The events of November 25, 2002, were a turning point in the history of post-Soviet Turkmenistan. This date marked the end of the "soft dictatorship of Turkmenbashi" and the beginning of the mass repression of dissidents. The law, which was adopted last year and according to which any person criticizing the policy of the President-for-life can be accused of treason, has created a fundamentally new internal political situation and placed Turkmenistan in the ranks of states with the most odious totalitarian dictatorships.
Before speaking about the event itself, it is necessary to give some background about the disposition of political forces in the country right before this turning point, as they were influenced profoundly by the events of November 25.
At the end of 2001, the establishment of a new opposition group, the National-Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan (NDMT), was announced. Unlike the so-called "old opposition" (the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan), this new group had united a significant number of former high governmental officials who had left the country since 1999. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Boris Shikhmuradov became the leader of the NDMT. In the beginning of 2002, he openly declared the intention of the new Movement to remove the "President-for-life," Saparmurad Niyazov, from power within the following months. The statements of the NDMT received a lot of resonance as the Turkmenistani governing elite was becoming more and more dissatisfied with President Niyazov's policy, and repression structures were becoming weaker due to large-scale cleansing of secret police whose leaders were suspected of conspiracy.
The dramatic events of 2002, which this article will not examine, culminated in "the incident of November 25," which unexpectedly for many people was followed by the arrest and conviction of Boris Shikhmuradov and tens of opponents of President Niyazov's regime connected to him.
The official version of what happened on November 25, 2002 was outlined by the Turkmenistani government in several reports by the Prosecutor General, Kurbanbibi Atadzhanova. According to these sources, former high-ranking governmental officials Boris Shikhmuradov, Nurmukhmamed Hanamov, Khudaiberdy Orazov and Saparmyrat Yklymov, all of whom were living abroad, organized the coup attempt, according to which on November 25, 2002, there was an attempted terrorist act against the President of Turkmenistan. Sixty-seven people were arrested on charges of attempted assassination of the president within the country. Three others abroad were convicted in absentia.
Critics of the official version question many aspects of the government reports, including the fact that Niyazov named those responsible almost immediately after the so-called attempted coup. Many observers also note that Shikhmuradov's case went to trial only four days after his arrest; that many detainees were tortured and beaten; and that the criminal investigations and trials involved obvious violations of procedural norms.
Unofficial views varied greatly. Inside Turkmenistan many people thought that the special services had organized a fake coup to discredit the opposition and arrest its leaders, in other words that there had been no real coup attempt at all. Some supporters of the opposition came out with statements that the NDMT had been planning to conduct not a coup but a series of peaceful meetings at the end of the year, and that to prevent them the authorities had staged the shooting of the presidential cortege. There was also the opinion that it had been an unsuccessful coup attempt and that the actual details of it had been falsified in the course of the official investigation.
Based on interviews conducted for this article, I have come to believe that the actual circumstances surrounding the events of November 25, 2002, are far more complicated than those presented by the media, both inside and outside of Turkmenistan. Although there are many gaps in the reports about what had happened on November 25, 2002, and some information needs to be verified, it is possible to draw some conclusions.
In the summer of 2002, the NDMT split into two groups. Several months later one of them formed the organization "Watan" (Motherland). Each of these two groups was preparing its own plans for changing the political regime in Turkmenistan. Both groups were planning to act in December 2002. The authorities had partial information about the plans of both groups. In at least in one case, there was a betrayal.
Boris Shikhmuradov flew from Turkey to Uzbekistan; from there he entered Turkmenistan illegally at the end of November. In Ashgabat he consulted with his local supporters and decided to act sooner. That is why the actual events differ significantly from the original plan. It should be specifically mentioned that the "Novemberists" did not plan to commit a terrorist act against the President. (This is also confirmed by unpublished materials of the official investigation.) They only planned to detain President Niyazov and remove him from his position.
It should also be underscored that neither Russia nor the United States was directly involved in the conspiracy. The Russian special services maintained contact with Shikhmuradov's group up to August of 2002 and, according to some indirect information, the US government probably knew about the planned coup, but adopted a wait-and-see policy. Uzbek authorities had been providing limited support to Shikhmuradov up to the middle of December of 2002, while Azerbaijan refused to help the representatives of Turkmenistani opposition even in the preliminary stage.
