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Turkmenistan: Niazov Tightens Borders

Concerns over drug smuggling appear to be behind Turkmenistan's decision to tighten border security.
By Polina Mikhailova

Doctors in Turkmenistan who serve as reserve officers in the armed forces are being called up at an unprecedented rate and sent to border zones in what seems to be a move by the authorities to tighten control over the country's poorly guarded frontiers.

This is an unusual move because in the past the army has not singled out particular categories of reserve officers for military service.

IWPR has discovered that in Ashgabat alone around 30 doctors were recently sent their call-up papers, as were a number from the Lebap, Dashoguz, Maryi and Balkanabat regions. They were informed they would be giving medical care to soldiers deployed along the border.

Turkmenistan has a long frontier that is scarcely patrolled in certain areas. In short, it needs tightening up.

What's surprising is the silence of the mass media. They usually focus hard on the spring and autumn mobilisations, stressing the importance of citizens fulfilling their patriotic duties.

The other unusual factor is the number of doctors involved. In ten years of independence, it is the first time such a large number have been sent to do military service.

"We have to go to all the specialists for checks - tubercular, narcological, psychiatric, skin and venereal - they all took tests," one doctor from Ashgabat said. The head of medical service of the interior ministry said the doctors were needed at border hospitals, to care for new border guard detachments. The ministry revealed that by November of last year more than 50,000 new recruits, all called up in 2001, were serving in these units.

This prompted some analysts to suggest that the latest move might be provoked by the poor state of armed forces where lack of food often leads to cases of malnutrition.

Three new border guard detachments were created late last year. They are stationed in the north-west, in the south near Kerka and in Koitendag in the south-east. The latter is the most difficult section of the frontier to patrol, owing to the difficult, mountainous terrain.

The decision to form the new detachments was expected. Four countries ring Turkmenistan - Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Kazakstan. Since the government rejected Russian border guard assistance after collapse of the Soviet Union, the frontiers have been poorly guarded.

In some areas, the frontier is totally open, as in the Kushka region. Here, during the Taleban rule, caravans crossed the border without a hitch, smuggling narcotics from Afghanistan. This was permitted by Turkmen leader, Saparmurat Niazov, because he was on friendly terms with the student militia.

Indeed, the country's former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, who fled the country at the end of last year, suggested to Radio Liberty that the president had collaborated with the Taleban over drug-dealing and illegal weapons sales. This at a time when regional narcotics experts have begun to put pressure on Niazov to put a stop to the trade.

It is possible that the Turkmen president feels embarrassed by such allegations and is tightening border controls to silence his critics. This seems the most likely explanation as it appears unlikely that Niazov has gone ahead with the move out of fears of conflict with neighbouring states. His relations with them have at times been frosty, but none pose any immediate territorial threat.

Accurate figures about conscription are impossible to obtain. The military is riddled with corruption and has long since turned reserve duty into a source of income. A payment of 100 US dollars is enough to avoid call-up.

Avoiding conscription altogether is more expensive, ranging in price from 1000 to 2000 dollars, depending on the type of service and location involved, the rank of the person taking the bribe and the complexity of completing the procedures.

Polina Mikhailova is a pseudonym of the journalist in Turkmenistan

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