A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
It has been a long time since a new Turkmen opposition party or movement appeared. Which is why I was intrigued when RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, told me about Akmuhammet Baykhanov's new group; "Hereket" (the Movement).
Most of the Turkmen opposition leaders of the late 1990s and early part of this century are still out there, mainly living in Europe now. Their statements, opinions, or comments about Turkmenistan do not appear much outside of opposition websites such as Gundogar.org and Chrono-tm.org.
They are not dormant but they are also not well publicized.
So what is the Movement about, why is Baykhanov announcing it now, and what can he, currently located in Turkey, and his group do that others have not tried?
According to Baykhanov, the reason for the Movement is to extricate the Turkmen people from the legacy of Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, or "Turkmenbashi" (Head of the Turkmen), as Niyazov was commonly called. Niyazov died at the end of 2006 but his legacy as a rights violator, enemy of the press, and waster of public funds is still alive under successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
The announcement of the Movement's creation was timed to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the death of Turkmenistan's first foreign minister, Avdy Kuliev, who became one of the leading opponents of Niyazov's regime barely a year after Turkmenistan became independent.
Kuliev is Baykhanov's primary inspiration and he repeated during interviews, in Turkmen and Russian, that his group would follow the principles of Kuliev's opposition to Turkmenistan's regime.
In Baykhanov's words, those principles mean "to work for the independence of the Turkmen people, to prevent the authorities' criminal actions against the people, like jailing innocent people, demolishing houses, depriving people of property." And like Kuliev, Baykhanov says he has no aspirations to become Turkmenistan's president. "Who is going to lead is not up to me, the people will decide who their leader is," he told Azatlyk.
At this point I should mention that I knew Avdy Kuliev. I spoke with him many times. He did have ideas about how democracy could work in Turkmenistan and he followed events in countries RFE/RL broadcasts to, looking for successes that he believed could be repeated in his own country.
Unfortunately, as Avdy was contemplating how to fit other countries' models of democratic reforms into Turkmenistan, the political realities of Turkmenistan were changing, Niyazov's government was becoming more repressive, and the country was fading into isolation.
Baykhanov conceded that Kuliev did not have sufficient time to gain momentum in his quest to change Turkmenistan's political course but Baykhanov pointed out "Kuliev wanted to work against Niyazov by being present in the country." Kuliev tried to return on April 17, 1998, but was detained at the Ashgabat airport and charged with plotting a coup. He was fortunate to be released on April 20, the same day Niyazov arrived in the United States for his first, and only, official visit to Washington.
There could be a lesson there for Baykhanov, who himself was jailed in 2003 for meeting with Kuliev in Moscow and spent the next five years being transferred from one prison to another in Turkmenistan.
It is precisely his time in jail that has Baykhanov convinced of the merits of his cause and his ability to make changes in Turkmenistan despite the greats odds against him and the Movement.
"I learned a lot about Turkmen life, dictatorship politics, and the Turkmen government's repression against the people from my prison experience, from inside the darkness," Baykhanov said.
But in these various prisons Baykhanov met others like him. "While I was there [jail] a lot of people found out who I was, and got to know me. For example, there were some 3,500 people with me in one prison and in all the other prisons people knew me," he said. "Now these people are free" and most still live in Turkmenistan.
Baykhanov also pointed out that while he lived for years in the capital, Ashgabat, he is from the central Mary Province and he says he knows many people in the eastern Lebap Province.
All these people, Baykhanov explained, are the conduits for quietly and carefully spreading the Movement's message. And he has selected one the oldest forms of political dissent in Central Asia as the vehicle for his message -- poetry and literature.
Baykhanov claims to have written 10 volumes of work, much of it while he was incarcerated or during the years 2008 to 2013 when he was out of prison but essentially under house arrest in Ashgabat.
He is not against using more contemporary means to spread his message, saying his contacts in Turkmenistan "are listening every time I speak on Radio Svoboda [Azatlyk], and tell people quietly what they heard because of course you can't speak freely in the dictator's regime and they listen and pass along what they've heard to a great number of people."
To say Baykhanov faces an uphill battle would be an understatement. The highest priority of Turkmenistan's government is and always has been self-preservation, and even the smallest perceived threats within the country are met with an overwhelming and hostile response.
The greatest value of Baykhanov and the Movement at the moment is what I said at the start; they are new and show that not everyone has given up on trying to change Turkmenistan. Even hushed words from one person to another can carry a great amount of hope.
Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.
Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.