Turkmenistan: Sultanistic State
Lecture by Journaist and Researcher Yovshan Annagurban, of the Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty Turkmen Service presented at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies of Stanford Univercity - October 19, 2004
I would like to thank all of you for coming here. I would also like to apologize for the sad story about my homeland.
Turkmenistan, though rich in oil and gas reserves, is one of the poorest countries. Yet its president, Sapamurat Niyazov, is one of the richest men in Central Asia and acts as the owner of the whole country. Niyazov has ruled Turkmenistan since 1985, and in 1999 he was made president-for-life. He likes to be called “Turkmenbashi the Great”, and the parliament of Turkmenistan named him the supreme leader of all Turkmen. By this he pretends to be the leader of all Turkmen throughout the world.
According to Turkmen media, Niyazov is a holy man sent to the Turkmen people by God. He is the author of the holy book called Rukhname - The Book of Soul - which was sent by God through him for the Turkmen people, and not only for Turkmen people.
The first secretary of Turkmenistan's Democratic Party describes the book as “the most sacred of sacred”. Praising the president, he says that "there have been many great people, but none as great a person as Niyazov, and there has never before been anyone who has written on such a level".
If you are interested, you can read this book in English as well. Thanks to business people who make money on the Turkmen tragedy, this book was translated into dozens of languages.
Moreover, he is also a self-styled poet. Turkmen newspapers call him a poet-king.
"I am the Turkmen spirit reborn to bring you a golden age," reads one poem.
"I am your savior ... My sight is piercing - I see everything. If you are honest in your deeds, I see it; if you commit a sin, I see that too."
It seems to me like “Big brother is watching you”.
“Turkmenbashi the Great” teaches artists how to paint and doctors how to treat their patients. He knows how to bring about the best harvest and proves that fact every year on his own wheat fields. He even once set out to teach his people how to obtain a better egg yield and built his own chicken farm. Now, as he says, he is providing all the restaurants in Ashgabat with eggs and chicken.
Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world. The government systematically violates virtually all rights. Torture is systematic in Turkmenistan, and after being tortured one is forced to give thanks to the president for being so merciful.
Turkmenistan was named by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the “Top Ten” worst places in the world to be a journalist. In my point of view, Turkmenistan is one of the worst places for every human being and not for only journalists. Nobody feels safe there, not even “Turkmenbashi the Great”, himself, who is the most powerful man in Turkmenistan. He was and is still afraid of losing power. When I worked with him, he used to speak about being afraid to go to sleep without a gun. This fear has made him increasingly distrustful, paranoid and suspicious. As a result of this, he seeks to hold the entire populace under control and makes the lives of millions miserable.
Though today you might be a very important government official, a general, a diplomat or a writer in Turkmenistan, it doesn’t matter, for tomorrow you could very well be imprisoned, sent into exile, your property could easily be confiscated, or your house could be razed by bulldozers, by government orders. If you manage to escape the country and be granted asylum in another country, you are among the lucky few. Hundreds of former government officials and former KGB officers, tens of thousands of ordinary people are imprisoned or unemployed today. Most of the population of Turkmenistan lives under the poverty level.
Insiders claim that, unemployment in Turkmenistan is as high as 50%.
Before independence, we had only corrupt communists; since independence, thanks to Turkmenistan’s natural resources, corruption has doubled with the Turkish, European and other business people from around the world. It has completely ruined our weak and fragile economy.
In the Soviet period people could earn a little by producing cotton, now all the profits go to the president and his collaborators. All revenues from natural gas and petroleum go directly into the president’s private bank accounts in foreign banks.
As the population of Turkmenistan becomes poorer, the crime rate, prostitution and the number of drug addicts grows, the regime of Turkmenbashi becomes stronger. Some experts say that, in seeking to secure his position as absolute ruler, Niyazov has created a social, political and moral crisis in Turkmenistan and further isolated the country from the rest of the world. He thinks that if the population is concerned only with survival until the next day and is unable to buy Kalashnikovs he is safe. He even once asked Turkish businessmen not to pay higher wages to the Turkmen, as it might spoil them. As a result of that, a Turkmen engineer working for a major Turkish company in Turkmenistan makes around 150 dollars a month, while a Turkish engineer who does the same job makes ten times that amount.
