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

Turkmenbashi Scraps Visa System

Isolationist regime bows to the international community’s pressure and rescinds Soviet-era law.
By Ata Muradov

Turkmenistan’s decision to scrap its exit visa system has had a lukewarm response from many local people who doubt it will affect their current inability to travel abroad.


Analysts feel that the regime is only paying lip service to the international community, which has grown increasingly concerned over alleged human rights abuses and restrictions on Turkmen citizens’ freedom of movement.


President Saparamurat Niazov, who likes to be called Turkmenbashi or “Father of all Turkmen”, announced the end of the exit visa system on January 6, following intense speculation on the issue.


His comments followed a statement from the foreign ministry which said, "Citizens wanting to leave the country for any reason should present their passports along with invitation from the foreign country for registration of movement. This is done merely to confirm that there are no criminal proceedings or litigations pending against them."


It also stressed, "Turkmenistan adheres to international practice and fully respects these norms, keeping in view the need to maintain proper level of security in the country and for its citizens.”


Analysts believe that Turkmenbashi’s move has one main motive – to stave off the threat of sanction from the United Nations and the United States, who have been pressuring the increasingly isolationist president to improve his human rights record.


Washington had threatened to impose trade sanctions under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which can be used against countries violating its citizens’ freedom of movement. It’s understood that Turkmenistan’s deadline for showing an improvement in this area was due to expire this month.


The Turkmen people’s freedom of movement has been restricted since March 2003, when the authorities reinstated an old Soviet policy on exit visas following an alleged presidential assassination attempt in November 2002.


Government officials who fell out of favour with Turkmenbashi - and their relatives – appear to have been particularly targeted by the law.


One university lecturer, who did not want to give his name, told IWPR that he had been forced to give up a scholarship in the United Kingdom under the old rule. “I was denied an exit visa several times, even though my trip had nothing to do with any political activity.


“The authorities didn’t give any explanation for the refusals – but I suspect it is because of a relative, a [former] high ranking state official, who is now in jail.”


Anyone wishing to travel abroad was obliged to apply for permission to leave the country from the foreign ministry’s consular department, which was then stamped into a passport.


However, observers believe that while the exit visa system has been scrapped, a blacklist of people the authorities deem unworthy of foreign trips – possibly many thousands of names – remains.


As this list is kept secret, many people have only begun to realise that they may be on it after their requests to leave Turkmenistan following the scrapping of the exit visa restriction were turned down.


Suspicions that this unofficial ban has been in force were strengthened when Turkmenbashi issued a decree on January 9 ordering his power ministries - including interior ministry, secret and border service - to review exit controls.


“I have been refused exit permission for many years and have no hope of this changing,” said one Asghabat journalist, who believes he’s on the blacklist.


Another reporter had a similar story to tell. “I can’t understand why I’m not allowed to leave the country. I can’t even to go to my friend’s wedding across the border. What have I done wrong?” she asked.


Ata Muradov pseudonym for a journalist in Ashgabat.