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

Turkmenistan: Russians Queue to Leave

Russians are trying to leave Turkmenistan in droves, but face huge bureaucratic hurdles.
By Niazik Ataeva

Nearly two thousand agitated people are thronging outside the Russian embassy, anxious to get their papers stamped so they can leave their homes in Turkmenistan forever.


Despite the blistering summer heat in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, people are prepared to stand in the queue for days if they have to. Yelena, a teacher from the west of the country, is one of them.


"We are number 1,623 in this line," she told IWPR. "It will take about three days and nights for us to get inside the embassy and turn in our papers."


She has no plans to step out of the queue, "They do roll calls here all the time. If you miss one, they'll automatically delete you from the list."


Yelena is part of the 150,000 ethnic Russian community, many of whom hold joint Turkmen and Russian citizenship and are now being forced to choose one of the two. Things are getting urgent now that the June 22 deadline which the Turkmen government has set for dual passport-holders to make their choice has passed.


The consequences of either option are fairly grim. If they choose Turkmen citizenship, they will find it hard to travel outside the country in future - and that would cut the ties that many have in Russia. If they decide to keep their Russian passport, they immediately become foreign nationals and could forfeit their homes and other property. Without a visa for Turkmenistan - their home country - they could also be deported.


It is unclear how strictly Turkmen officials are implementing the new regulations at this early stage. Yet officials in Moscow, including President Vladimir Putin, say they have received assurances from their counterparts in Turkmenistan that no drastic action will be taken.


Russian passport-holders are taking no chances. People interviewed by IWPR said that their understanding was that from now on, only Turkmen passports would be accepted as valid identification.


Those who opt to retain their Russian passport still have to apply for an entry visa to Russia before they can go. The visa process is disorganised and the atmosphere tense. Consular officials offer no advice, and Turkmen police armed with truncheons are standing by.


"Here we are, at the gates of the embassy of a country of which we are citizens," complained Yelena. "What other embassy would treat its citizens like this?"


Sergei, with his wife and two young children, has been waiting outside the embassy for two days now. "We have to be here, every single one of us," he told IWPR. "They require you to be present in person when the papers are issued."


As Sergei's children started to cry, others in the queue showed sympathy and told their mother to take them into the shade.


Before the June deadline, Sergei had tried to go on what he called a "'reconnaissance mission" to find housing and work in Russia so that he could bring his family out later. But the Turkmen authorities would not give him an exit visa.


"This time they have let us go, on condition that we never come back. How can I let my kids grow up in this country?" he said. There are no Russian-language schools left in Turkmenistan, and schooling has been cut to nine years.


Despite the chaos, the Russian charge d'affaires in Ashgabat has tried to calm fears that the rights of dual passport-holders are being breached. Quoted by the Interfax news agency on June 24, he said, "Nothing tragic or terrible has happened."


Those who have got as far as queuing for a Russian visa are relatively lucky. The preliminary hurdle - getting a Turkmen exit visa - is even tougher. Lines form at the visa office at four in the morning, people put their names down on a list and have to turn up every three of four days until their number comes up and they can submit their papers. Then there are weeks of waiting, and not everyone is granted a visa.


"I spent the whole day in the line, and then the [Turkmen] foreign ministry clerk typed my name into his computer and told me I was denied a visa," said a student trying to go to Russia for his end-of-term exams.


No explanations are given, "The clerk wouldn't even look at me again, let alone offer any explanation. He went straight on to the next person in the line."


"Only three out of our group of 90 people received exit visas," the young man said.


Russians who manage to sell up their property and obtain the relevant stamps in their passports still face problems getting out of Turkmenistan. Because of the atmosphere of panic, all flights to Moscow are fully booked until August 21. A bribe of 100 US dollars is needed to get a seat before then.


Although Russia agreed to end the joint citizenship arrangement at a summit in Moscow in April, the decision to impose it so soon and on such harsh terms came solely from the Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov, better known as Turkmenbashi. His actions provoked a tough response from the Russian parliament, which - prior to the deadline - harshly criticised Turkmenistan for its treatment of Russians and its repressive policies in general.


Despite this level of political pressure, the Turkmen government has not backed away from the tough new regulations. And local Russians are taking them seriously.


Niazik Ataeva is the pseudonym used by a journalist in Ashgabat.