Mr. Niyazov was the first post-soviet leader to order the bodies of executed criminals to be televised. He also ordered students to be taken into prisons, to witness the conditions of the inmates there. He explained this by saying that it would be useful for upbringing the new generation. At the same time, the rule of law doesn’t exist in Turkmenistan. As Turkmen newspapers write, the law is the president and any word uttered by him.
By this Niyazov brushed aside any shred of safety and security for the Turkmen people. Then he ordered that people not be arrested for the possession of opium if it was intended for their own use. He said that drug use is a traditional Turkmen way of life, which is absolutely false. With unemployment rising dramatically, it seemed like all the gates of the city were opened to the enemy. Turkmenistan has long borders with Afghanistan and Iran, where is no problem in finding cheap heroin.
Originally, one could receive a death sentence if caught with more then a kilogram of soft drugs. Later it was possible to escape the sentence by paying ,000, which later rose to ,000 or ,000 and finally to 0,000. This of course didn’t prevent the flow of drugs into the country but rather increased it. In fact, the government didn’t want to stop it. Because of this policy, drug use has spread dramatically in Turkmenistan.
According to the Turkmen president himself, high-ranking security officers also use and sell it.
In the regions close to the Afghan border, the majority of men have been convicted of drug trafficking. To be released from prison, one must pay bribes, and to obtain that money one has to go to Afghanistan. In this way, in some villages whole families have been arrested for drug trafficking. By Turkmen tradition, when someone dies the whole village is involved in the burial and only the men are allowed into the cemetery. Drug trafficking and arrests have emptied some villages, and there are not enough men to attend the burials of their countrymen. In the last 100 years, this has happened only once before, and that was during WWII. Some districts have sent delegates to the president to explain the situation and plea for the release of their people from prisons.
Following this, Niyazov instituted an annual amnesty through which about 10,000 prisoners are released every year. On the one hand, he seemed merciful, and on the other hand he emptied the crowded prisons. Indeed, at that time he already had a big problem with overcrowding in prisons and in the Ashgabat prison, during the hot summer uprising about 40 inmates were killed. Turkmenistan is one of the hottest countries in the world, and it makes crowded prison conditions additionally hard. During the summers in the crowded cells, people die from lack of oxygen. However, the Turkmen police, and the security officials have worked as hard as possible to arrest and to sentence as many people as possible, because they were making a lot of money this way. At the same time, information or statistics on the number of drug addicts, seizures and other issues related to drugs are not available in Turkmenistan. Even the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime cannot access this 'sensitive' data.
After the so-called assassination attempt on Niyazov, in Turkmenistan hundreds of people have been detained and tortured, a number of detainees have been forced to make false confessions in front of a video camera, and the entire self-denouncing process was televised as a proof of their awful crime. In my opinion, only after that, after 25 November 2002, was this neo-Stalinism finally brought to the International Community.
Freimut Duve, the OSCE’s Media Freedom Representative, condemned the government of Turkmenistan for using the media to humiliate and terrorize political opponents and critics.
Duve said that, Turkmen television has been broadcasting show-trials of individuals accused of attempting to assassinate president Niyazov. The broadcasts show members of the public demanding that the accused be put to death. Mr. Duve also said “These are the same methods that were used during the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s in the Soviet Union.” He added that the broadcasts included explicit racist language. Commenting on opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov, Niyazov was quoted as saying “His blood is diluted with the blood of a different nationality. Previously, to make Turkmen weaker, their blood was diluted. Where the true blood of our ancestors is mixed with other blood their national spirit is low,” said president Niyazov.
Later the American Ambassador to the OSCE, Stephen Minikes, called upon the government of Turkmenistan to allow access to those in detention. As expected or as learned, Turkmenistan has ignored all these demands.
