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Freedom in the World 2004 - Turkmenistan

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Turkmenistan, 18 December 2003, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7
Status: Not Free
Population: 5,700,000
GNI/Capita: $950
Life Expectancy: 67
Religious Groups: Muslim (89 percent), Eastern Orthodox (9 percent), other (2 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Turkmen (77 percent), Uzbek (9 percent), Russian (7 percent), Kazakh (2 percent) other (5 percent)
Capital: Ashgabat


The effects of the November 25, 2002 alleged assassination attempt against President Saparmurat Niyazov, which triggered a crackdown against suspected critics of the regime, continued to be felt in 2003. Among those arrested and convicted for their supposed involvement in the plot was Boris Shikhmuradov, an exiled prominent leader of the political opposition. The incident precipitated a series of wide-reaching repressive measures, including the reintroduction of the exit visa system, a new restrictive law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a broader definition of acts of treason, and increased surveillance of the movements of foreign nationals and Turkmen citizens. Meanwhile, Ashgabat's relations with Russia were strained over its unilateral abrogation of a dual citizenship agreement with Moscow, although the two countries also signed a lucrative energy deal.

The southernmost republic of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan was conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and seized by Russia in the late 1800s. Having been incorporated into the U.S.S.R. in 1924, Turkmenistan gained formal independence in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmenistan Communist Party, was the sole candidate in elections to the newly created post of president in October 1990. After the adoption of a new constitution in 1992, he ran unopposed again and was reelected for a five-year term with a reported 99.5 percent of the vote. The main opposition group, Agzybirlik, which was formed in 1989 by leading intellectuals, was banned. In a 1994 referendum, Niyazov's tenure as president was extended for an additional five years, until 2002, which exempted him from having to run again in 1997 as originally scheduled. In the December 1994 parliamentary elections, only Niyazov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), the former Communist Party, was permitted to field candidates.

In the December 1999 elections to the National Assembly (Mejlis), every candidate was selected by the government and virtually all were members of the DPT. According to government claims, voter turnout was 98.9 percent. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), citing the lack of provision for nongovernmental parties to participate and the executive branch's control of the nomination of candidates, refused to send even a limited assessment mission. In a further consolidation of Niyazov's extensive powers, parliament unanimously voted in late December to make him president for life. With this decision, Turkmenistan became the first country in the Commonwealth of Independent States to formally abandon presidential elections.

Although Niyazov continued to exercise widespread power throughout the country in 2002, cracks in his regime became more visible during the year. Several high-level government defections, along with a purge by Niyazov of Turkmenistan's intelligence service, highlighted growing political tensions and challenges to the government. On November 25, Niyazov survived an alleged assassination attempt in Ashgabat when gunmen fired at the president's motorcade. The incident sparked a widespread crackdown against the opposition and perceived critics of the regime, drawing condemnation from foreign governments and international organizations, including the OSCE and the United Nations.

While some observers speculated that Niyazov himself had planned the shooting as an excuse to increase repression of his political enemies, others maintained that it was a failed attempt by certain members of the opposition to oust the president from power. According to the government, former foreign minister and opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov, along with three other former high-ranking officials living in exile, had organized the attack. He was alleged to have returned to Turkmenistan from exile in Russia with the help of the Uzbek authorities, an accusation that soured already strained relations with Uzbekistan. Shikhmuradov was arrested on December 25 and made a televised confession four days later that critics maintain had been coerced. On December 30, he was sentenced to life in prison following what human rights groups condemned as a Soviet-style show trial. Two of the alleged co-conspirators received life sentences in absentia, while many other suspects were given lengthy prison sentences.

Parliamentary and local elections, which serve essentially to reinforce the president's control over the country's legislative process, were held on April 6, 2003. Voters were provided with virtually no information about the candidates, who were selected by the authorities based on their loyalty to Niyazov and proof of their Turkmen ancestry several generations back. Official turnout was reported at over 99 percent.

