Turkmenistan: Niazov's Silent Prison

By Arslan Berdyev in Ashgabat (RCA No. 143, 3-Sep-02)

Turkmenistan: Niazov's Silent Prison

By Arslan Berdyev in Ashgabat (RCA No. 143, 3-Sep-02)

Monday, 14 November, 2005

A cynical remark by a Turkmen state official at a recent international conference says it all. "While the problem of Afghanistan exists, while America is totally occupied with it and preparing to go to war with Iraq, and maybe Iran, we will only be thought of as an ally with whom agreements can be reached," he said.

Turning to the country's natural resources, he added, "Remember that our gas and our oil are a guarantee of western predictability in terms of relations with Turkmenistan. No one in the West will talk about human rights (as long as the beneficiaries of our energy reserves are mainly American companies). Forget about it."

And President Saparmurat Niazov's gamble is paying off, as western democracies seem to be turning a blind eye to Niazov's silent prison.

In Turkmenistan, there's no independent media, opposition parties nor trade unions and the authorities keep a tight rein on non-governmental organisations, NGOs. In 11 years, Niazov has systematically destroyed all potential resistance to his regime.

Some human rights activists have used the international spotlight on the region to push for change and highlight the intolerable conditions.

For instance, the International Helskini Federation declared in July, "The Turkmen government shows a complete intolerance of the opposition, persecutes critically-thinking people and imprisons or deports religious activists and has completely destroyed the basic institutions of democracy.

"In Turkmenistan, freedom of speech is completely absent. Only President Niazov can launch newspapers. The government has prohibited opera, ballet, concert halls and the circus and closed the Academy of Sciences.

"Only two religions are allowed - Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church. All others are prohibited, as are all non-Turkmen culture organisations. To marry a foreigner costs 50,000 US dollars.

"The government has replaced the national culture and spiritual values of the Turkmen people with the ideas and theses of the book Rukhnama, the fruit of President Niazov's imagination, and on which Turkmenistan citizens are required to swear oaths."

In his quest for the Turkmens' "Golden Age", the president overrides national legislation, substituting it with new "verbal law" which sees all Niazov's statements, even the most insignificant ones, taken as official directives by an army of officials.

The teachings of Rukhnama have been forced onto the population and are now studied in kindergartens, schools and institutes. When firms assess the skills of potential employees, the main criterion is their knowledge of Niazov's tome. He's ordered passages to be written on walls and domes of new mosques and to be read in between prayers.

There's little respite from the thoughts of the president, as all national media are state-owned - and exist solely to produce pro-regime propaganda.

There are no foreign channels and the import of overseas newspapers is forbidden, while the list of blocked Internet sites grows every week.

Niazov has tried to justify this lack of fundamental rights and liberties as necessary to maintain "stability". And more recently there has been an attempt to present the president's pseudo-national ideology as a return to "Turkmen traditions".

Recent decrees have seen the days of the week and the months renamed - including one after Niazov and another after his mother.

More worryingly for the future, the teaching of humanities subjects has been replaced by the study of the Rukhnama, ensuring that an entire generation will grow up knowing nothing of world culture or universal values - including human rights.

Diplomas from foreign universities have been declared invalid, so there is little incentive to study abroad and return home afterwards.

In saying that his people are "unprepared" for democracy, Niazov is taking Turkmen further and further away from the civilised world. But what alternatives do they have?

While around 15 of Niazov's inner circle have emigrated and sought to organise resistance from abroad, they are far from their constituency and, anyway, are perceived as bearing much responsibility for helping to create the regime they now seek to topple.

No meaningful opposition has managed to form, and the exiles have met with little success in persuading western countries to press the president into relaxing his grip on power.

The status quo suits both Turkmenistan's leadership and its new international partners who are keen to keep Niazov sweet.

While western nations build democracy in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, the lure of Turkmenistan's oil and gas, potential bases from which to conduct the "war on terror" and the country's openly anti-Russian policy mean that the rights of its citizens will continue to be overlooked.

The only unpredictable factor in this state of affairs is the continuing patience of the Turkmen people amid a continuing barrage of propaganda that tells them that they are happy - or soon will be.

Arslan Berdyev is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan

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