Niazov Closing Off Turkmenistan

Turkmenbashi moves to cut his country off from the outside world.

Niazov Closing Off Turkmenistan

Turkmenbashi moves to cut his country off from the outside world.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

President Saparmurat Niazov has plunged his people into even greater isolation by imposing tight new controls on those who wish to enter or leave the country.

From March 1, Turkmen citizens will need special permission before they are allowed to travel abroad - and some will be prevented from doing so altogether.

The new restrictions are the latest phase in the crackdown that followed the alleged attempt on Niazov's life on November 25 last year.

The president - who likes to be called Turkmenbashi, or "father of all Turkmens" - escaped injury in an apparent gun attack on his motorcade in the centre of the capital Ashgabat.

Niazov insists the incident was an attempted assassination planned by exiled Turkmen opposition members with the aid of foreign "terrorists" - all of whom entered the republic illegally. Tougher controls were needed to prevent other such undesirables sneaking into Turkmenistan, he said.

The president's new decree states that both an exit visa from Turkmenistan and an entry visa from the country the traveller intends to visit are needed before he or she is allowed to cross the state border.

He added that, under the new legislation, certain Turkmen may experience a "temporary restriction" in their ability to leave the country.

"Those individuals who have duties and debts to Turkmenistan, are in possession of state secrets, face criminal charges or have been drafted for military service" will be affected, he said, adding that everyone who tries to leave the country will be subject to rigorous checks.

The move is unlikely to impress the international community, which had welcomed Turkmenistan's decision to abolish its exit visa system in January 2002 as a sign of progress.

Now ordinary Turkmens are seeing this new development as yet another step towards complete isolation. "With the introduction of exit visas, we will all be unwilling hostages of the ruling regime," said one woman in the capital, who did not want to be named.

"I am certain that many people will be refused visa for one reason or another, and will be trapped here. Whatever explanation our government gives for this new law, it is obvious that it is being done to cut us off from the outside world."

Turkmen nationals will not be the only ones affected, however. New rules are being introduced for foreigners - along with a series of punishments for those who break them.

A state service for registration of foreign citizens has now been established to monitor Turkmenistan's guests.

"The main task at the present moment is to be able to distinguish between those people who come to us with good intentions - and those who don't," said Turkmenbashi.

Foreigners who manage to enter the republic will find themselves under state control, and will only allowed to stay at certain hotels, which have been approved by the national security ministry. They are required to check into their designated accommodation within 24 hours of arrival - and officials will be instructed to search for them if they do not do so within three days.

Anyone who fails to comply with any of these restrictions will be subject to a heavy fine and risk deportation followed by a five-year ban on revisiting the country. Officials of enterprises and organisations that receive overseas visitors will also face penalties if their guests break the rules of their stay.

Observers say the restrictions will now make it almost impossible for foreigners to get into the country, as at present ordinary tourists and representatives of international organisations alike are routinely turned away when they apply for a visa.

The most recent case involved officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who wished to monitor Turkmenbashi's investigations into the alleged attempt on his life following concerns over mass arrests and Soviet-style show trials. All were refused permission to enter the country.

Murad Novruzov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Ashgabat

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