Relations with Russia were strained following Ashgabat's unilateral withdrawal in late April from a 1993 dual citizenship agreement with Moscow. Less than two weeks earlier, the two countries had signed a protocol ending dual citizenship, at the same time that they adopted a long-term lucrative energy agreement. However, Russia maintained that the protocol was not retroactive and would not enter into force until ratified by Russia's parliament at some future date. After Turkmen authorities set a deadline of June 22 for the selection of either Russian or Turkmen citizenship, many Russians holding dual citizenship reportedly frantically applied to leave Turkmenistan or risk automatically becoming Turkmen citizens. Meanwhile, the protocol provoked strong opposition from members of Russia's parliament and the media, who accused Moscow of having sold out its people in exchange for the purchase of Turkmen natural gas.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Turkmenistan cannot change their government democratically. President Saparmurat Niyazov enjoys virtually absolute power over all branches and levels of government. In recent years, the government has undergone a rapid turnover of personnel as Niyazov has dismissed many officials whom he suspects may challenge his authority.

The country has two parliamentary bodies: the unicameral Mejlis (Assembly), composed of 50 members elected by popular vote for five-year terms, and the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), officially described as the country's highest representative body, composed of both elected and appointed members. Neither body enjoys genuine independence from the executive. In August 2003, the Halk Maslahaty approved changes to the constitution stipulating that its approximately 2,000 members would remain in permanent session, rather than meeting only about once a year to address major issues, as was previously the practice. Following the November 2002 assassination attempt on Niyazov, the president announced early parliamentary elections for April 2003. The 1994, 1999, and 2003 parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair.

Niyazov has established an extensive cult of personality, including erecting monuments to his leadership throughout the country. In 1994, he renamed himself Turkmenbashi, or leader of the Turkmen. He has enacted bizarre decrees, including ordering the renaming of the days of the week and months of the year after himself and his mother.

Only one political party, the Niyazov-led Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, has been officially registered. Opposition parties have been banned, and their leading members face harassment and detention or have fled abroad. In September 2003, four prominent opposition groups in exile met in Prague, Czech Republic, where they pledged to unite as the Union of Democratic Forces. Their goal is the replacement of Niyazov's government with one based on democratic principles. Some analysts have cited the wave of post-assassination attempt reprisals as the impetus for the longdivided opposition to put aside enough of their differences to join forces.

Freedom of speech and the press is severely restricted by the government, which controls all radio and television broadcasts and print media. Reports of dissenting political views are banned, as are even mild forms of criticism of the president. In September 2003, Saparmurat Ovezberdiev, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty and the producer of a controversial local radio program in Ashgabat, was arrested and detained for three days and threatened with a 30-year prison sentence. In November, he was beaten by two men believed to be agents of the state security service. Subscriptions to foreign newspapers are severely restricted. Some Russian television programs are available, although their broadcast is delayed to allow time for Turkmen censors to review content. Foreign journalists have few opportunities to visit Turkmenistan and are often limited to certain locations. The state-owned Turkmentelekom is the only authorized Internet provider in the country.

The government restricts freedom of religion through strict registration requirements and other measures. Only Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians have been able to meet the registration criterion of having at least 500 members. Members of religious groups that are not legally registered by the government, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews, and Jehovah's Witnesses, have been fined, beaten, and imprisoned by security forces. In November 2003, a new law on religion was adopted that criminalizes religious activities by bodies that are not registered with the Ministry of Justice.

The government places significant restrictions on academic freedom. The works of various writers reportedly have been placed on a blacklist because of their interpretation of Turkmen history. The Rukhnama, a quasi-spiritual guide allegedly authored by Niyazov, is required reading throughout the school system and has largely replaced many other traditional school subjects. In February 2003, Niyazov signed a decree on foreign exchange restrictions for most students studying abroad. The decision, which will severely limit the ability of students to complete their studies, appeared to reflect the authorities' fears that those studying abroad are potential dissenters.

The state security services regularly monitor the activities of citizens and foreign nationals, limiting open and free private discussion. Security officers use such surveillance techniques as wiretapping, the interception of mail, and the recruitment of informers. As part of the post-November 25 crackdown, Niyazov reportedly directed law enforcement bodies to monitor carefully people's conversations in public places and called on people to assist the police by informing on their fellow citizens.

