Since the death of Turkmenistan’s “President for Life,” Turkmenbashi (“father of the Turkmen”) Saparmurat Niyazov of an apparent heart attack on December 21, 2005, his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, has dismantled many of the more quixotic and repressive aspects of Niyazov’s extensive “cult of personality. Changes have included restoring traditional names for the months, releasing a number of political prisoners, allowing Internet cafes to open and reforming the nation’s shambolic educational, health care and pension systems.
One of the more odious legacies of the Niyazov system, however, remains: the forced relocation of families and communities with little or no compensation. This policy has dismayed human rights campaigners for years. Far from abandoning the program however, Berdimukhamedov’s government is continuing the procedure.
Utilizing the new electronic communications freedom, last week a listener of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service from the Niyazov district in Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz velaiat (province) sent a text message about being forced to leave his home, adding that he said he knows of dozens of other families being evicted from their homes in the Niyazov, Turkmenbashi, Koneurgench, Gubadag, and Gorogly districts along the country’s border with Uzbekistan and forced to move to other parts of the country. He said, “The local authorities ordered residents to move out before September. They said there won’t be electricity and gas supplies after the deadline” (RFE/RL, June 24).
Turkmenistan’s arid geography means that less than 5 percent of its territory is arable land, and evidence indicates that the forced relocation policy is a weird amalgam of Israel’s campaign to “make the desert bloom” and eerily reminiscent of the USSR’s disastrous “Virgin Lands” attempt in the 1950s to cultivate the steppes of Kazakhstan. The majority of the displaced Dashoguz residents are reportedly sent to the new Rukhubelent etrap (district) in northeastern Turkmenistan. The recent exodus is not solely a legacy of Niyazov’s rule, however, as on March 30, 2007, Berdimukhamedov signed a decree establishing the Rukhubelent (“grandeur of the soul”) area (Turkmenistan: Zolotoi Vek, March 14).
The city of Dashoguz (“stone spring” in Turkmen) is the capital of Dasoguz province, and lies about 50 miles from Nukus in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan province and 290 miles from the capital of Ashgabat. Since Soviet times Dashoguz province had been used as a dumping ground for political prisoners and contains Turkmen, Uzbeks, Russians, Koreans and Tatar inhabitants. After the collapse of communism the practice continued, with Niyazov resettling a large number of those he forcibly displaced in the territory surrounding Dashoguz city, using resettlement as a tool to retain political control.
Even the enticing sloganeering surrounding the new opportunities available to those forced out of their homes has a tinge of socialist rhetoric; one enthusiastic writer noted about Rukhubelent, “The building and construction of the new district proceeds so rapidly that after arriving again in this abundant land, you note with surprise, that during your brief absence an additional habitable two-family cottage has sprung up on the newly laid out central avenue, while the building of a school and kindergarten proceeds at full speed.” After noting the town’s breakneck construction, “Here it is possible with own eyes to ascertain that a year can be equal to a decade.” Dunyagozel Dushemova, who moved with her family to Rukhubelent, said that she had obtained credit from a local bank to lease 60 acres and, “Allah will give, and this year I will gather, my first harvest.”
Western human rights activists are also concerned that up to 90 percent of Dashoguz inhabitants are not Turkmen, but ethnic Uzbeks. In March 2001 forced resettlement was included in Turkmenistan’s Criminal Code as a punishment for certain crimes, including abuse of power and misuse of government funds (“Turkmenistan,” Open Society Institute, August 2005). The Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe immediately denounced the practice. Besides the OSCE, an impressive number of other organizations have announced their opposition to Niyazov’s policy, including the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, the Open Society Institute, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, Freedom House, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, and the International League for Human Rights. In reply, Niyazov noted the “bad spirit” of people in the Lebap region bordering Uzbekistan, where there is an ethnic Uzbek majority (OSCE, March 12, 2003).
Ratcheting up the pressure, on November 19, 2002, Niyazov issued a decree entitled “On Measures to Resettle and Rationally Allocate Manpower and Make Effective Use of Land in Dasoguz, Lebap, and Ahal Regions” determining that “young people” should migrate from densely-populated districts to newly cultivated land to improve their socio-economic conditions (www.turkmenistan.gov.tm). Besides motivated youth, Niyazov’s proclamation ordered that those who disturbed the peace with “immoral behavior” or failed to fulfill their civic responsibilities could be forcibly resettled by the state without compensation or privileges.
The reports of the forced relocations came on the eve of a European Union human rights dialogue with Turkmenistan held on June 24 in Ashgabat. On June 23, the day before the first full dialogue on human rights between the EU and Turkmenistan, Amnesty International issued “Turkmenistan: No Effective Human Rights Reform,” charging that “impunity pervades for police, security services, and other government authorities despite promises of the government of President Berdimukhamedov to protect human rights.” The meeting is conspicuously absent from the official government website, www.turkmenistan.gov.tm.
The EU delegates should use their access to remind Berdimukhamedov that if his government wants international acceptance and access to EU funding and technology, then it should abandon once and for all the Stalinist Niyazov policy of treating its citizens like pawns to be moved around on the national chessboard at will. It remains to be seen whether he is a genuine reformer or will prove as deaf as his predecessor.