Tough Choices for Turkmenistan's Russians

Crunch time as Ashgabat forces dual passport holders to choose to stay or leave the country.

Tough Choices for Turkmenistan's Russians

Crunch time as Ashgabat forces dual passport holders to choose to stay or leave the country.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Russians in Turkmenistan are facing a critical decision as new passport rules force them to decide whether to leave now or remain there forever.

A decree issued by the Turkmen president on April 22 gives people with dual Russian-Turkmen passports two months to choose citizenship of one country. If they opt to hold on to Russian citizenship, they lose their Turkmen passports.

Once they technically become foreigners, they're deprived of rights to their own property and homes. And as aliens without visas, they can be forced to leave the country immediately.

"The decree has sown widespread panic, anxiety and confusion," says Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, monitoring political and human rights. It's still unclear how tough the government will be in implementing the law, but many people are assuming the worst.

"It's a very uncertain time for many people and a lot are trying to leave now. There are literally hundreds trying to get out, and ticket counters have been closed. There's real panic on the borders."

She says that once you opt to keep your Russian passport "you're not in your own country, and there's really no recourse for Russian citizens inside Turkmenistan".

The new rules forces a decision on all of them. "I don't know what to do, like most people who have dual citizenship," said a resident from Ashgabat who asked not to be named.

"I would have liked to keep Russian citizenship, but that means I would be left on the street. Under Turkmen law, foreigners are not allowed to possess private property. I would lose everything - all my property and my car - and so would my children."

The Russian embassy in Ashgabat has a list of 100,000 people registered as having Russian as well as Turkmen citizenship. This is a sizeable number for a country with a population of 4.7 million.

Nearly 90 per cent of those with joint citizenship are ethnic Russians, but there are also indigenous Turkmens, some Uzbeks and other groups which settled in the country in Soviet times, such as Armenians and Azerbajanis.

The decree follows an agreement annulling dual citizenship which Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov signed on April 10 during a visit to Moscow. At the same time, Niazov signed an agreement securing sales of Turkmen gas to Russia. NGO activists in both Russia and Turkmenistan accused the two leaders of trading people's rights for business interests.

The new rules bring to an end a previous accord signed in 1993, which allowed dual citizenship. Turkmenistan was the only former Soviet republic to have such an arrangement, and it provided some sort of guarantee for Russians who had put down roots there but were still uncertain about their long-term future.

It also enabled them to travel to Russia, where many go to study, trade or see relatives, and made travel to other republics easier, as Turkmenistan has imposed visa restrictions on most of its neighbours.

Some people cannot afford to leave Turkmenistan because they fear losing homes and businesses.

But others have made up their minds. A women from the Dashkhovuz region in the north of the country says her family has decided to keep Russian citizenship and will be forced to leave Turkmenistan before the deadline expires on June 22.

"It is not an easy decision to make," she said, adding that people who decide to leave end up selling their houses for next to nothing.

She has no relatives in Russia "but I hope that over there it won't be worse for my family than here.

"Turkmenistan is a closed country and even at the moment it is difficult to get out of here. After June 22 the only remaining door to the outside world will be closed."

Some of those who decided to leave say they are doing so for their children's future. One mother told IWPR that her son is studying in Russia and her family has only one option - to leave, "It was not easy for us to get him a place at university there. Now with this new decree, he won't be able to visit us. As soon as he enters Turkmenistan, he will have to choose (his citizenship), otherwise they won't let him out.

"Renouncing Turkmen citizenship would mean he wouldn't see us, but the loss of his Russian passport would leave him without an education and locked up in this country.

"It is a tragedy, and I feel very anxious, but do we have a choice?"

People are already experiencing difficulties. An elderly resident of Ashgabat told IWPR what happened when her daughter came back from Russia to collect her child.

"On May 1 the Turkmen authorities refused to let in my daughter, who left for Russia a year ago after she and her husband found jobs there," she said.

"Although she told the Turkmen consulate that she also has a Turkmen passport and wants to pick up her daughter, they replied that the grandmother should bring her to Russia."

The government is trying to track down everyone who has dual citizenship and force them to either renounce Russian citizenship or leave the country. Meeting his ministers on April 24, the president remonstrated that none of the government agencies are able to provide exact figures for people with two passports, or how many of them hold jobs with official organisations.

"We have to get hold of the full list of those who are registered with the Russian embassy here. One of the ways of knowing who they are would be to check the names of everyone who goes through customs control," he said.

People who choose Russian citizenship face further incentives to make them leave quickly, and for good. Another new regulation means it's impossible to buy a ticket to Russia without showing an exit visa. Even with the visa stamp, people can only buy a one-way ticket, and an additional stamp must be placed in the passport stating that they have renounced their residency rights.

Those who decide to stay will no longer be able to move without permission from the authorities. This will effectively eliminate all unmonitored contact with the outside world. According to a member of a Turkmen NGO who spoke to IWPR anonymously, the authorities have found a way to sever contacts between democracy activists with the international community.

As well as controlling the movement of citizens at home, the new rules are also designed to hamper the activity of Turkmen opposition members now in exile in Russia. The dual citizenship arrangement allowed a limited amount of contact to take place.

Niazov has moved to neutralise all real and potential opposition to his rule since the failed assassination attempt on him in November, for which he blamed opposition leaders.

But Niazov will lose a lot of good, entirely non-political people along the way. Dailey believes forcing Russians into a position where they have to leave cannot be good for Turkmenistan.

"It's a great loss to the economy…. Their exit from the country will mean a lot of economic instability. It's not the poverty-stricken part of the population that is heading out, it's the educated middle class," she said.

Those leaving for Russia face an uncertain future, as they look for new homes and employment. Dailey says the decision to move out is a tough one, "It says a lot about how bad the situation is in Turkmenistan."

Ata Muradov is the pseudonym for an IWPR contributor in Turkmenistan.

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