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

Turkmen Travel Ban Fuels Corruption

People on overseas travel blacklist bribe venal officials and hire smugglers to get out of the country.
By IWPR staff

Corrupt officials in Turkmenistan continue to profit from those desperate to leave the country, despite a recent decree by President Saparmurat Niazov easing restrictions on travel, IWPR inquiries can reveal.

Niazov announced the overhaul of government regulations on movement inside Turkmenistan and across its borders in response to American pressure, which included a visit by US State Department official Lynn Pasco in early March.

"You can freely move both within the country and abroad," said the president recently in a public speech. "Only dishonest people who have committed theft or have caused some damage and must face a trial cannot leave Turkmenistan."

A number of exit visa applications that had previously been rejected were reviewed and granted, and many of the 11,000 or more people who had been permanently banned from leaving Turkmenistan found themselves free to go.

But a reduced version of this blacklist - now thought to include some 7,000 people - remains in place, and officials and smugglers alike continue to supplement their income with payments from those desperate to get out of the country.

Officially, the blacklist of people banned from leaving Turkmenistan is made up of those who have previously worked in government and have had access to "state secrets"; those who are the subject of ongoing criminal investigations or lawsuits; those who are yet to complete their sentence for a conviction; anyone of conscription age and anyone who has defied a court order or given false information to the authorities.

But many people we spoke to say that, in reality, even being a relative of someone who falls into some of these categories is enough to secure a place on the list.

Jenet, not her real name, a resident of Russia who holds both Turkmen and Russian citizenship, has twice been prevented from leaving Turkmenistan and only managed to get out after a family connection in Russia's parliament put in a personal call to the Russian embassy in Ashgabat.

"I have never worked as a civil servant but I am a distant relative of a person who used to occupy a high-ranking position in Niazov's government," she told IWPR. "I believe that was the only reason for my name being included on the blacklist."

Many who remain subject to a travel ban have told IWPR that they are prepared to go to great lengths to leave Turkmenistan.

Some said they directly approach the ministry of national security, which is responsible for maintaining the blacklist. Corrupt officials, IWPR has learned, will delete a name from the list in return for between 800 and 1,000 US dollars.

But corruption is also rife amongst officials lower down the chain and it is often cheaper to deal with them instead, our sources say.

One option is Ashgabat airport. Ailara, not her real name, a young married woman who has been taken off the Ashgabat-Moscow flight three times this year, told IWPR, "Last time when they didn't allow me to go abroad, a young man in civilian clothes called me when I was leaving the airport building.

"He took my passport, looked through it and said I was included in the blacklist at the beginning of this year but that, in my particular case, the problem could be solved. He offered to solve the problem with the appropriate person, but said it would cost money."

For between 200 and 500 dollars, certain customs personnel will stamp the passport of someone on a blacklist, taking care to ensure that the date and the official's identity number are obscured, according to IWPR sources.

But not everyone has the contacts to set up such a deal and many instead head straight for Turkmenistan's porous borders with Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, our inquiries have revealed.

Officially, the regions around these borders are restricted zones and special permission is needed to enter them. But the application for official permission can be a difficult process and may take up to two and a half weeks by the time security checks have been carried out.

In practice, it is easier to pay small bribes at police checkpoints on the main highways.

At the border, smugglers - many of whom have connections with border guards - are usually willing to help those attempting to leave the country in return for a fee, say IWPR sources. Specialising in plying an illegal trade in fuel, foodstuffs and agricultural machinery, they are particularly active in the towns of Kerki, Chardjou and Tashauz, which, although officially in the border zone, are relatively easy to access without a permit, IWPR sources say.

The actual frontier crossing takes place far from the official border posts. There are over 250 minor dirt roads running between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which are hard to police. And off the road, where the frontier is protected only by a barbed wire fence, it is a simple procedure, we've been told, to dig out two of the posts, lay the fence flat on the ground, drive across and then re-erect the fence to erase all traces of the crossing.

Another option is the border with Kazakstan. Smugglers there use the town of Bekdash as a base and operate a well-established system. Upon arrival in nearby Krasnovodsk, a local driver can be hired to take you to Bekdash for around 5 dollars and, once there, another taxi can be hired for the journey into Kazak territory for between 50 and 150 dollars - experienced drivers are able to judge the best times for making such trips to avoid problems with the border authorities, our sources say.

Perhaps the last resort - given that it is the most dangerous option - is to escape across the Caspian Sea from one of the many fishing villages along the coast near the sea port of Turkmenbashi, IWPR has been told. Poverty is rife amongst local fishermen and for between 50 and 150 dollars, a poacher's boat can be acquired to carry a fugitive across the 100 kilometres that separate the Turkmen shoreline from international waters. There, with any luck, it's possible to board an Azeri, Kazak or Russian vessel en route to a foreign port.

But of the many dangers faced by those attempting to leave Turkmenistan illegally, apparently the least expected in fact comes from corrupt officials themselves - it is not unknown for police officers to panic after taking a bribe and hand fugitives in to the ministry of national security.

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