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Is Rodina a New Ally for the Turkmen Opposition?

Turkmenistan has long been invisible for the majority of people in Russia, who are preoccupied with petrol prices and utilities reforms. But recently it transpired that the Russian-speaking population in Turkmenistan would be left in an especially difficu
As if in unison, Russian television and other media suddenly started talking about how the pension reform now being conducted by President Niazov will significantly worsen the position of people in Turkmenistan, above all the Russian-speakers. It is particularly alarming that mass unemployment in the country makes it impossible for many citizens to build up the years in work that they need to be eligible for a pension.

Things began to hot up when the Rodina parliamentary faction within the Russian State Duma began speaking out on behalf of Turkmenistan’s Russians. A parliamentary question on the matter addressed to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov was the subject of a Duma debate in February.

Although it initially positioned itself as a supporter of the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin, Rodina is now moving over to the opposition on many issues, and is critical of the Russian government’s foreign policy.

Niazov has other critics in Russia – democratic politicians like Vyacheslav Igrunov and Nikolai Svanidze, and Ekho Moskvy radio – and they too have been speaking out in support of the pensioners in Turkmenistan, especially those of Russian extraction. Ludmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, has similarly expressed outrage at the news that the elderly are to have their pensions slashed.

But Rodina’s campaign has been the most vocal and focused of all. There was even a proposal that the Russian government should take steps to evacuate Russian pensioners, because otherwise there would be no way of providing welfare protection for them. Rodina faction leader Dmitry Rogozin gave a number of interviews in which he said Russia’s oil revenues and the Stabilisation Fund would more than suffice to allow the authorities to earmark funds to help the Russian pensioners or even to bring them back to their historical homeland.

The story is far from over.

The Turkmen foreign ministry quickly gave assurances that the pensioners – including the Russians - would not be left entirely without help.

Many pensioners, for example those who used to work in national-level Soviet institutions, have in fact emigrated. The rest will have to tighten their belts, although it is hard to estimate what percentage of elderly people will be affected by the new rules.

How sincere is Rogozin in his attempts to defend these Russians? His intentions seem positive. An evacuation is unlikely, but there is every likelihood that Moscow will launch diplomatic demarches in response to Rodina’s initiative. And that could influence Niazov.

Rodina’s stance is not opportunistic – on previous occasions the faction has mounted campaigns both in the Duma and in the press to defend the interests of compatriots abroad. It fought the discrimination against Russians in Latvia, for instance, a campaign which focused the European Union’s attention on this issue.

There are plenty of grounds to criticise the Niazov regime, but the pension cuts affecting many categories of citizen offer Rodina an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic offensive.

It will be significantly more difficult to defend the rights of Russians in Turkmenistan than it was in Latvia. There will be no support from the EU, as Niazov has skilfully insulated his republic from any trend emanating from Europe or America

Yet an anti-Niazov campaign could reap dividends for any political force, though so far the only taker is Rodina, whose social democratic agenda contains more than a touch of nostalgia for the USSR.

Will Rodina be able to seize the moment? Halmurad Soyunov and Parahat Yklymov, opposition politicians who are active in émigré circles, are certainly placing great hopes in the efforts being made by Rogozin and his colleagues.

Although President Niazov has the resources to dampen down social disquiet, he would put things right at once at the slightest hint from Moscow, without allowing matters to reach a head.

However, what is also true is that the Kremlin is not about to have a serious falling-out with Niazov over the pensioners. President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin leadership continue to regard Niazov as an important partner in the gas market and would be unlikely enter into a confrontation with Ashgabat over the pension reform.

Proof of this was provided by the recent talks between Gazprom chief Alexei Miller and the Turkmen president. Gazprom has promised to help develop gas deposits in Turkmenistan, which is desperate to increase production.

Thus far, Kremlin policy has been one of avoiding conflict with the Turkmen leader.

Some observers believe Niazov is using excessive measures such as the pension cuts to flush out his opponents abroad

In Moscow, the Turkmen opposition is not very welcome. Uzbekistan’s security service is able to operate freely inside Russia and, were it to be requested to do so, it would be in a position to carry out a sensitive mission to neutralise the Turkmen opposition. For this reason, the voices of protest are mostly heard further afield, where the Turkmen parliament-in-exile headed by Soyunov is becoming more active.

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