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

Turkmen Face Crippling Travel Curbs

Mushrooming checkpoints along major routes have made Turkmen citizens foreigners in their own country.

When Orazdurdy Jumanazarov, a pensioner from southern Turkmenistan, heard of his brother's death in the northern province of Dashoguz, he went straight to the railway station hoping to catch the next train in time for his funeral. The railway authorities, however, were not convinced. They refused to give the grieving old man a ticket until he could prove the purpose of his visit.

"I had to get in touch with my relatives and ask them to send me a telegram, so I ended up being late for the funeral," he said. When the authorities finally issued him with a ticket to Dashoguz, it was on the condition that he spent no longer than five days there. Jumanazarov told IWPR, "I don't understand anything at all. We are citizens of this country. Why aren't we allowed to travel around it?"

The bewildered citizens of Turkmenistan are finding it increasingly difficult to move around their own country. In the wake of the assassination attempt on President Saparmurat Niazov last year, the movement of people from province to province is being monitored and controlled more closely than ever before.

All journeys, whether for business or pleasure, now have to pass through the kind of police posts and passport checks normally deployed on international borders. The authorities' policy of closely monitoring the movement of citizens, which was initially most apparent in northern border provinces such as Dashoguz, is now taking root throughout the country.

Niazov has long accused Uzbekistan, which borders Dashoguz province, of playing host to exiled Turkmen opposition figures bent on his overthrow. After November's thwarted assassination, he claimed Uzbek diplomats in Ashgabad had helped exiled former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov to re-enter the country and mastermind the attempt on his life.

According to reports in the state media, Shikhmuradov was later arrested at a checkpoint on a road leading to Iran, having earlier tried to escape to Uzbekistan. Niazov, who likes to be called Turkmenbashi, or "Father of all Turkmen", seems to have used the story of Shikhmuradov's capture to further tighten restrictions on all civilian movement along routes leading to and from the border provinces.

The problem is that all five provinces in Turkmenistan border neighbouring countries, and now even the capital is being affected by the constant identity checks.

Dovletgeldy Ovezov, who hails from Dashoguz but lives in Ashgabat, told IWPR how he has taken to traveling by taxi in the evenings in order to avoid being harassed by the police. "It's impossible to walk around the capital after 7 pm because the police constantly stop you and ask to see your documents. I came here to renovate buildings, because there is no work in Dashoguz. Many people from Dashoguz live and earn a living here, just like me."

His exasperation is echoed by Arslan Mukhamedov, a student in the capital who went to the airport to greet his mother. "She had a lot of luggage with her, of course, so my father and I went to pick her up. But because my father didn't take his passport with him, we were not allowed to even enter the airport," he said.

It was not always like this. After the iron curtain collapsed and Turkmenistan declared independence in the early Nineties, there was a brief period when the rules for passing within the region were relaxed. Trade and tourism developed apace while simplified travel documents allowed everyone to travel with ease through Turkmenistan, to Iran and even to Afghanistan.

Having formed the southernmost part of the former Soviet Union, Tukmenistan has always had its share of military installations and zones where access was technically forbidden. However, local residents recall that it was usually possible to pass through, often with no more than a locally registered passport, or in the case of foreigners, a valid visa.

Over the past few years however, the entire country has come to resemble a restricted zone. Through a series of public statements in response to perceived threats to the country from its neighbour, Uzbekistan, Niazov has made it clear that he wants internal security to be tightened.

By focusing on the peril posed by Uzbekistan, Niazov may be preparing public opinion for the mass resettlement of the Uzbek minority living in Dashoguz province to another part of the country, a policy he has already ordered, according to some reports.

However, analysts suspect there are stronger motives behind the tough restrictions on mobility, besides the supposed threat to national security from Uzbek fifth columnists.

They say the increasingly paranoid Niazov might be trying to monitor the movement of opposition activists, in a country where it has become impossible for dissenters to remain in the same place for too long. As part of the crackdown on dissent, Niazov recently called on ordinary people to support the secret police by informing on their fellow citizens.

He has also exhorted the law-enforcement bodies to "go to the markets, railway stations and public places, listen to what people are saying, write it down and take measures. Make a list of the people who come and go". Some observers suggest that the new checkpoints could be one outcome of the presidential order to list the names of those "who come and go".

A parliamentary deputy, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that the current restrictions violate the constitution of Turkmenistan, article 24 of which states that "everyone has the right to move freely and choose their place of residence within Turkmenistan".

Meanwhile, the people continue to complain about the mounting restrictions they face in going about their business. Bairam Durdyklychev lives in the town of Bekrova, near Ashgabat, and commutes to work in the capital. "Since November, these journeys have become excruciating. They stop me every day and demand to see my passport. It's not as if there is a curfew here. I don't understand anything in this country," he told IWPR.

Arslan Atamanov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Turkmenistan