Internal travel restrictions have been lifted in Turkmenistan allowing freer commerce between the regions, but NBCentralAsia experts say the country’s international border controls still need to be relaxed in order to boost foreign trade.
On July 16, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov signed a decree abolishing the “internal visa” requirement for Turkmen citizens travelling to areas near the border.
The decree said the move would allow “free travel to all regions of Turkmenistan”.
In 1999, the authorities introduced legislation restricting people’s movement within Turkmenistan, so that anyone who wanted to travel to areas near the border – even to visit relatives - had to obtain a pass from their local police department. It took between ten and 30 days to process the pass, and the authorities could refuse to issue one without offering an explanation.
Turkmenistan borders on Iran and Afghanistan in the south, Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan to the east. The most densely populated border areas lie in the Dashoguz and Lebap regions, close to the Uzbek frontiers.
NBCentralAsia observers in Turkmenistan say that while people will heave a sigh of relief at the end to domestic travel restrictions, and the trade sector within the country is likely to grow. But they say the currently strict controls imposed on the country’s international borders should be relaxed to boost trade and business.
There used to be lively cross-border trading between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with Turkmen merchants selling petrol, fruit, vegetables and domestic appliances and Uzbeks sold on clothes and fabric.
This trade began to dwindle in 2001 after the Turkmen authorities introduced a six US dollar fee for every person crossing the frontier, and it subsequently came to a complete halt when border areas were fenced off. According to one local commentator, at that time many people involved in cross-border trading were “detained and beaten, sometimes to death”.
“Many people are now hopeful that things will be different,” he said.
Analysts say the Turkmen authorities should extend their more liberal stance on travel as a way of helping people in the border zones, where trading is often the sole source of income.
“A new class of entrepreneurs will take advantage of the abolished pass requirements if Turkmenistan begins creating the conditions for private [border] business to flourish,” said Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Bulgaria-based Turkmen Helsinki Fund for Human Rights.
“But that all depends on whether the government has the political will to do so,” she added.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)