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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 18:51 GMT 19:51 UK
Russians 'flee' Turkmenistan
Russian family arriving from Ashgabat
New rules forbid all members of a family to be abroad at once

Russian media are reporting that members of Turkmenistan's ethnic Russian minority are leaving in panic as a deadline forcing them to decide on one citizenship looms on Sunday.

Many reportedly fear being trapped in a state which has been widely criticised for human rights abuses and has imposed severe restrictions on foreign travel for its citizens.

President Saparmurat Niyazov announced his decision to end an agreement with Russia on dual citizenship on 22 April, giving people with both passports two months to decide on which to keep.

He has accused Russia's media of seeking to discredit his country as outraged Russian politicians and the Moscow media lambast his government's treatment of the minority.

Turkmenbashi does not want any information about his country to be disseminated
Russian journalist Leonid Komarovsky

As the deadline comes closer, Russian television stations have been showing Turkmen Russians, some in tears, arriving in Moscow with all their possessions, in the hope of living with friends and relatives in Russia.

One young woman had come to the airport to pick up her 82-year-old mother, who has lived in Turkmenistan since she was six.

"They were told: Dual citizenship's coming to an end. So choose - either you're in Turkmenistan and you're Turkmens or you're in Russia, since you've got Russian citizenship," Natalia told Russian TV.

'The lucky ones'

People regard those who have got out as lucky, according to the TV report.

Those without Russian passports may be forced to become Turkmens and fear that they may never be able to come back to Russia again.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov (R)
Niyazov is suspicious of any opposition

The Turkmen Government has banned women under 35 from receiving exit visas and members of a given family will not be allowed to all leave the country at the same time.

Russians say Mr Niyazov, who has styled himself Turkmenbashi or "leader of the Turkmens", is waging a campaign against the Russian minority and language.

"Russians are being fired from workplaces, and none taken on," a woman flying into Moscow told Russia's NTV television channel.

"The president is closing down Russian schools. He has prohibited the Russian language so that no a single letter of Russian can be seen anywhere."

Isolation

Some believe the aim of the travel and citizenship restrictions is to prevent bad news about his government from leaving the country.

"All this is a witch-hunt. This is an attempt to isolate Turkmenistan entirely from the world and, in particular, from Russia," says the chairman of the Russian foreign affairs committee, Dmitri Rogozin.

The Russian parliament on 17 June declared Turkmenistan unsafe for Russian citizens.

Russian journalist Leonid Komarovsky, who recently returned to Russia after being imprisoned in Turkmenistan, agrees, arguing that the freedom to travel that dual citizenship confers is a thorn in Mr. Niyazov's side.

"Turkmenbashi does not want any information about his country to be disseminated," he told Ekho Moskvy radio.

"Not a single Russian or Western journalist is accredited in Turkmenistan. There is nothing. Simply darkness and hopelessness and a complete absence of any true information coming from there."

Fury

The criticisms have infuriated Mr Niyazov, who recently accused the Russian media of mounting a campaign to discredit his country.

The problem has been acknowledged by Russian President Vladimir Putin who says he has been given assurances that the new rules do not apply to people who already have dual citizenship.

Moreover, Mr Putin says Mr Niyazov has promised there will be no deterioration in Russian citizens' status until a joint Russian-Turkmen commission has investigated the situation.

However, so far, Moscow and Ashgabat cannot even agree on the size of the Russian minority.

While Moscow estimates the number of ethnic Russian Turkmen nationals at 100,000 to 150,000, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry, citing different legal standards, puts the figure at a mere 47.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.


SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Turkmenistan
24 May 03  |  Country profiles
Turkmenistan: Isolated but dangerous
27 Feb 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Turkmen leader overcome by modesty
07 Feb 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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