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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 00:19 GMT
Turkmenistan: Isolated but dangerous
By the BBC's Monica Whitlock

A poster of the president is carried through the streets of Ashgabat during a parade to mark the tenth anniversary of independence from the USSR
The president sees himself as a prophet sent by God.
Turkmenistan, sandwiched between Iran and Afghanistan, has long been ignored except as a source of gas and oil.

But as the rule of its eccentric President, Saparmurat Niyazov, becomes ever more violent and unpredictable, maybe it is time the world started to take notice.

Robert Templer, Central Asia director of the International Crisis Group, said: "There's a real risk that it could become the next Afghanistan - and it certainly could become a danger to the rest of the world."

Turkmenistan sits squarely in one of the world's most sensitive political zones - Afghanistan to the south, Iran to the west, while Russia stands guard further to the north beyond Kazakhstan.

The country is almost all desert, beneath which lie some of the biggest proven gas and oil reserves on the planet.

You have a society that in many ways is in a form of breakdown at the moment
Robert Templer, International Crisis Group
Power rests in the hands of one man - Mr Niyazov, called Turkmenbashi or leader of Turkmens - whose singular rule is so aggressive that every Turkmen must swear to perish rather than betray him.

In 1990, as leader of newly independent Turkmenistan, Mr Niyazov plastered the country with his portraits, and built extravagant palaces and a giant revolving statue of himself.

He locked up his enemies and made the nation sing in his honour.

His pronouncements became ever more bizarre. In 2001 Mr Niyazov warned his people that "foreign powers" were secretly photographing their crops.

He held an international symposium on melons and renamed some months of the year after himself.

Poverty and political repression

Underpinning the Turkmen economy was, and is, the promise of wealth from gas.

But so far relatively little money has materialised. That is because the only big pipeline - a Soviet legacy - runs to Russia, and Moscow refuses to pay the market price.

President Saparmurat Niyazov Palace in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
The president has had a huge palace built in his honour
The limited revenue that has been generated has not permeated through to the country at large.

"The wealth is really concentrated in the hands of the president and a few people around him," said Robert Templar.

Already isolated, from next month no Turkmen will be allowed to leave the country without government permission. Not surprisingly, there has been a scramble to leave before the door shuts.

Tajigul, a young mother, was one of those who succeeded.

Now living in London, she said: "It seems like we've come back to the Soviet Union in 1937, when everything was based on the sayings of Lenin, Marx and Engels, on Stalin. It's happening now in Turkmenistan."

She said the government encouraged people to spy on each other - and that dissenters were repressed, tortured, imprisoned or sent to live in the desert.

Aya, another Turkmen who now lives in London, said her eldest son had to read extracts from the president's book every morning.

When she told his teacher she was not happy about this, the police took Aya away and demanded to know why her nine-year-old son was not willing to die for Mr Niyazov.

There followed such bad harassment that the family fled the country.

That was six months ago. Since then, things have become even worse.

Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, the acceptable face of the Turkmen Government, was arrested in December.

A fluent English speaker, it was Mr Shikhmuradov who met the foreigners, did the deals and glossed away the president's odder pronouncements.

But in a recorded speech last year, he was seen grey-faced and halting, confessing that he tried to assassinate Mr Niyazov.

His family now has no idea of his whereabouts, his well-being, or indeed whether he is dead or alive.

'Form of breakdown'

Rachel Denber, head of Human Rights Watch for Central Asia, said she found it baffling that even at the level of the United Nations, there was a failure to acknowledge the gravity of the situation.

Turkmen people, Ashgabat
Many people live in poverty, despite the potential wealth from gas
"Kofi Annan went to Turkmenistan in October and toasted the president. I think that people were bitterly disappointed by that lack of acknowledgement," she said.

The International Crisis Group says foreign governments must put far more - and more visible - pressure on Turkmenbashi, not just for the sake of the Turkmens but for themselves.

"You have a society that in many ways is in a form of breakdown at the moment," said Robert Templar.

Looking ahead there are different scenarios that Turkmenistan's neighbours - and countries further afield - may have to think about.

Turkmenbashi could hang on for some years, paralysing society still further.

He could die or become too ill to carry on, leaving no successor.

Or he could be overthrown suddenly and by force to be replaced by - who knows what.

None of these prospects seems likely to make this troubled and inaccessible country more stable.




SEE ALSO:
Turkmenistan's gilded poverty
19 Jun 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Turkmen live by leader's book
29 May 02 |  Asia-Pacific
The cult of the Turkmen leader
02 Nov 01 |  Asia-Pacific
Dozens convicted in Turkmen death 'plot'
25 Jan 03 |  Asia-Pacific
'Stalinist' Turkmen media attacked
16 Jan 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Turkmen leader to rename calendar
08 Aug 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Turkmenistan
26 Jan 03 |  Country profiles


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