Strangely, in the days after the event few people took the official announcement of "the unsuccessful coup attempt" against President Niyazov sufficiently seriously. Some participants in the failed coup did not even try to leave the country. The Turkmen Service of Radio Liberty received communications from well-known people in Turkmenistan about the creation of new underground opposition parties. Activists of the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan (UDOT), or so-called "old opposition," had continued to prepare leaflets for dissemination as late as December 1 calling on people to participate in the protest action on International Human Rights Day on December 10.
However, as the number of arrests grew significantly, the perception of the situation changed completely. It became clear that a dramatic and tragic process had begun, ensnaring hundreds of innocent people along with anti-Niyazov agitators, and ushering in a period of mass political repression against dissidents, whose relatives were used as hostages by the authorities.
By the beginning of 2003, Turkmenistan became to a large degree isolated from the outside world, and that significantly complicated the work of the opposition groups whose leaders were abroad. Some of them were facing the danger of being extradited and they were forced to change their country of residence and ask for political asylum, which temporarily limited their abilities to participate in political life.
The events of November 25 also forced the leaders of the Turkmenistani opposition to make substantial corrections in their strategy for further action. With the support of human rights organizations they greatly expanded their cooperation with international bodies such as the UN, the OSCE and the EU. One of the positive results of this work was the adoption of the Special Resolution on the Human Rights Situation in Central Asian Countries by the European Parliament in October of 2003. A large portion of the Resolution was dedicated to Turkmenistan.
Contacts with international organizations revealed the need for a more serious development of program documents of the opposition, in particular on issues of economic and political reform in the period of transition.
Another important lesson learned from the November events was that the leaders of the opposition could not resolve the main problems during a post-Niyazov reconstruction period unilaterally. The need for consolidation and constructive dialogue between different opposition groups became more apparent.
Reassessment of the strategy was accompanied by the reorganization of the structure of the opposition. On November 27, 2002, it announced the establishment of a new opposition group "Watan," headed by the former Chairman of the Board of the Turkmenistan Central Bank Khudaiberdy Orazov, who had formerly been a member of the NDMT. On May 30, 2003, the Republican National Committee was formed as a temporary body for what later became the Republican Party of Turkmenistan. Former members of the opposition groups NDMT and "Dogry Yol" (the Right Way), Nurmukhamed Hanamov and Saparmurad Yklymov, became the leaders of the Republican Party. Thus, the main leaders of the NDMT operating in exile shifted their allegiances to new political structures.
At the same time as these new opposition groupings were taking place in exile, the first indigenous Turkmenistani human rights groups also were either formed or became known: the Helsinki Initiative of Turkmenistan, the Committee 15+, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Group, and the Turkmenistani Helsinki Foundation.
A conference of the Turkmenistani opposition, co-organized by the Human Rights Center "Memorial" and the International League for Human Rights on September 27 28, 2003, marked a watershed for the Turkmen opposition as the first event to bring together all major anti-Niyazov groups. The Conference, which was attended by about twenty Turkmen dissidents from different countries, was the first large-scale meeting of all of the leading opposition organizations. The discussion revealed that participants had no fundamental difference of opinions regarding the situation in Turkmenistan or the necessity for democratic changes in a post-Niyazov period, including the formation of a coalition government and effective parliamentarian supervision of the executive branch.
As a result of the conference, representatives of the four groupings the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, UDOT, Watan and Renaissance signed the "Prague Communiqué," which established the unprecedented Union of Democratic Powers of Turkmenistan. According to the Communiqué, the goal of the Union is to provide "assistance to parties, movements and groups with democratic platforms in opposition to President Niyazov's regime." A follow-up Founders Conference is taking place in late November 2003 in a European country.
Vitalii Ponomarev is the head of the Central Asian Program of the Human Rights Center "Memorial" in Moscow. He has monitored the human rights situation in the region since the late 1980s. Since 2002, he has served as organizer of several conferences on Turkmenistan in which members of the political opposition have participated. He has been directly contributing to the process of the self-organization of the political opposition of Turkmenistan.