Special Report - Opposition Movements:
Rustem Safronov:


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.

Officially known as Turkmenbashi – Leader of the Turkmen – Niyazov has likened himself to a prophet, as well as to Turkey’s great modernizer, Kemal Ataturk. Since Turkmenistan gained independence, Niyazov has built a personality cult that evokes some aspects of the Stalinist era. At the same time, the Turkmen leader has curtailed basic economic and political rights, crushing any opposition and heavily censoring the media.

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.


Early 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.

Organizations 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 Turkmenistan’s first opposition movement, Agzybirlik. Like similar groups in other former Soviet republics, this intelligentsia-led movement called for both democratic reforms and cultural revival. After decades of state-sponsored Russification, they appealed for the restoration of Turkmen as the country’s language and advocated a revitalization of folk traditions. On January 12, 1990, Agzybirlik organized the opposition’s first significant political demonstration. Held in the town of Geok-Teppe, this important symbolic gathering commemorated the 110th anniversary of the siege and defeat of the Turkmen garrison there by Russian imperial forces.

In 1991, members of the Academy of Sciences created Paikhas. Led by Shokhrat Kadyrov, a prominent historian and the country’s leading demographer, this group endeavored to promote liberal ideas and initiate public discussion of politics. Also in 1991, Murad Salamatov, a philosopher and journalist known as "the Sakharov of Turkmenistan," published the first independent journal Dayanch.

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.

From 1991 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 of fraud October 1, 1990 and closed Salamatov’s journal March 11, 1992. Many other dissidents were repeatedly taken into custody and questioned by the KNB.

Nurmuradov, Kadyrov, Velsapar, and other prominent dissidents felt compelled to leave the country. Salamatov, Nurmamedov, and a few others remain in Turkmenistan. The former remains under constant surveillance, while the latter, in an event reminiscent of the worst episodes of Stalinism, was only freed from prison upon publicly repenting his opposition to the regime and declaring his loyalty to Niyazov.

By 1993, the KNB had eliminated almost all traces of domestic opposition, and Niyazov’s personality cult had begun to take root.

Activity in Exile
Despite a common desire to bring about political change in
Turkmenistan, ideological differences helped keep leaders of the first wave of Niyazov opponents from unifying. Open protests or attempts by those remaining in Turkmenistan to legally circumvent Niyazov’s edicts were quickly stamped out by the KNB. Those living abroad were limited to publishing anonymous letters and articles for fear of reprisals.

By 1994, Moscow had emerged as the unofficial capital of Turkmenistan’s opposition, with attention centered on the activities of Avdi Kuliev. Turkmenistan’s first foreign minister, Kuliev left the government in 1992 in protest against Niyazov’s policy decisions and steadily increasing power. Upon arriving in Moscow, he founded the Turkmenistan Foundation, which was the nucleus for the present-day Unified Opposition Movement of Turkmenistan (UOMT). Throughout 1994-1995, the Turkmenistan Foundation gained momentum, bringing heightened attention to Turkmenistan’s plight. Kuliev’s supporters talked eagerly of his triumphant return to Ashgabat, and a real, if perhaps remote, possibility of the overthrow of Niyazov seemed to exist.

Turkmenistan’s secret service, however, took measures to neutralize the threat posed by Kuliev’s potential return. On October 28, 1994, Khoshali Garayev and Mukhamedkuli Aitmuratov, Turkmenistan Foundation emissaries on their way to Ashgabat, were arrested in Tashkent and extradited to Turkmenistan. Aitmuratov is still serving a long prison sentence for his association with Kuliev, while Garayev died in prison in 1999 under circumstances deemed suspicious by international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Memorial. In April 1998, during Niyazov’s official visit to Washington, Kuliev himself attempted a return to Ashgabat, but was detained at the airport upon arrival and ultimately deported.

Opposition 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 Turkmenistan and a funding shortage.

The opposition began to reassert itself in November 2001, following the defection of Boris Shikhmuradov, Turkmenistan’s Ambassador to China. Shikhmuradov, who had served as Kuliev’s Deputy Foreign Minister and eventually replaced him, had been considered a staunch Niyazov loyalist. A long-time member of the ruling elite and the architect of Turkmenistan’s vaunted neutral status, Shikhmuradov’s defection dealt a serious blow to Niyazov’s image of absolute ruler. Rather than align himself with Kuliev, however, Shikhmuradov soon established his own opposition group, the People’s Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan.

The Opposition

Within Turkmenistan itself, the opposition has effectively been silenced since the mid-1990s. Occasional articles have surfaced, which many believe to have been written by Salamatov. A small number of NGOs operate in semi-secrecy, struggling to keep their activities beyond the security service’s notice. With such stringent limits placed on political activity, many observers’ attention has turned to exiled political figures.

