Turkmenistan’s most senior official after President Saparmurat Niazov himself, Boris Shikhmuradov, announced on November 1 in Moscow that he is standing in opposition to Niazov. From 1991 until now, Shikhmuradov has enjoyed a unique political longevity in a country in which ministerial tenures last a few years at best, and are often measured in months. Shikhmuradov is Turkmenistan’s most professional and experienced diplomat. He has served some eight years concurrently as foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister. His most recent posts were those of presidential envoy for Caspian issues and, last, ambassador to China, which was seen as a demotion on the way to political oblivion.
In his statement, Shikhmuradov attacked Niazov’s regime as a combination of Soviet-type administration and traditional Oriental system. The net result, in Shikhmuradov’s view, is a “primitive police state, designed solely to guarantee Niazov’s continuation in power.” According to Shikhmuradov, the president has so tarnished Turkmenistan’s international reputation as to discredit the country’s neutrality, of which Shikhmuradov was an architect. In his statement, he explicitly regretted his own and other Turkmen officials’ co-responsibility for the country’s situation and their contribution to promoting Niazov’s personality cult.
Shikhmuradov went on to announce that a “national-democratic” group has formed in Turkmenistan as a “constructive opposition” to Niazov’s system. He stopped short of identifying its members or a leader. Shikhmuradov himself, his seniority notwithstanding, seems poorly placed to lead such a movement in Turkmenistan. His ethnicity is half-Armenian in an overwhelmingly Muslim Turkmen country; he is in poor health, and he seems set to become a political exile in Moscow, where he issued his statement from hospital.
Shikhmuradov’s statement followed Niazov’s October 31 decree dismissing him from his last post as ambassador to China. On November 2, Turkmenistan’s General Prosecutor’s Office indicted Shikhmuradov for allegedly embezzling some US$27.5 million through unlawful arms sales to Russia in 1994. Turkmenistan has already applied to Russia for extraditing Shikhmuradov to stand trial (Turan, November 3; Turkmenistan.ru, Eurasianet, Interfax, November 2).
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