According to HRW, the Turkmen government has persistently refused to cooperate with the international community. Although it has ratified most key United Nations human rights treaties, it has not filed a single report to the U.N. treaty bodies. It has failed to comply with the resolutions adopted by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly in 2003 and 2004.
Even after all these criticisms, Niyazov is continuing with his neo-Stalinist practices. Few months ago there was published a book called “My Fellow Terrorists and I”. The government says that this book was written in prison by a former Vice-Prime Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who is serving a life term for planning a coup to overthrow the ‘holy’ president. In this book Mr. Shikhmuradov describes himself as a terrorist and praises the president as a hero.
Even an American citizen, Leonid Komarowski, who was arrested among the so called terrorists, wrote two books praising the holy president just to be released from “Turkmen paradise”.
When a group of terrorists kidnaps innocent people and forces them to beg for their life, it is considered awful crime. But when the government kidnaps innocent people and forces them to denounce themselves and to beg for their lives in front of a video camera and televise that as a great victory, it is normal. When the government holds its entire population hostage, it is normal. The Turkmen government, or its National Security Ministry, has for 13 years now perpetrated this very crime and the international community has sought to be as polite as possible with this regime.
When terrorists take hostages or kidnap people, they claim responsibility, but when the Turkmen government kidnaps activists or journalists, they deny it. After being forced into this kind of denouncement, the exhausted hostages are usually released from the former KGB cells.
One may want to ask what the Turkmen themselves think about their current situation. At the beginning of independence, they thought that Russia would finally leave them alone for good and everything would be OK. Mr. Niyazov also said that. He stated that Turkmenistan had all resources it needed to rebuild the nation and the people have no need to worry about the future. People were very naive, unprepared, and wanted to believe in the president. Maybe they thought that it would be easier to believe in the president and wait for a better life than fight for their rights.
Anyone who didn’t believe in the government and wanted to speak out, to write about how they thought or to try to create opposition movements had big problems with the government. Some people died accidental deaths, some of them were arrested as criminals and tortured, some placed in a mental hospital and so on.
International organizations simply asked Niyazov to release all political prisoners or retry them openly, and that is all they can do. Because of that and because of their patience, Turkmen people live tormented in the harshest of conditions. It seems like that the president wants everyone to go through a jail term and this creates the fear of being tortured. At the same time, he tells stories about Moses and his adventures with his followers.
Mr. Niyazov says that there is nobody in Turkmenistan who suffers or is persecuted for his opinion. However, obtaining a confession from every detainee before the trial has now become a tradition, because in this way no evidence of wrongdoing is needed. As soon as they arrest you, they say that you only have to confess your crime and ask mercy from the president, and he will pardon you.
The most dangerous thing in Turkmenistan is to be a member of the opposition or an independent journalist. If you are a political prisoner and you have some hope of being supported by international organizations, they threaten your family and children. Meanwhile, thousands of Turkmen citizens die untimely deaths in prisons or after prison because of torture and squalid conditions.
Even the men who have stood closest to the president and helped to create this hell are not safe. When exiled members of the opposition accused Mr. Niyazov of being involved with the drug trafficking, he hurried to blame his KGB or National Security officials. As a result, scores of them were sentenced to 18 to 25 years in prison, including four former heads of the KGB.
I have to admit that the International community is becoming more and more aware of this situation and is trying to create various opportunities for the Turkmen people. For example, Mr. Niyazov doesn’t want Turkmen children to learn English and to study abroad. At the same time, a new group of U.S Peace Corps Volunteers is arriving in Turkmenistan. The Peace Corps has been present in Turkmenistan for over 10 years. Over 400 volunteers have worked in the country during this time. At present, the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers take part in two programs of the Corps – “Healthcare” and “Education”.