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.

Initially, Kuliev believed changes to Turkmenistan’s one-party rule would evolve naturally. Thus, Kuliev’s Turkmenistan Foundation initially billed itself as an apolitical organization representing the Turkmenistani diaspora in Russia. As the nature of Niyazov’s rule became clearer, however, Kuliev concluded that the development of a multi-party system could only be accomplished through the creation of an extensive, vocal opposition movement to push for political change.

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 Turkmenistan, and a number of smaller groups. If Niyazov were to fall, Kuliev has stated that he would call for immediate, internationally monitored elections. He has often stated his support for democratic principles and a mixed economy of state and private property.

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
Pakistan and India. He claims to have been covertly opposing Niyazov since the mid-1990s, despite his high-profile government positions. Shikhmuradov particularly disapproved of Niyazov’s isolationist policies, and says he was strongly opposed to Niyazov’s decisions to close cultural venues such as theaters, the ballet and the circus. On November 2, 2001, the Turkmenistani authorities brought criminal charges of embezzlement and unlawful arms sales against the former foreign minister. He left Beijing for Moscow the next month, moving on soon thereafter under threat of extradition.

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
Turkmenistan increased this year, both Shikhmuradov and Kuliev have made active use of the international press – a likely explanation for Niyazov’s recent crackdown on non-Turkmen media. Russian newspapers are no longer distributed in the country, supposedly because the country cannot afford them. Additionally, authorities are reportedly planning to remove from people’s homes any satellite dishes capable of receiving Russian television signals. At present, Radio Liberty continues to play an important role as one of the few alternative opinions reaching the public. Kuliev has been particularly effective in reaching a broader swath of the population via the Turkmen language service.

Many observers feel that the United States and Russia, two powers with some hope of influencing Niyazov’s behavior, have done little to pressure the Turkmenistani president into opening up society. In spite of a history of documented human rights abuses, and the regime’s unofficial support for the Taliban, Niyazov has thus far silenced external criticism from both states by playing his energy pipeline card. Russia wants Turkmenistan’s abundant natural gas to be sent through its territory to the West, whereas the United States desires the pipeline to go through Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, both countries have an interest in a stable regime in a region already fraught with more than its share of unrest. The US decision on August 27, 2002 to increase technical assistance to the Turkmenistani Border Guards attests to the importance of this task in the minds of US policymakers. While there may be cracks in the regime’s foundation, Niyazov has thus far been able to neutralize international pressure through a mixture of fortuitous placement and clever diplomacy.

However, Niyazov’s balancing act may not last for long. American military action in Afghanistan has sparked political processes in the region that may yet affect Turkmenistan’s internal politics. This, paired with the element of unpredictability added by the recent assassination attempt, may further complicate Niyazov’s delicate position.

Future Prospects

Increased Opposition Activity
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.

In addition 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 Turkmenistan. Some observers say traffickers have the necessary funding, and possibly other means – in the form of compromising information that can confirm allegations of government involvement in smuggling operations – to seriously damage Niyazov.

Recent Events
In June of this year, the International Helsinki Federation (IHF) and the Russia-based organization Memorial convened a conference in
Vienna concerning human rights abuses in Turkmenistan. For the first time, members of the Turkmenistani diaspora were given an international platform to raise human rights issues and make recommendations to the international community. The dissident community had high hopes that both Kuliev and Shikhmuradov would appear and present a unified opposition front. Kuliev attended, along with many of his supporters and representatives of the various factions of the UOMT.

Despite the raised hopes and high turnout, Shikhmuradov did not appear at the Vienna conference, citing security concerns. Although Kuliev and Shikhmuradov spoke by telephone, cooperation has proven elusive. They initially agreed to establish a roundtable of democratic opposition forces to create a common strategy for opposing Niyazov, but it now appears that Shikhmuradov has little interest in aligning with Kuliev. (A follow-up meeting to the Vienna conference took place in November in Moscow, again bringing together a broad array of human rights defenders and opposition members, with the exception of Shikhmuradov and his representatives.)

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.

However, 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 Dashoguz and the August 8 protests by women outside a session of parliament. Both indicate that the general population, like the opposition, may be entering a period of greater political activity. Such actions, combined with the constant turnover of personnel in the most loyal departments of Niyazov’s government (including the March purges, which took down the Chair of the KNB, Muhammet Nazarov, and the September 10 firing of his replacement, Poran Berdiev) give the opposition some hope. The recent assassination attempt on Niyazov’s life has already changed the political atmosphere inside the country, but it is too soon to predict what influence this will have on the opposition’s strategic decisionmaking.