While the constitution guarantees peaceful assembly and association, these rights are restricted in practice. Public demonstrations against state policies are extremely rare. In Ashgabat, all public gatherings – and even private events such as weddings – must be registered in advance with city authorities.

Unregistered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) face harassment and criminal prosecution for their activities. After the November 25 alleged assassination attempt, the authorities increased their monitoring and harassment of civil society activists across the country. In March, the director of the Dashoguz Ecological Club, Farid Tukhbatullin, was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly having heard about the upcoming plot against Niyazov while attending a human rights conference in Moscow and failing to alert the authorities. After the case received widespread international condemnation, Niyazov pardoned Tukhbatullin in April, but only after he "repented" his alleged crime. In November 2003, a new law on NGOs entered into force that stipulates that unregistered groups are subject to confiscation of their property; violators of the law may face up to one year in prison.

The government-controlled Colleagues Union is the only central trade union permitted. There are no legal guarantees for workers to form or join unions or to strike, although the constitution does not specifically prohibit these rights. Strikes in Turkmenistan are extremely rare.

The judicial system is subservient to the president, who appoints and removes judges for five-year terms without legislative review. The authorities frequently deny rights of due process, including public trials and access to defense attorneys. In early 2003, the government broadened the definition of treason to cover a wide range of activities, including attempting to undermine the public's faith in the president's policies and failing to inform the authorities of a wide range of crimes. Those arrested and sentenced for their complicity in the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov suffered ill-treatment or torture and were convicted in closed trials; many of their relatives were targeted for harassment and intimidation. Human Rights Watch condemned as a violation of due process the fact that parliament, rather than the courts, sentenced three alleged organizers of the attack to life in prison. Although officials stated that approximately 70 people were arrested in the course of the investigation, human rights groups insisted that at least 200 had been detained.

Police abuse of suspects and prisoners, often to obtain confessions, is reportedly widespread, and prisons are overcrowded and unsanitary. In October 2003, Niyazov signed his annual prisoner pardon, granting amnesty to some 7,000 convicts. However, those convicted in the November 25 alleged assassination plot were excluded from the possibility of amnesty as part of their sentences.

Employment and educational opportunities for ethnic minorities are limited by the government's policy of promoting Turkmen national identity and its discrimination against non-ethnic Turkmen. The revocation of the Russian-Turkmen dual citizenship agreement in 2003 increased Russian emigration from Turkmenistan. In early 2003, Niyazov reportedly ordered the forced relocation of part of the Uzbek population living along the border with Uzbekistan and their replacement with ethnic Turkmen. The decree appeared to be connected to a plan to relocate so called "unworthy" people from regions along the Uzbek border after Uzbeks came under suspicion following the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov.

Freedom of movement is severely restricted, with citizens required to carry internal passports that note the bearer's place of residence and movements into and out of the country. Since the November 25 alleged assassination attempt, travel within the country is more closely monitored, with travelers having to pass through various identity check posts. In February 2003, the exit visa system, which officially had been abolished in January 2002, was reintroduced for Turkmen citizens. Obtaining exit visas is difficult for most nonofficial travelers and allegedly often requires payment of bribes to government officials. Those banned from travel abroad include young men of conscription age. In March, the State Service for the Registration of Foreign Citizens was established to monitor the activities of foreign visitors. Foreigners would be required to stay only in pre-approved hotels and check in within 24 hours of arrival in the country. Anyone breaking these and other related rules would be subject to a heavy fine and risk deportation.

A continuing Soviet-style command economy and widespread corruption diminish equality of opportunity. Profits from the country's extensive energy exports rarely reach the general population, most of whom live in poverty.

Traditional social and religious norms mostly limit professional opportunities for women to the roles of homemaker and mother, and anecdotal reports suggest that domestic violence is common. Women under the age of 35 reportedly are not eligible for exit visas unless they have at least two children.

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