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

Tajikistan Courts Turkmenbashi

Dushanbe and Ashgabat forge new alliance that may help them resist Uzbekistan's influence in the region.
By Zafar Abdullaev

The Tajik authorities are keeping negative stories about Turkmenistan out of the headlines in a bid to build a new alliance with its Central Asian neighbour.


Sources in Dushanbe have told IWPR that the media is now adopting a policy of "if you can't say something nice about President Sapamurat Niazov, don't say anything at all".


As a result of this self-censorship, the Tajik people know little or nothing about the alleged attempt on Niazov's life last November, which was followed by a series of controversial imprisonments and accusations of human rights abuses.


Analysts believe that Dushanbe is now flattering President Niazov - who likes to be called Turkmenbashi, or "Father of all Turkmen" - as a result of Tajikistan's uneasy relationship with Uzbekistan.


Tajik political analyst Rashid Abdullo told IWPR that Tashkent has placed a number of obstacles in the way of both Dushanbe and Ashgabat as they seek to expand bilateral trade. The Tajik government now sees Turkmenistan as an alternative to Uzbekistan, he said.


Tashkent currently has the upper hand in dealings between the former Soviet republics and commands prices of 48 US dollars per thousand cubic metres for the fuel it sends to Tajikistan.


Dushanbe is now eager to import its natural gas from Ashgabat, which is asking only 35 dollars for the same amount. But the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan goes through Uzbek territory and would need a certain amount of upgrading - and Tashkent has categorically stated that it will not provide any assistance.


Relations between Ashgabat and Tashkent deteriorated further after Turkmenbashi accused Uzbekistan of aiding an opposition leader who has since been accused of masterminding the attempt on his life.


Independent political scientist Alisher Kurbonov also believes that the burgeoning relationship between Tashkent and Washington in the wake of the September 11 attacks on America has also irritated Ashgabat.


While Turkmenbashi's insular, and often bizarre, policies have alienated the other Central Asian states, his country now needs an ally. As Tajikistan and Turkmenistan do not suffer from the border tensions currently plaguing neighbouring states, Abdullo believes that the time is right to build stronger relations between the two.


The Turkmenbashi-friendly media policy looks set to continue as a result. One Tajik journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR that the editors-in-chief of all newspapers - even the privately-owned Asia Plus - are now practicing a form of self-censorship.


The process began as far back as last spring, after a series of articles appeared in the media criticising Turkmenbashi and the cult of personality that he has encouraged. One, which appeared in Asia Plus, provoked a letter of protest from the Turkmen embassy in Dushanbe.


After the editor-in-chief was invited to the Tajik foreign office, the Turkmen ambassador wrote an article in which he called for the authorities to investigate why anti-Turkmen reports were being published in the media.


Since that time, there has been a marked change in the media's view of Turkmenistan. In the last issue of Asia Plus, the Tajik ambassador in Ashgabat, Todjiddin Mardonov, gave his own anodyne assessment of the latest events in the country, saying the bid to kill Niazov had come as a terrible shock to his loyal subjects.


"Turkmenistan is a stable and calm country, which has good economic growth compared to other CIS countries. That is why [the assassination attempt] stirred up the public," he said.


This rash of good publicity has had a downside for the Tajik public - they've been forced to look at Russian and Turkmen opposition websites to get the full story.


Zafar Abdullaev is an independent journalist in Dushanbe