On Monday, November 25, 2002, the president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, announced on evening television that assailants had fired on his motorcade that morning in an attempt to overthrow him. Whether or not that is true, the reported gunshots shattered the image of this impoverished but gas-rich Central Asian autocracy as "stable" and helped bring this closed Turkmenistan out of its obscurity into open notoriety.
A year later, the government's monopoly on information and the imprisonment or silence of the sixty-seven individuals who were ultimately charged with complicity in the attack have insured that even the most basic details of the coup attempt remain murky. What is clear, however, is that the events of November 25 precipitated a series of repressive measures that have led to further government control, repression against perceived threats and isolation of Turkmenistan, already notorious as one of the world's most repressive and closed societies.
In this special report, Gunfire and Repression: A Year After the Attack on Turkmenistan's President, five of the world's leading authorities on Turkmenistan take stock of the fascinating and horrifying events of the last year and their implications for Turkmenistan's immediate political future. They examine the domestic legacy of the ensuing crackdown, the impact on Turkmenistan's international and regional standing, the ramification for its already embattled civil society, and the evolution of Turkmenistan's exiled political opposition. The report also offers an unprecedented first-hand glimpse into the jail where some of the alleged coup plotters stayed before their convictions in show trials in December 2002 and January 2003.
The nature and motivations for the attack have been the subject of heated debate for the past year. Many facts have come to light piecemeal from government, independent and opposition sources. What is indisputable is that scores of men were convicted of involvement in the attack in closed trials and are currently serving lengthy prison sentences. Many will die in prison. Who was genuinely responsible remains unclear, although several analysts featured in this special report suggest some level of government complicity.
Assigning guilt properly is of crucial importance not only to those imprisoned but indeed to the country's approximately five million residents as almost all of them, to varying degrees, have suffered collective punishment over the actions of a few.
In December 2002, a law was adopted criminalizing criticism of the government in any form. On March 1, Turkmenistan reinstated a strictly enforced exit visa requirement, once again drawing an iron curtain across its border. On June 22, Russian citizens living in Turkmenistan faced losing either that citizenship or their jobs and property when Turkmenistan unilaterally withdrew from its Dual Citizenship Agreement with the Russian Federation. (Not coincidentally, Turkmenistan made this move the same day that Turkmenistan concluded a twenty-year gas agreement with Russia's giant Gazprom that offered hugely advantageous terms to the Russian partner.) Turkmenistan adopted an amended Constitution this summer that centralized control of all three branches of government in a single institution, the Halq Maslahati (People's Council), a body of loyalists headed by the president himself. And just this month new laws came into force regulating religious and civic activities and the funding for them and making free expression even more dangerous for people outside the government's control.
But as profound as the negative trends have been domestically over the past year, the true and more sustained changes may well be in the world's perception of Turkmenistan. The campaign of mass arrests, torture, and harassment that followed the attack was so grotesque and unapologetic that it catalyzed almost unprecedented solidarity in condemning the abuse. Diplomatic sanctions flowed, including a Resolution on Turkmenistan from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and from the European Parliament and a human-rights investigation and comprehensive report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in an almost unprecedented invocation of its Moscow Mechanism. It has also prompted hearings on Turkmenistan in the Russian State Duma, and a steady drumbeat of condemnation from governments and nongovernmental organizations. The United States has also contemplated economic sanctions under the Jackson-Vanik Act for Turkmenistan's failure to comply with its obligations to protect religious freedom.
While condemnation continues to come from some quarters, notably from capitals in Europe and the United States, the solidarity peaked in the months immediately following the attack. This is unfortunate. As authors in this report assert, the human rights violations of the past year are part of an established pattern of arbitrary arrest, torture, violations of freedom of speech, assembly, association and movement. But the events of November 25, 2002, indisputably mark a new chapter in Turkmenistan's modern history, in which President Niyazov abuses the language of state security to legitimize even stricter government control.
Erika Dailey is the director of the Central Eurasia Proejcts Turkmenistan Project.