Residents of properties being demolished across Turkmenistan to make way for new developments say officials are using bureaucratic excuses to deny them proper compensation for the loss of their homes.
Just a few have been prepared to stand up to the authorities or to seek support from human rights campaigners abroad, but most stay silent for fear of being victimised.
An elderly Ashgabat-resident who wished to remain anonymous had tears in her eyes as she recalled how she and other neighbours were forced out of their houses when demolition began just before New Year.
“Our houses are being destroyed and we are being evicted,” she said, adding that she used to live in a house with a small garden next to the capital’s central market.
She was offered a small flat in a newly-built part of Ashgabat but got no recompense for the difference in size and loss of her plot of land.
This woman nevertheless considers herself lucky compared with other people who have been evicted, “I know that others are worse off than me and are forced to live with their relatives or rent a place.”
Renting is an expensive option as prices start from 200 US dollars per month and are out of reach for many, since this is exactly the average monthly wage for a public sector worker.
Last year, dozens of people in Ashgabat and in regional centres lost property as a result of a government campaign to improve cities by creating parks and building fountains and mosques.
In some cases, single-storey private houses with no running water are being demolished to be replaced by multi-storey apartment blocks with all conveniences.
Older high-rise blocks are also being pulled down.
The government campaign started during the rule of Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niazov, who died in 2006. Niyazov was known for favouring mega-projects like “cultural palaces”, new roads and mosques aimed at portraying the country as prosperous.
The policy has continued under his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, who became president in 2007; and he has given it impetus by adopting a social development programme aimed at improving the living standards of people in urban and rural areas.
Under Turkmen law, property can be acquired compulsorily, but owners are entitled to compensation. The law requires that any disagreement over compensation must be resolved in court before any demolition takes place.
Residents say that in reality they are forcibly evicted and then have to fight for decent compensation. This, they say, is a violation of their rights.
Sometimes bureaucrats refuse compensation on the grounds that property documents are not in order. Particularly vulnerable are people who failed to register houses or land as private when the privatisation process was under way after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some have legal title but may have failed to follow the process to the letter.
An Ashgabat-based lawyer who works for the state confirmed to IWPR that property documents are carefully scrutinised by officials.
In Soviet times, employers provided housing free with jobs.
“In cases where a house, for example, has not been privatised, or someone received the flat but, let’s say, left the organisation one month or one year short of retirement, or the a signature appeared to be suspicious… or privatisation papers are not filed properly, people are told they have no right to compensation,” said the lawyer.
Even those who do not have the problem of proving their ownership rights find themselves in a situation where they are ordered to leave their houses first and then are offered inadequate compensation.
In the western city of Turkmenbashi, a group of people whose houses were destroyed to make way for a highway have staged a protest on the ruins of their homes. They demanded guarantees from the local authorities that they would receive proper compensation.
These protestors represent a rare example of opposition to the authorities in Turkmenistan. Although the demolition works have been put on hold, city administration officials and residents are still negotiating a compromise solution.
In the northern town of Kunya-Urgench, more than 20 houses and other buildings were demolished last year because the authorities wanted to build a mosque.
According to a local analyst who withheld his name, “The authorities have not offered any compensation for the demolished housing. The only thing was to allow the use of building materials from the demolition and, in addition, residents were provided with plots of land on the outskirts of the city.”
An Ashgabat resident who gave his name as Muratberdy said officials from the city administration dragged him into a lengthy process of reviewing his complaint, only to tell him that he was entitled to smaller accommodation than what he was giving up.
An anonymous Ashgabat-based analyst told IWPR that things had improved compared with the Niazov era when people were sometimes given no notice prior to eviction.
He said, “It is not right that two or three years ago people were given permission to build their own house and now it is going to be demolished.”
He also confirmed that when considering compensation, city authorities do not take into account land or additional buildings such as outhouses.
“A family of five to ten people ends up moving into a one-bedroom or studio flat,” this analyst said.
Observers say the public does not even benefit from the construction drive.
The newly-built housing is sold at prices that are out of reach for many ordinary people. Some projects do not even get past the demolition stage; a site may be cleared. but work on the new mosque or other building is put on hold without any explanation.
Other projects have been abandoned because they were a failed idea from the start.
Many in Ashgabat remember how during the Niazov era, a leafy area in the suburbs of the capital, where city residents had built their summer houses with vegetable plots, was razed to make way for a zoo. The project was dropped when it was realised that the site, next to the international airport, was not suitable for animals.
Hundreds of people were left with nothing because they refused to move to a location outside the city, where they were allocated plots along a main highway.
The Ashgabat-based analyst said that evicted residents’ attempts to appeal to the courts have been futile, “I know that some have taken the case to court but I have not heard of a positive outcome.”
The only action authorities have taken to address such concerns, according to an anonymous source, is that at the end of December last year the prosecutor general’s office began an investigation into whether procedures for providing compensation for demolished houses were being followed correctly.
In a desperate attempt to get justice, some victims have defied the authorities by appealing to international organisations.
Tadjigul Begmedova, the head of the Bulgaria-based Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, said her organisation had received several letters from people whose property rights have been violated.
In most of the cases, people complain that the authorities have ignored requests for people to be given a roof over their heads.
“They are still not able to find justice,” she added.
Timur Misrikhanov, the leader of the Association of Turkmen Lawyers, who is based in The Netherlands, said several complaints have been sent to the United Nations. But these are rare cases, since few individuals risk contacting an international organisation.
“The majority of people are afraid of standing up for their rights because they are put under pressure if they do so,” he said.
Dovlet Ovezov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat and Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR’s Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan editor.
This article was produced under IWPR’s Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media programme, funded by the European Commission. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.
Dovlet Ovezov, Inga Sikorskaya www.iwpr.net