In an exclusive interview with EurasiaNet, Boris Shikhmuradov, a leader of Turkmenistan's growing opposition movement, said political turmoil in Ashgabat indicates that Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov is worried about his hold on power. Shikhmuradov added the opposition intends to increase the pressure on Niyazov in an effort to topple his authoritarian regime.
"A hot season is coming to Turkmenistan, and we [the opposition] hope to help make it happen," Shikhmuradov said. He said that opposition leaders, now living in exile, are planning to return to Ashgabat to mount a direct challenge to Niyazov.
"We plan to return all together. Let Niyazov try to stop us. Let Niyazov try to impose the punishments that he has planned for us, with his accusations of various criminal deeds that have no basis in fact," Shikhmuradov said. "We have direct channels of communication to the people, who await our return. We will return with a one-way ticket." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].
The opposition has developed a "plan of action" in the event that efforts to oust Niyazov succeed, according to Shikhmuradov. The holding of free elections constitutes a central element of the opposition's plan. "It's an evolutionary program," he said. "Everything should unfold in a civilized way." Shikhmuradov did not get into specifics, nor did he give a precise time frame for the opposition's return.
Shikhmuradov, a former foreign minister, is the most prominent figure among the so-called second wave of emigration of the Turkmen opposition. His announced split with Niyazov's regime in November sparked a series of top-level defections to the opposition. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Niyazov's expanding purge of the defense and security apparatus is a reaction to the sudden growth in the opposition's prominence, Shikhmuradov said. "People are starting to exhibit anti-Niyazov tendencies," Shikhmuradov said. "Naturally, he [Niyazov] is dissatisfied that the security service is not in position to handle the situation."
Shikhmuradov asserted that corruption is pervasive in the KNB, or state security service, and that its illicit behavior has fueled increasing popular anger with Niyazov's regime. The Turkmen leader, according to Shikhmuradov, "closed his eyes" to KNB misdeeds as long as he felt the security service was able to control government opposition.
A chief feature of Niyazov's cult-of-personality has been the frequent rotation of top lieutenants. However, the suddenness and the extent of the recent purges demonstrate that Niyazov has profound concern about the security service's loyalty. "Niyazov usually acts only when he is worried about his own well-being," Shikhmuradov said.
Shikhmuradov admitted that tactical differences remained within the Turkmen opposition movement, primarily between members of the second wave and the first wave of emigrants. The first wave of oppositionists, who left Turkmenistan during the early and mid 1990s, is led by Avdy Kuliev, another former Turkmen foreign minister. Shikhmuradov indicated that it was unlikely that the two sides would be able to bridge tactical gaps in the near future. At the same time, he stressed that there were no "fundamental differences."
"I don't see an urgent need that we unite," Shikhmuradov said.
A major factor in the timing of the opposition leaders' return to Turkmenistan is connected with what Shikhmuradov termed "our foreign partners." He says the opposition desires to reassure international governments, especially the United States and Russia, that efforts to oust Niyazov will not have broad repercussions, creating complications for the continuing anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan, one of Afghanistan's northern neighbors, has provided limited assistance to the US-led anti-terrorism coalition, acting mostly as a conduit for international humanitarian assistance. While many foreign governments have become disenchanted with Niyazov's policy zig-zags on a variety of multilateral issues, especially concerning the demarcation of the Caspian Sea and the development of oil and gas export routes, they are not eager to see political upheaval hit the region.
Some observers express concern that a move to oust Niyazov could have a ripple effect across Central Asia. While Niyazov's personality cult is unrivaled in the region, most Central Asian states, in particular Uzbekistan, have established political systems that are authoritarian in nature. Thus, a potentially successful Turkmen opposition campaign to oust Niyazov could establish an unsettling precedent at a time when the United States, Russia and other members of anti-terrorist coalition are eager to promote regional stability.
Shikhmuradov insisted that Turkmenistan's political situation was unique in Central Asia, and suggested the removal of Niyazov would not pose a threat to regional stability.
"There can be no domino effect," Shikhmuradov said. "Our movement is dedicated to avoiding an uncontrollable explosion.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet’s publisher.