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

Turkmenistan: State of Fear

Officials and ordinary citizens live in constant fear as the Turkmen president stamps on potential opposition - real or imagined.
By Azat Kakabaev

The Turkmen authorities' crackdown on potential sources of opposition has extended to include government officials and ordinary people, creating an atmosphere of widespread fear.


President Saparmurat Niazov - who likes to be known as Turkmenbashi or "Leader of the Turkmen" - launched a purge reminiscent of the Stalinist years after an attempt on his life in November 2002. He accused a group led by former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov of masterminding the failed attack on his motorcade, from which he escaped unhurt.


A former member of the security service who wished to remain anonymous told IWPR that in the police sweep that followed, at least 10,000 people were brought in for questioning. More than 1,000 of these were arrested, he said.


In a show trial broadcast on national TV on December 30, the alleged plotters read out prepared confessions. Most received lengthy sentences. Shikhmuradov was amongst a number to get life terms.


Despite tight restrictions on information, and the lack of independent media, reports leaked out about how the investigation was conducted. A security source told IWPR that about half of the 1,000 people arrested were drugged and tortured.


The arrests were not confined to those labelled as being part of the opposition. Even government officials were under suspicion.


A former official in Turkmenbashi's administration told IWPR what happened to him, "I was taken away - still in my slippers - at 11 in the evening. I spent the latter part of my life working alongside the president, and what I've learned in my old age is to shudder every time I hear someone walking past the house at night."


"No, I wasn't beaten or given injections, but I heard that happening to other people. I don't know how I'll ever forget those cries."


The failed assassination prompted Turkmenbashi to target his own government. Although the political elite is entirely his own creation, even before November he would routinely sack ministers and have some of them arrested. He is clearly concerned that potential challengers to his rule could emerge from the administration. The trend intensified after November, and those arrested included former speaker of parliament Tagandurdy Khallyev, former foreign minister Batyr Berdyev and a number of provincial governors.


Open political opposition does not exist in Turkmenistan. The few remaining opposition leaders are in exile abroad, many of them in Russia. Turkmenbashi is intent on eliminating the threat from them altogether, and used a visit to Moscow in April to annul a dual citizenship arrangement which had allowed them to remain in Russia safely. Many opposition activists have begun leaving for western countries. Those who have not managed to do so are in hiding, for fear the Russian police will extradite them to Turkmenistan.


At home, Turkmenbashi has vented his ire on the families of his opponents. Both immediate family members and distant relatives of those arrested after the failed assassination have undergone various forms of pressure and intimidation.


Some have been jailed, others have lost their jobs, and others have been exiled to remote parts of the country. They are banned from going abroad, and their movement inside the country is restricted. They are subject to constant surveillance and their telephones are bugged.


A 35-year old businessman from Chardjou in western Turkmenistan told IWPR how his family had been affected, "Some of my distant relatives were accused of being involved. We don't know what has happened to some of the others. We called one of them once, and the next day KGB agents visited our family and asked why we had contacted them.


"I am scared to visit Ashgabat, and go there only if I really need to."


As in the 1930s, even children suffer if they are related to what the state refers to as "enemies of the people" - itself a Stalinist term, now rehabilitated. Young people have been expelled from schools and universities.


A teacher who lives in Ashgabat witnessed how such children are treated. "They (security service officers) came to my class and made a list of these pupils," she told IWPR. "The children were then taken away for 'interviews' and they clearly looked very upset when they returned. I don't know how they can bear psychological pressure like that."


Even members of the public with no possible connection to the November attack are in danger of arbitrary arrest. Those who spoke to IPWR did so on the basis of anonymity, and expressed fear.


One man from the Dashkhovuz region in northern Turkmenistan told IWPR about his experiences since November. He had moved to the capital because he was unemployed and was looking for work. "I have been taken to the police station twice, where they beat me up and asked me why I'd come to Ashgabat," he said.


"The first time, we were detained in November, held for two weeks and checked that we had not come to participate in a [anti-government] rally. Now it is calmer but I am still afraid.


"If they arrest me again they might send me to a remote place in the desert."


The Turkmen authorities remain impervious to attempts by international organisations to encourage them to modify their behaviour. With western governments seemingly powerless to act, people in Turkmenistan are falling ever deeper into despair.


Azat Kakabaev is the pseudonym for a journalist in Turkmenistan


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