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Turkmenistan: Diplomatic Defection Sparks Turmoil

Trouble looms for president Niazov as key envoy joins opposition
By Nazik Ataeva

The regime of Saparmurat Niazov has been thrown into turmoil by the defection of a top ambassador who quit his post accusing the Turkmen president of dictatorship at home and dangerous diplomacy abroad.


The walkout on February 3 by Nurmukhammed Khanamov, Turkmen ambassador to Ankara, sent a tremble through the country's political landscape. He was the third envoy in the past three months to leave his job and join the ranks of the political opposition.


In a resignation statement, Khanamov said, "Niazov, scorning the people, has irreparably discredited himself and made us members of the opposition and we intend to remove him from power and create a democratic society in Turkmenistan."


The president, who calls himself Turkmenbashi, or head of all the Turkmen, reacted swiftly. He dispatched officers of his National Security Committee far and wide around the country to arrest suspected opponents.


Niazov has ruled this country of four million people, bordered by Iran and Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan to the north, since the end of Soviet rule in 1990. In 1999 he acquired a mandate to stay in power indefinitely.


Khanamov accused the president of dictatorial behaviour which created "fear, helplessness, poverty," and said that Niazov's "duplicity" in relations with Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and other countries was driving Turkmenistan into


"dangerous isolation".


Late last year, Boris Shikhmuradov, the Turkmen ambassador to China and onetime foreign minister, announced he was leaving his Beijing mission to join the opposition People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan. A few days later the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Pirmukhammed Kurbanov, also quit.


Political analysts believed the defection of three such influential figures could ignite a crisis leading to social breakdown.


Khanamov also made known he was tired of smoothing over Niazov's diplomatic gaffes. As ambassador to Turkey, he had to explain away the president's claim that the Turkish government was ignoring the interests of its own people by buying Russian gas at 120 dollars per thousand cubic metres when Turkmen gas was a third of that price - but ultimately more expensive when transportation costs are factored in.


Following Khanamov's defection, an enraged Turkmenbashi cracked down on bureaucrats suspected of disloyalty.


Security services stepped up repressive measures against officials already condemned and exiled to isolated regions and also against those who had been amnestied for alleged corruption.


At an enlarged, hastily called cabinet meeting, the president signed a resolution declaring that all those already pardoned would be put under intense scrutiny and punished for slightest infraction.


The president also summoned all ambassadors abroad to return immediately to Ashgabat, the capital, using his birthday as a pretext. A joke went round the country that half the envoys would not dare to come back.


A token of rising opposition confidence came with an unprecedented visit to the United States this month by politicians labelling themselves the delegation of the United Opposition - comprising those who left the country during the first wave of opposition in the early Nineties as well as bureaucrats who joined them in the past two or three years.


Led by former vice-premier Avdy Kuliev, the group included Nazar Suyunov, former Turkmen oil and gas minister and Makhtum Abdulkerim, who is spiritual leader of the Turkmen in Afghanistan. They were received in Washington by officials of the Central Asian and Caucasus department as well as by the Department for Human Rights of the US State Department and representatives of the US Congress. The meetings produced agreement on establishing a democratic civil society in Turkmenistan.


Since Boris Shikhmuradov announced the creation of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan last year, an official site for the Turkmen opposition has been open at www.gundogar.com, although authorities made every effort to block it.


Khanamov says he is convinced that "more and more people will follow him into the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, which will eventually be joined by all the people."


Nazik Ataeva is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan


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