’s important to raise this issue and not to ignore it.

Within Turkmenistan, people have no one to turn to. Everything is decided by one individual. He needs to be pressured from the outside.

This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.