Report - Opposition Movements:
OPPOSITION IN EXILE:
Turkmenistan features one of Central Asia’s most repressive political systems, but cracks in President Saparmurat Niyazov’s authoritarian façade appeared in 2002. For much of the last decade, Niyazov had been successful in crushing all domestic challenges to his authority. However, several high-profile defections over the past year or so stung Niyazov, and provided a large boost to exile-engineered efforts to oust the Turkmen leader. Niyazov responded by carrying out a series of government purges, particularly in the country’s security apparatus. These developments lent Niyazov’s regime an air of vulnerability. The failed attempt to assassinate Niyazov on November 25 served to heighten the possibility of a political confrontation.
known as Turkmenbashi – Leader of the Turkmen – Niyazov has likened himself to
a prophet, as well as to
Throughout 2002, faults in the authoritarian system became evident. The National Security Committee (KNB), successor to the KGB, which had previously been given carte blanche when it came to enforcing Niyazov’s wishes, themselves became the victims of purges throughout March and April. One by one, those in KNB leadership positions, and even a few in Niyazov’s innermost circle, fell into disfavor and were dismissed. The purges continued through the fall. Additionally, a number of high-ranking officials and business leaders fled the country over the course of the year.
The personnel changes, combined with geopolitical shifts and several outrageous proclamations – including a decree renaming the months and days of the week – have brought increased international attention to the various Turkmen opposition groups.
The assassination attempt of late November – responsibility for which has not been claimed by any group, opposition or otherwise – highlights the more public nature of the conflict between government and opposition. Authorities state that they have incontrovertible proof of the complicity of some members of the opposition. However, a number of exiled politicians, such as Saparmurat Yklimov, who has been labeled a conspirator by the government, claim authorities themselves orchestrated the assassination attempt to legitimize a crackdown on the opposition.
Independent Political Movements
In 1991, when the republics of the Soviet Union gained independence, Turkmenistan was the strongest voice for maintaining the status quo, with 98 percent of the population voting to remain part of the USSR. Niyazov, head of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan since 1985, was subsequently elected president of the newly independent state. From the start, Niyazov shunned reform, instead maintaining tight state control over the country’s civil life.
opposed to Niyazov emerged toward the close of Gorbachev’s perestroika era. In
1989, Nurberdy Nurmamedov, Babpa Gheoklen, Akhmuhamed Velsapar and other
members of the cultural elite created
members of the
Given the tradition of rule from above that dominated Turkmenistani and Soviet society, grassroots support for these early opposition groups was limited, and membership consisted primarily of representatives of the country’s learned elite. Meanwhile Niyazov courted public opinion – to a certain degree – with a tough stance on crime and a pledge to maintain state-subsidized food distribution.
to 1993, various opposition groups conducted limited protests against the
rapidly entrenching Niyazov regime, including strikes, pickets, and attempts to
introduce alternative candidates during elections. Consolidating his power-base,
Niyazov moved to suppress his critics in the intelligentsia. Law enforcement
officials arrested leading Agzybirlik figure Shirali Nurmuradov on accusations
Kadyrov, Velsapar, and other prominent dissidents felt compelled to leave the
country. Salamatov, Nurmamedov, and a few others remain in
By 1993, the KNB had eliminated almost all traces of domestic opposition, and Niyazov’s personality cult had begun to take root.
Despite a common desire to bring about political change in
activity was limited from 1998-2001. In 1999, Niyazov restored the system of
entry and exit visas, according to which any person wishing to leave the
country was required to apply to the authorities for permission. In addition to
restricting freedom of movement, this policy made it difficult for Niyazov
critics in exile to maintain ties with opponents inside the country. Ultimately,
Kuliev’s activities dwindled as his movement struggled in the face of increased
persecution of activists within
opposition began to reassert itself in November 2001, following the defection
of Boris Shikhmuradov,
Shikhmuradov’s defection polarized the opposition in exile, with most falling into two distinct camps. Critics from the first wave of opposition émigrés regard Shikhmuradov with suspicion, given his long association with and previous support for Niyazov’s regime. Many perceive him to be corrupt, or at the very least severely compromised by his past. Avdi Kuliev remains the focal point for the first wave of opposition exiles.
