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Turkmenistan: Niazov Challenged

Turkmenbashi is facing an unprecedented challenge from a one-time ally.
By Nyazik Ataeva

A savage denunciation of Turkmenistan's authoritarian regime by one of the president's former top aides has raised speculation that a coup may be imminent against the government of Saparmurat Niazov.

Boris Shikhmuradov, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister now living in exile, accused the President Niazov, known as Turkmanbashi, of running a "primitive police state".

In a statement delivered to the press on November 1, he said Turkmenbashi had created a "black whole wherein monstrous offenses are perpetrated".

Lambasting the president as a dictatorial liar, Shikhmuradov, who is currently living in Russia, said Niazov "used to talk a lot about democracy. Now we know it was all a game, an exercise in politicking, a thin disguise for the president's ambition to create a primitive, subservient police state".

The astonishing outburst did not go unanswered. The day after his speech, the government published an indictment, allegedly prepared in June, charging Shikhmuradov with embezzlement. It also put out an arrest warrant in an attempt to press for his extradition from Russia.

Shikhmuradov, along with several other high-ranking military officials named in the indictment, was charged with stealing government property in 1994 by the sale of five SU-17 warplanes worth 25 million US dollars to a Russian firm. "The proceeds of this transaction were embezzled by Boris Shikhmuradov," the prosecutor general's indictment said.

It went on to accuse Shikhmuradov of taking part in the theft of 9,000 AK-47 submachine guns and 1,500,000 rounds of ammunition, worth 2 and a half million dollars, later in 1994, and of illegally transporting the weapons out of Turkmenistan. Shikhmuradov has denied the charges, which run counter to his reputation as politician of integrity.

The former deputy prime minister fell from favour several years ago. Demoted first to the role of deputy chairman of the cabinet, he briefly served as foreign minister, before dropping to the relatively menial post of rector of the Institute for Tourism and Sport.

In another career twist engineered by Turkmenbashi, who specialises in drawing up ingenious schemes to undo his opponents, he was sent to China as ambassador, a move that effectively terminated his career as a government official and a politician, as the Beijing post is not considered a prestigious appointment.

At the same time, his nephew was sentenced to a long prison term in what was widely seen as a rigged trial aimed solely at discrediting the family of the President's former aide.

The president's motives for punishing Shikhmuradov are obscure, but he probably resented his old ally's mild criticism of his policies and feared his popularity might make him a dangerous rival.

The public spat has raised speculation in Turkmenistan about a coup. A change of government would satisfy certainly both Russia and the US, who are equally concerned about Niazov's open-border policy with the Taleban regime in Afghanistan.

Turkmen observers fear terrorists from Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization may take refuge in Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan's policy of military neutrality is an irritant to Russia, which would like a more cooperative Turkmen leader who would allow Moscow to bolster its business interests in the Caspian region. The fact that Shikhmuradov launched his attack from Russia could be a sign that the Kremlin is actively promoting him as the best candidate.

Shikhmuradov - the only top politician to flee Turkmenistan for political reasons in recent times - has followed a well-worn track into exile. Thousands of Turkmen have forsaken their country since independence in a disastrous "brain drain" of educated professionals. Many have moved to Sweden, where the dissident community includes many prominent writers, cultural figures and former government executives who have had to leave Turkmenistan and seek political asylum.

Nyazik Ataeva is the pseudonym of an Ashgabat-based IWPR correspondent

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