But Mr. Niyazov has his own policy. Because of this policy, over the last ten years in Turkmenistan, tens of thousands of teachers and doctors were fired from their jobs. Declaring his new educational policy, Niyazov has decimated the country’s education system. Enrollment at higher educational institutions has declined from roughly 40,000 to an estimated 3,500. Compulsory education in Turkmenistan is now limited to only nine years.
The elimination of certain core subjects — such as foreign languages — from school curricula and the emphasis on the Rukhnama deprives students from having access to basic knowledge and information.
International organizations say that religious freedom and minority rights are absent in Turkmenistan. But nobody in Turkmenistan has rights. Even the workers for international organizations live under the fear of being expelled prematurely.
According to Niyazov, today’s Turkmenistan is a flourishing state with many development indicators unmatched anywhere in the world. But all these statistics are false or just words that were used before by the Soviet propaganda machine day in and day out. In fact, the country today is “in ruins”. According to local observers and IWPR, Turkmenistan is facing a sexual health crisis as increasing numbers of young women move into prostitution in order to make a living in the poverty-stricken republic. On the streets of the capital Ashgabat, girls as young as 14 are now offering their services for as little as one US dollar.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Turkmenistan became an independent country, Mr. Niyazov promised to make it a second Kuwait, well-known throughout the world. Instead of that, Mr. Niyazov became well-known because of his unpredictable behavior. While most working people in Turkmenistan are unable to make even a dollar a day, he gives 10-15,000 dollars to singers who publicly praise him with their songs.
He is unique the world over for changing the names of the months and giving them his and his mother’s names. There are thousands of streets, districts, villages, and factories named after him and his portraits and statues are visible everywhere.
Recently, the highest Turkmen mountain peak was renamed “Turkmenbashi the Great Peak”. The great leader punished his eight ministers by cutting their wages for three months for not telling the truth about the poor cotton and wheat harvest.
Some experts say that he plays God in his desert country, and his behavior affects the political life throughout Central Asia. According to one Helsinki Commission official, he was the first president from the former Soviet republics not to answer letters or demands from international organizations concerning the dreadful human rights record in his country.
He was the first among post-soviet leaders to extend his term in office through fake referendums. There are no other political parties than the former Communist Party of Turkmenistan, which has changed its name to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Its head was and remains Mr. Niyazov, who was the first atheist and now the first Muslim, who encourages the building of mosques everywhere instead of schools or other necessities.
If you are a citizen of Turkmenistan, you cannot criticize the president or doubt his policy because you have to take the following oath of loyalty:
my beloved motherland,
my beloved homeland!
You are always with me
In my thoughts and in my heart.
For the slightest evil against you
Let my hand be lost.
For the slightest slander against you
Let my tongue be lost.
At the moment of my betrayal
To my motherland,
To her sacred banner,
To Saparmyrat Turkmenbashi the Great
Let my breath stop.
Of course, Turkmenistan is not Iran or the former Iraq, and not North Korea, but Turkmen prison conditions are harsher than the Gulags, and Niyazov is no less cruel than Saddam Hussein.Once you are considered an enemy of the government of Turkmenistan, your children and relatives also become enemies of the state, and there is growing hatred and fear, poverty and ignorance.
But, according Martti Ahtisaari, personal envoy of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office to Central Asia, it is perfectly acceptable that the Turkmen government is not planning to invite international observers for the forthcoming parliamentary elections in the country. Martti Ahtisaari says that in this situation the OSCE "should not persist, for the period of transformation of society requires time and patience, especially when a nation state is forming."
As dictators torture their own people, the international community is content to limit itself to soft spoken criticisms and recommendations, and many other nations help these dictators to arm. Currently, the Turkmen government has decided to re-arm its military, and countries such as Iran, Ukraine and Russia are very excited.
And I won’t be surprised if I hear one day that the unpredictable president of Turkmenistan is trying to develop his nuclear program or something similar.
Even if not, many problems will remain even after Niyazov, because for 13 years chaos has run rampant while the rule of law has been eliminated. The foundation is set for terrorism and radical Islam.
Unfortunately, the international community first raises up a dictator just to fight against him later. The costs of these actions are great.