Turkmen Regeneration Project Sparks New Wave of Demolitions

Residents evicted from their homes to make way for urban modernisation say they have nowhere else to live.

Turkmen Regeneration Project Sparks New Wave of Demolitions

Residents evicted from their homes to make way for urban modernisation say they have nowhere else to live.

Friday, 7 November, 2008
Grandiose public works were the most visible feature of the late Turkmen president Saparmurat Niazov’s rule, during which the capital Ashgabat underwent a complete makeover and oversized gold-trimmed palaces, monuments and other objects sprang up everywhere.

Since Niazov’s death in December 2007, his successor Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov has made it clear he wants to reverse some of the more damaging policies of the last decade.

He has restored pension rights to the many people who were arbitrarily deprived of them; he has increased the period of school education to ten years again, after Niazov lopped off a year; and he has allowed the opera – banned as “un-Turkmen” – to reopen. Finally, his administration has begun to edge out the Ruhnama, a text by Niazov which was accorded near-sacred status and made mandatory reading in schools and the workplace.

Against this background, there were reasonable expectations that Berdymuhammedov would also scale back the massive expenditure of public money on white-elephant projects. Apparently not.

The government is awarding new contracts to French and Turkish firms – Niazov’s favourites – on almost a weekly basis, and demolition squads are once again hard at work tearing down homes in Ashgabat to make way for new developments.

The pace of demolitions has stepped up since June, when Berdymuhammedov approved plans to redevelop the capital into a modern city, with commercial areas, luxury housing, and new schools, kindergartens, sports complexes, leisure centres and fountains.

That involves clearing away whole areas of the city. According to a government official who did not want to be named, “Implementing these ideas requires a lot of space, so unattractive-looking buildings have to be torn down mercilessly.”

Eviction orders are served at short notice with no opportunity to appeal. Residents whose homes are condemned are not being offered adequate replacement housing or compensation. Many face the prospect of spending the winter months and quite probably longer in temporary accommodation.

“We had a visit from the local administration, who told us we had ten days to move out,” said the owner of a house in Khudaiberdyeva Street, where demolition has already started. “I asked them for the address of a place we could move to but they replied that I could go wherever I wanted, but that there was no apartment for us at the moment.”

Evictions are carried out with little sensitivity.

When workers arrived to tear down houses in Ostrovsky street recently, they were backed up by the security forces. One resident said, “The demolition took place in the presence of police and solders, who took away building materials and bathroom items to sell; they didn’t even let us keep the door handles that we’d fitted recently.”

Speaking of the “terrible stress” the incident caused to her family, the woman said her father suffered a stroke and had to be taken to hospital.

The government official interviewed for this report said those evicted were entitled to receive comparable accommodation in return, under their constitutional rights to housing and assistance from the state.

However, residents say that even when they are offered an alternative place to live, it is inadequate.

“They destroyed my big house with a garden in the centre of Ashgabat,” said one elderly man. “In exchange, they offered us a small one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs, where there was not enough space for my large family.”

The man then wrote letters of complaint to Turkmenistan’s president, chief prosecutor and Supreme Court, and as a result the family was awarded a house with some land in Enev, a settlement outside the capital.

But now he has been told that this house, too, is scheduled for demolition. “They say we should go and live with our relatives, or rent a flat. We don’t know where we can go with winter approaching,” he said.

These cases are not isolated exceptions. A staff member at an urban planning institute in Ashgabat said he could not recall a single case where an evicted resident had been offered adequate replacement housing.

There should be no shortage of housing, as the new buildings being put up as part of the urban regeneration programme include apartment blocks. But as the institute employee noted, this is luxury housing that the authorities plan to sell for high prices, putting it beyond the reach of the average citizen.

Another complication that reduces people’s chances of getting compensation comes when their documentation is not fully in order. They own their homes, but they have not gone through all the registration procedures.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, public sector workers were given an opportunity to acquire homes that their state employers had rented to them.

An official from an Ashgabat housing committee explained that these people did have legal ownership, but had failed to put their names down on the housing register, a document used by the authorities to keep track of who lives where.

“That can jeopardise their changes of being offered accommodation,” said the official.

One local resident said he feared he might not be offered any new housing.

“Our house was demolished last year, and local authorities offered us a temporary accommodation in an empty school,” he said. “But now out it turns out that the documentation for the house that was demolished didn’t go through the correct procedures, and I’m afraid we won’t be given anything.”

An Ashgabat based lawyer said his office had received numerous requests for assistance with compensation claims.

He said many of them wanted to take their complaints to international organisations but he advised them against doing so, as it would only make the authorities angry.

Instead, the lawyer said, the most effective way of resolving issues was through the traditional method of bribing officials.

“We tell them to negotiate with the local authorities and pay a bribe in order to get a house in a decent part of the city,” he said.

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concerns for changed for their safety.)

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