Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Flight from Ashgabat

Russians desperate to flee Turkmenistan face bureaucratic nightmare.
By Ata Amanov

The sweet word freedom came to mind as the Moscow-bound Turkmen Airlines plane soared into the air.

On the ground, you don’t allow thoughts like these to enter your head, as at any moment you may be taken off the plane. I’m sure every one of the 150 passengers on the flight was thinking, “Did I really manage to get away?”

I was relieved to be leaving a country which, according to Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov, has reached its “Golden Age”.

Turkmenbashi, the Leader of the Turkmen, as Niazov likes to be called, says he has presided over the rebirth of the nation – that it has undergone changes reminiscent of the Renaissance period in Europe.

But as someone who was born in Turkmenistan, I knew that I was leaving a country which had turned into a police state, where half of the population lives below the poverty line, and where participating in a human rights conference can result in a three-year prison sentence, as was the case with a leading activist earlier this year.

Many of my fellow passengers were travelling with their pets – dogs, cats and hamsters – suggesting that few were intending to return.

We were among the first wave of Russian-speakers heading for Russia after the Turkmen government unilaterally cancelled a bilateral agreement with Moscow that granted dual citizenship to those in Turkmenistan who wished it. The 150,000-strong Russian community faced a choice - give up Russian citizenship or get out of the country. They had until June 22 to decide. It was not easy. The whole thing was emotionally draining and very expensive, wiping out some people’s life savings.

To leave the country in late June as we did, documents had to be submitted to a travel agency in March to receive a Turkmen exit visa and then a Russian entry visa.

The former – be it official, private or tourist – is the hardest to get.

An official one is cheaper, but to obtain it you need permission from your employer before you apply. Most are reluctant to sign the ministry of interior forms to avoid being held responsible should the authorities deem the travelling person’s behaviour during their foreign trip suspicious.

Private exit visas are only issued to people who can get invitations, if they have relatives abroad. In this case, the applicant is at the mercy of the state commission which issues them.

There are a lot of cases when the commission turns down the application without any explanation if they find it remotely suspicious.

Although using travel agencies costs a lot more, people rely on them because they are the most realistic way to get a visa.

That’s what I did, but after having looked through my papers the agency representative told me that in his view my chances of passing the state commission’s check were slim.

I was left with only one option - a bribe. Sometimes, it seems good that in my country everything can be bought and sold. State commission employees are ordinary people - they also need to eat. A reliable person told me to offer them 400 US dollars, and I would have no problems.

But this was only the start of my expenditure. I also had to resort to bribery to get two 350 dollar tickets on a Moscow flight. They were sold out, but an extra 100 bucks got us on to a plane.

The agency also asked me to pay an additional 50 dollars towards an organised tour which I had no intention of going on.

Having acquired my long awaited exit visa, I paid a further 70 dollars for a Russian visa.

My total outlay came to 970 dollars, a lot of money in Turkmenistan, where the average monthly salary is barely 50 dollars.

Like many of my fellow countrymen, I had to sell some of my possessions to get this money together. People sell what they can – flats, or other possessions like carpets, TV sets and fridges. Those who have nothing are forced to borrow money at a high rate of interest.

But the ordeal doesn’t end here, because there is another barrier – passport control.

Not everyone gets past this. For example, young men of conscription age cannot leave the country, according to a recent Turkmenbashi decree. Some people think they’re trying to run away from army service, but they actually want to escape the president’s tyranny.

Standing in the queue for passport control, I thanked God that I had not worked for the government, as civil servants are forbidden from travelling abroad. An acquaintance of mine, a former high-ranking official, was stopped when he tried to go to Germany, and is now stuck in Turkmenistan without a job.

Family, past or present, of senior bureaucrats are also banned from leaving the country. I know of a woman who was told she would never be able to leave the country merely because her former husband was a relative of a trainee banker accused of involvement in the theft of millions of dollars.

Another friend, an activist in a non-government organisation, risked going by train to Kazakstan this summer without a visa. If she’d waited any longer for one, she would have missed the conference she wanted to attend.

Throughout much of the three-and-a-half hour flight to Moscow, I reflected on what I had to go through to leave Turkmenistan.

At Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, a family friend met us, a highly qualified doctor. A year ago, he left Turkmenistan for Russia by invitation on a long business trip. There was no visa regime then.

He now faces a hard choice. If he goes back home, he can forget about his career. Having lived in Russia, he’s automatically on the list of suspects with possible links to the opposition - and he will not be allowed to leave again. That’s why he has not intention of returning.

“Go away, go away,” cry Turkmen as they see their friends and relatives off at Ashgabad airport. It will not be easy for them in a foreign country, but at home things are far worse.

Ata Amanov is a pseudonym for a Turkmen journalist.