Niyazov Lifts Exit-Visa Requirement for Turkmen Citizens
Turkmenistan's mercurial leader Saparmurat Niyazov appears to have lifted an exit-visa requirement for Turkmen citizens. If confirmed, the move would mark a momentous shift for Niyazov, who has taken action in recent years to isolate Turkmenistan from outside influences.
An announcement on the semi-official Turkmenistan.ru web site said that Niyazov has issued a resolution that overturns existing procedures for leaving the country. The report made no specific mention of an exit-visa requirement, euphemistically referring to it as "a permission letter."
"According to the president's resolution, the previous order governing the ability of citizens to leave Turkmenistan envisioning [that those wishing to travel] obtain a permission letter to go beyond Turkmenistan's borders is cancelled," the Turkmenistan.ru report said. It went on to state that Niyazov has given government agencies five days to develop new procedures for those seeking to travel abroad.
The actual text of the presidential resolution apparently has not yet been published in the Turkmen press. Speculation had been building in recent days that changes in exit rules were imminent.
During a cabinet meeting January 5, Niyazov denied that citizens needed an exit visa to leave the country. "In some places, people misunderstand us and spread rumors that citizens of Turkmenistan need to obtain a visa if they wish to move to other countries," Niyazov said in comments broadcast by state television. "Our citizens have the right to freely go wherever they want ... as long as there is an invitation from the other side."
The Turkmen requirement that citizens receive official permission to travel abroad was a hold-over practice from the Soviet era. Soviet authorities utilized exit-visas to help coerce the country's population into silent acceptance of Communist Party rule. Exit visas also provided the government with an instrument to muzzle dissident views.
NGO activists have welcomed Niyazov's decision to liberalize Turkmenistan's travel regulations. "We are very encouraged that a decision has been made at the presidential level to finally remove this appalling Cold-War remnant," said Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project. "We all anxiously await full implementation." EurasiaNet publishes under the auspices of the Open Society Institute.
Turkmenistan reintroduced rules requiring a "permission letter" in March 2003 as part of the crackdown following the alleged assassination attempt late the previous year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Under those procedures, a citizen had the right to apply for exit permission up to three times. If authorities denied an applicant all three times, the individual would be unable to leave and without an avenue for further appeal. "I am a prisoner here," one person who had been denied three times told a EurasiaNet contributor.
The exit-visa regime was just one of several moves taken by the Turkmen government to curtail contact with outside influences. Other such actions included the restriction of Russian-language television broadcasts and the closure of the state ballet and opera. Niyazov's decisions were apparently taken in the belief that foreign influences were undermining his authority.
The Turkmen Foreign Ministry has indicated that the travel rules that had been in effect prior to the March 2003 change are likely to be reintroduced. According to Russian media, Turkmen citizens now can leave the country provided they have a valid passport with an entry visa for the intended country of destination.
Over the near term, perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the travel changes are ethnic Russian residents of Turkmenistan, many of whom held both Turkmen and Russian passports before being forced by the Turkmen government last year to settle on a single citizenship. Thus, the move may help ease tension between Turkmenistan and Russia that was fueled by the dispute on the dual-citizenship issue. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
By lifting the effective exit-visa regime, Turkmenistan also stands to avoid possible punitive action by the United States and the United Nations. The US government had indicated that if the Turkmen government took no action to promote greater freedom of movement, Washington would consider imposing trade sanctions under Jackson-Vanik amendment guidelines.
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