Anger Over Niazov Car Ban

Turkmenbashi's ban on right-hand drive cars appears aimed at putting rival tribe out of business.

Anger Over Niazov Car Ban

Turkmenbashi's ban on right-hand drive cars appears aimed at putting rival tribe out of business.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Chaos reigns around the railway station in Mary, southern Turkmenistan, as drivers of foreign cars mount a blockade in protest at the latest form of discrimination in the republic.

The protest, which began in the last days of August, is against a ban on right-hand drive cars using motorways. The authorities say they pose a risk to road traffic, as vehicles here are obliged to use to the left side of the road.

The drivers involved in the protest, mostly Tekin people who are the predominant tribe in the region, claim President Saparmurat Niazov's decree is specifically directed against them.

Many of them are drivers of foreign right-hand drive taxis who regularly use the Mary to Ashgabat motorway, and the ban has effectively confined them to their home city. The protest has coincided with the end of the summer holidays, when the stream of passengers is even higher than usual.

"It's very difficult to get home, cars are not allowed out of the city, and there are no train tickets. People are angry," said Aigozel Nurmuradova, who recently returned to Ashgabat after visiting her parents in Mary.

The ban has not yet been the subject of a formal presidential decree, but has been rigorously enforced since Niazov, otherwise known as Turkmenbashi, issued a verbal order to the minister of interior at a cabinet meeting on August 12.

Unemployment has reached 40 per cent in Turkmenistan and the Mary velayat or province, the second largest in the republic, has been badly hit.

Despite producing the highest grain and cotton yields, the villagers live in poverty. "The state grabs everything, down to the last grain and cotton boll. If you keep some wheat for yourself, you get taken to court," explained one villager.

For many, private taxis offer a way to feed their families. They're popular because they charge no more than public transport, which is irregular and overloaded

"Many families live below the poverty line, the pension of 200,000 manats (10 US dollars) is not enough to live on," said another villager. "My son started working as a private taxi driver. There's no work for young people in the village. Everyone who can moves to the city."

The ban threatens to cut off this new source of income and leave many drivers penniless or in debt.

"We borrowed money to buy a car so we could pay off our debts and support our family. We paid for a license, followed all the rules and paid our taxes properly. After all these expenses, we face this," said Gurbangeldy Atabalov, a Mary driver. "I'd like to inform the president that narrow and badly maintained roads are responsible for the upsurge in accidents."

Road safety is probably not the president's primary concern. Turkmenbashi has long been known for his dislike of the Tekin people of Mary, who broke away from his own Akhaltekints tribe at the beginning of the 19th century.

The Tekin are enterprising and hard working. Entrepreneurs scare the president, who fears the influence of individual wealth and uncontrolled flows of money.

Turkmenbashi has already ousted the owners of a number of private firms, even though the Turkmen constitution guarantees private property. The Gairat chain of catering establishments and chemists was closed by presidential decree and the owners, the Jumaev clan, forced to emigrate.

Now it seems the head of state has turned his attention to small-scale businessmen. But the head of customs acknowledged off the record that the ban may be difficult to enforce, as there are already 17,000 Toyotas in Turkmenistan.

Ata Amanov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan

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