The invitation list for a meeting of diaspora Turkmen currently taking place in Ashgabat is only for friends of President Saparmurat Niazov. Most Turkmen community representatives abroad will stay away, given the nature of the regime
The conference, held to mark the 15th anniversary of the Humanitarian Association of World Turkmen, which Niazov himself has chaired since 1991, has been flagged as an event to tell the diaspora about the country’s “unprecedented successes”.
The celebrations should have taken place in May, but were postponed because Niazov was busy with a purge of his security agencies.
NBCentralAsia commentators says the forum mostly consists of the regime’s sponsors - wealthy businessmen who are happy to invest in various grandiose construction projects in Turkmenistan.
According to Central Asia-watcher Muhammad Tahir, “Financial health is the main criterion that Turkmen embassies abroad have used to select the guests.”
Official sources put the total number of ethnic Turkmen worldwide at 22 million, although other sources suggest the figure is closer to seven million. Outside the country, most live in neighbouring Iran and Afghanistan.
People who have attended past “world Turkmen” events say government secret police restricted their movements and prevented them talking to local Turkmen. A human rights activist now living abroad recalled how participants “realised they had been invited as actors with a walk-on role in a play”.
Anyone who has emigrated from the country would be taking a major risk by attending. Turkmen emigres generally remain as anonymous as possible out of fear for their safety, and prefer not to discuss why they left.
Turkmenistan-watchers say these fears are very well founded. At a recent cabinet meeting, President Niazov authorised his secret police to combat “enemies of Turkmenistan” abroad. Such “enemies” will be easiest to find among Turkmen diaspora groups.
“An invitation to the forum may be one of the methods used in this campaign,” commented a Turkmen who has lived abroad for many years.
A diaspora member now living in Kyrgyzstan told NBCentralAsia he would have liked to have attended the conference in order to meet people from back home, but security considerations prevent him doing so. “It would be a direct route to prison,” he said.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)