Kuliev believed changes to
By the time
of Shikhmuradov’s defection, Kuliev’s political stance had shifted from moderate
ethnic nationalism to a vaguer, social-democratic platform that allowed him to
effectively absorb various factions. In 1997 the Turkmenistan Foundation
evolved into the UOMT, a broad alliance of exiled groups including: the Russian
Community of Turkmenistan, headed by Anatoly Fomin, the Communist and
Social-Democratic parties of
By many accounts, prior to leaving Turkmenistan Kuliev enjoyed strong popular support. His fluent Turkmen and personal charisma endowed him with considerable backing in the smaller cities and rural areas. However, Kuliev’s current appeal is extremely difficult to gauge, given that he has been in exile for a decade, his funding restricted to grants from non-governmental donors and human rights groups.
Shikhmuradov is a politician with more than twenty-five years’ experience in both the Soviet and Turkmenistani diplomatic corps, primarily in
In the months following Shikhmuradov’s defection, a number of other high-ranking officials joined his new opposition movement, leading Kadyrov to classify them as the "nomenklatura opposition." The Provisional Executive Council of Shikhmuradov’s movement claims twenty-three members. The eleven publicly known members are former political and business figures such as ex-Central Bank chief Khudaiberdi Orazov, former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmuhammed Hanamov, and a number of other former diplomats and officials. The identities of the remaining twelve members of the Executive Council are concealed, as they are purportedly still inside the country.
Shikhmuradov, a liberal pragmatist, publicly favors closer ties with the West and believes that he and his supporters are more likely to attract support from the international community than Kuliev. Like Kuliev, Shikhmuradov advocates democratic principles; however, in the event of a regime change Shikhmuradov’s group would declare an eighteen-month "transitional period" in which no elections would be held. This would be a period of intensive economic reform, involving the privatization of a number of state-owned industries. Despite accusations that he used his governmental positions for personal enrichment, Shikhmuradov’s platform is popular with pro-Western intellectuals and educated youth in Ashgabat. He also claims to have the support of many officials remaining in Niyazov’s government that are allegedly fed up with Niyazov’s extremes.
As interest in
observers feel that the
Niyazov’s balancing act may not last for long. American military action in
Heightened attention to the region and Niyazov’s increasingly repressive policies have spurred the opposition to increase its activities. Both Shikhmuradov and Kuliev are of the opinion that further steps can only be taken by moving the center of opposition activity into the country itself.
Although reluctant to speak openly about future plans, Kuliev is said to be working at establishing reliable means of communication with groups of supporters inside the country. In addition, the UOMT is attempting to distribute leaflets and copies of their journal on floppy disks inside the country. Kuliev claims that the coordination of formerly isolated groups opposed to Niyazov has improved in recent months. He hopes that the UOMT’s activities inside Turkmenistan, combined with pressure from Western countries, Russia and international human rights organizations, will create conditions allowing the opposition to return.
Shikhmuradov, who had previously believed combined pressure from the nomenklatura within the country and external pressure from the West would force Niyazov to step down, has since realized the necessity of garnering the popular support. He and his supporters are presently looking for ways to influence public thinking, and are hoping to organize protest actions to topple the regime from inside. In late August, the Temporary Executive Council of Shikhmuradov’s organization decided to coordinate their eventual return to the country with members of the Russian and Western media, in the hopes that such a group action would limit punitive measures by Niyazov. Kuliev has long advocated similar strategies. However, Niyazov’s visa-tightening measures and newly implemented regulations since the assassination attempt requiring mandatory interrogation of all foreigners entering the country could create serious obstacles to their future return.
to the Shikhmuradov and Kuliev camps, there reportedly are a number of less
prominent groups that have been jockeying for position, such as one led by
former Deputy Prime Minister Nazar Soyunov. In addition, another, less
quantifiable, influence is that of the narcotics cartels that control much of
the drug trade that flows through
In June of this year, the International Helsinki Federation (IHF) and the Russia-based organization Memorial convened a conference in
raised hopes and high turnout, Shikhmuradov did not appear at the
Despite recognizing that a unified front would enhance their position, Shikhmuradov, Kuliev and their supporters remain divided. The two groups have several substantial obstacles to overcome before any talk of a merger can occur. Rivalries, mistrust, and competing visions continue to keep the opposition movements apart. Given Niyazov’s present crackdowns and their anticipated intensification as the reaction to the assassination attempt gathers steam, neither group seems likely to force him from power in the near future.
there have been a number of recent reports of civil unrest in the country in
addition to the November attempt on Niyazov’s life, such as the October 10
distribution of anti-government leaflets in the northern town of