The government steps up security in advance of elections for Niazov’s successor.
As the government of Turkmenistan recovers from the death of long-term leader Saparmurat Niazov and looks ahead to next month’s election when his heir will be picked, it is taking no chances with domestic security. In the transitional period, surveillance and other means of controlling the population have become tougher than ever.
There are six candidates for the February 11 ballot, but if everything goes to plan, acting president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov will become the next head of state.
To smooth the way to the election, the Halk Maslahaty, the highest legislative body in Turkmenistan, convened in emergency session on December 26, five days after President Niazov died of a heart attack, and approved Berdymuhammedov’s nomination after amending the constitution to allow him to run. As the interim head of state - installed hours after Niazov’s death was announced - Berdymuhammedov would not otherwise have been eligible to stand in the election.
On December 28, Central Election Commission chief Murat Garryev named the other five candidates as Ishankuly Nuriev, deputy minister for the oil industry and mineral resources, plus four local government officials drawn from a variety of regions. They are Amanniaz Atajikov, deputy governor of the northern Dashoguz province; Ashirniaz Pomanov, mayor of the western port city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk); Orazmurat Garajaev, mayor of Abadan, a town in the central Ahal region which is where the capital Ashgabat is located and where Niazov had his power-base; and Muhammetnazar Gurbanov, head of the Karabekaul district, located in the eastern Lebap region which borders Uzbekistan.
Most of the security measures introduced in the immediate aftermath of Niazov’s death are still in place. Farid Tukhbatullin, from the Vienna-based Turkmenistan Initiative group, said the border with Uzbekistan remained closed. Relations with Tashkent have been difficult since Niazov accused Uzbek officials of conspiring in an assassination attempt against him in November 2002.
A human rights activist now based outside Turkmenistan, but who still did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, told IWPR that according to his sources, “defence ministry forces, particularly motorised units, are on a state of alert in border areas”.
An émigré observer of the Turkmen political scene said the authorities had mobilised the security forces and other resources at their disposal to ensure nothing happened to derail Berdymuhammedov’s journey to power.
The security services appear to be under instructions to keep a lid on any potential source of trouble. That includes deploying extra security officers from Ashgabat, and stepping up surveillance of the country’s few remaining human rights activists, the relatives of political prisoners, and former officials disgraced in Niazov’s frequent purges.
The human rights activist said factory managers had been ordered to monitor their workforce and head off any signs of unrest. In the city of Turkmenbashi, staff working at the port and at a local power station were assembled at warned that they must “stay calm”.
The activist added that teams of officers from the National Security ministry had been dispatched from the capital to various regions, where they had begun calling in civil-society activists and journalists to give them a stiff talking-to.
“The security ministry teams usually arrive in groups of up to six officers. In Krasnovodsk and in Mary (a southeastern city), they have summoned local activists for interviews,” he said, explaining that the targets were “people who’ve come to the attention of the security services either by meeting foreigners, or by going abroad to participate in conferences, and who are suspected of conducting civil-society activity”.
He added, “Activists, journalists and opponents of the regime are seen as a danger, as people who might put forward their own candidates and inform people about how the whole election process is being conducted. [The authorities’] concern is that if something sparks protests, it will immediately blow up into a conflagration.
“It is not the opposition based abroad that they fear, but domestic protests.”
Tukhbatullin added, “Surveillance has been increased on the homes of individuals whom the authorities consider unreliable, relatives of political prisoners, and people with links to dissidents abroad.”
This heightened sense of nervousness seems to have prompted the detention of Nurberdy Nurmammedov, head of the opposition Agzybirlik movement, who was first reported missing in Ashgabat on December 23.
In the north of the country, police continued to hold Andrei Zatoka, an environmental activist arrested in Dashoguz four days before Niazov died.
At the same time, the government has taken some steps to keep the general public happy.
After initially indicating that the mourning period following Niazov’s death meant all festivities were cancelled, the government allowed people to mark both the New Year and Eid ul-Adha, the Muslim festival known in Turkmenistan as Kurban Bayram.
“There used to be problems with bread deliveries, and people would form long queues to buy it,” said Tukhbatullin. Now, he added, “we have information from Ashgabat, Lebap and other regions that the shops are full of bread”.
By IWPR staff in London (RCA No. 477, 05-Jan-07)