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

Security Stepped up Ahead of Election

The government of Turkmenistan has imposed tighter security measures in advance of the election of a president to replace Saparmurad Niazov. Surveillance and other means of controlling the population have become tougher than ever.
There are six candidates for the February 11 ballot, but if everything goes to plan, acting president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov will become the next head of state.

To smooth the way to the election, the Halk Maslahaty, the highest legislative body in Turkmenistan, convened in emergency session on December 26, five days after President Niazov died of a heart attack, and approved Berdymuhammedov’s nomination after amending the constitution to allow him to run.

On December 28, Central Election Commission chief Murat Garryev named the other five candidates as Ishankuly Nuriev, deputy minister for the oil industry and mineral resources, plus four local government officials drawn from a variety of regions.

Most of the security measures introduced in the immediate aftermath of Niazov’s death are still in place. Farid Tukhbatullin, from the Vienna-based Turkmenistan Initiative group, said the border with Uzbekistan remained closed.

A human rights activist now based outside Turkmenistan, but who still did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, told IWPR that according to his sources, “defence ministry forces, particularly motorised units, are on a state of alert in border areas”.

The security services appear to be under instructions to keep a lid on any potential source of trouble. That includes deploying extra security officers from Ashgabat, and stepping up surveillance of the country’s few remaining human rights activists, the relatives of political prisoners, and former officials disgraced in Niazov’s frequent purges.

The human rights activist said factory managers had been ordered to monitor their workforce and head off any signs of unrest. In the city of Turkmenbashi, staff working at the port and at a local power station were assembled at warned that they must “stay calm”.

The activist added that teams of officers from the National Security ministry had been dispatched from the capital to various regions, where they had begun calling in civil-society activists and journalists to give them a stiff talking-to.

“The security ministry teams usually arrive in groups of up to six officers. In Krasnovodsk and in Mary [a southeastern city], they have summoned local activists for interviews,” he said, explaining that the targets were “people who’ve come to the attention of the security services either by meeting foreigners, or by going abroad to participate in conferences, and who are suspected of conducting civil-society activity”.

He added, “Activists, journalists and opponents of the regime are seen as a danger, as people who might put forward their own candidates and inform people about how the whole election process is being conducted. [The authorities’] concern is that if something sparks protests, it will immediately blow up into a conflagration.

“It is not the opposition based abroad that they fear, but domestic protests.”

Tukhbatullin added, “Surveillance has been increased on the homes of individuals whom the authorities consider unreliable, relatives of political prisoners, and people with links to dissidents abroad.”

This heightened sense of nervousness seems to have prompted the detention of Nurberdy Nurmammedov, head of the opposition Agzybirlik movement, who was first reported missing in Ashgabat on December 23.

In the north of the country, police continued to hold Andrei Zatoka, an environmental activist arrested in Dashoguz four days before Niazov died.