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

Niazov Critics Flex Their Muscles

Signs of a highly organised Turkmen opposition movement inside the country are beginning to emerge.
By Nyazik Ataeva

On the morning of October 10, the people of the northern Turkmen town of Dashoguz awoke to find their city awash with anti-government leaflets. Blowing through the Square of the Flag in the city centre, lining the streets around the central administration building and pasted onto hand-rails of the bridge over the Shavat canal, the leaflets were the latest sign of an emerging internal opposition, which is highly organised and prepared to take direct action.

The leafleting marked the fourth time Turkmens have openly protested in recent months. In July, three portraits of Turkmenbashi, or the "father of all Turkmens" as President Niazov calls himself, were burned in the street in Ashgabad. In August, taxi drivers in Mary, in the south of the country, blockaded the railway station in protest against a directive banning foreign cars from driving on the motorway. On the eve of an August 8 session in the people's parliament - an unelected body comprising prominent Turkmens -despairing women protested outside the presidential palace. These actions have sent a clear signal to the Turkmen public that an underground opposition movement now exists within the country.

The police in Dashoguz appeared in no hurry to disperse the crowds, which gathered around the piles of pamphlets. As policemen stood to one side, people began collecting the leaflets. "Although they were obviously nervous, passers-by picked them up, looked around then carried them off," one witness told IWPR.

Printed in both Turkmen and Russian, the text accused Turkmenbashi of inflicting poverty and oppression on the Turkmen people. Titled "Dare to say 'No!'", the leaflet urged people to safeguard their children's future by taking an active stand against the regime, standing up for their rights and refusing to be "thought of as sheep".

News of this latest audacious protest quickly spread to the Turkmen capital. The emerging opposition is thought to enjoy popular support, particularly in rural areas where poverty and hopelessness is worst. A private taxi driver in Dashoguz expressed the frustration of many, telling IWPR, "I thought our independence in the early 1990s would deliver a better life, but every year things get even worse. After years driving a tractor on a collective farm, I was forced to start driving a taxi in my retirement in order to feed my grandchildren."

A member of the emerging opposition told IWPR the movement is made up mostly of young people, controlled by a "nerve centre" which plans protests that are then implemented by regional groups. The actions, he said, are kept as apparently spontaneous as possible, so that they can be neither predicted nor halted by the security services. "We are not exactly in hiding, but we don't want to expose ourselves either. We are trying to act cautiously, without being too radical, and we are ready to cooperate with anyone who agrees with our aims and opposes the current political leadership."

Their caution appears to have paid off. Despite direct orders from the president to track down the organisers of the leafleting protest, the Turkmen special services have so far failed to find anyone.

Ordinary people in Turkmenistan have largely ignored the so-called opposition in exile, which uses the Internet to call on those within the country to wage an open struggle against the regime. However, president Niazov has blocked access to the opposition websites, and restricted Internet use in general.

Groups such as the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, led by the former deputy prime minister Boris Shikhmuradov, are mainly composed of formerly high-ranking officers, whose "opposition" to President Niazov emerged only after he had sacked them.

"It's easy to call for a struggle when you are outside the country. If they really cared about the fate of the Turkmen people, they would come here and wage an open struggle alongside us," said a student member of the internal opposition in Ashgabat. "I don't believe in those people, as they created the state structure we are now battling against. We are a large group of young people and we will continue to do everything in our power to oppose the regime." The signs are that the Turkmen public will welcome their campaign.

Nyazik Ataeva is the pseudonym for a journalist in Ashgabat