Turkmenistan's former foreign minister issued a blistering statement condemning the authoritarian rule of president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov. Sources tell EurasiaNet that the statement, coming from longtime Niyazov deputy Boris Shikhmuradov, could be a sign of potential upheaval in Turkmenistan.
Shikhmuradov's statement November 1, addressed "to the press," constituted a blistering attack on Niyazov for maintaining a regime that is "authoritarian in style, anti-national in essence," and featuring "the worst odious methods of Soviet-style management."
"It is impossible to hide any more his pure hypocrisy, [the] absence of elementary norms of political and diplomatic behavior, [the] insidiousness and cruelty in relation to the [Turkmen] people [and the] spreading of an atmosphere of fear," said Shikhmuradov, who was recently sacked as Turkmenistan's envoy to China.
Such a scathing critique is not all that uncommon in democratic states. But in Turkmenistan -- where many people keep their innermost thoughts secret even from close relatives, and which has never had a legitimate free press - such a personal attack is shocking.
So stunning, in fact, that Shikhmuradov's statement has aroused suspicions among political observers that it may be part of a broader attempt to foster a political overhaul in Turkmenistan.
If Shikhmuradov did not have the tacit support of at least one major power, it is hard to picture him speaking with such ferocity, several political observers say. One source, noting Shikhmuradov's traditional style, sees the statement as a calculated shift.
The source said State Department officials in recent weeks had expressed concern about Niyazov's reliability, and had spoken of the need to reassess policy toward Turkmenistan. The source also said two senior Russian diplomats spoke in the same terms last week.
Another political observer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Shikhmuradov decided to move against Niyazov now because he feared that he would be arrested upon his return to Turkmenistan. Shikhmuradov reportedly is in Russia, and has checked himself into a hospital due to an unspecified "illness," the observer said.
Beyond immediate security needs, there are obvious strategic reasons for both Washington and Moscow to be interested in Turkmenistan's future. The country possesses enormous reserves of gas, even though to date it has not actually produced as much as many analysts expected. Thus, it is not surprising that Moscow and Washington desire a more predictable government in Turkmenistan.
Niyazov has a long history of mercurial behavior. He has established a cult of personality that rivals that which surrounded former Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin. In addition, he has often carried out arbitrary overhauls of government personnel, and has proven an uncooperative negotiating partner on regional issues, including the development of Caspian Basin natural resources and in talks to determine the Caspian Sea's status. Turkmenistan is also notorious for human rights abuses.
With American and Russian soldiers battling against Islamic extremists in neighboring Afghanistan, says one source, Niyazov's behavior has gone from being an annoyance to being a security risk. "There is concern about [the Turkmen-Afghan] border being a long, porous bridge for terrorist activity in the Commonwealth of Independent States," says the source.
More important, Niyazov has pursued an isolationist foreign policy. His insistence on Turkmenistan remaining "neutral" in the Afghanistan conflict, while all other countries are effectively supporting the United States, wins him no sympathizers. If Russia were to depose Niyazov and replace him with a pro-Moscow figurehead, argues one expert, even concerned governments like Iran would probably be happy to see the autocrat gone.
Shikhmuradov's statement suggests that Niyazov opponents could possibly attempt to mount a coup against Niyazov, vowing that the Turkmen people "are capable to find an exit from a historical dead end."
One political observer, however, expressed concern about possible attempts to oust Niyazov. If such an attempt is made, the observer said, Washington and Moscow must ensure that whoever followed Niyazov would take steps to improve domestic political, economic and social conditions in Turkmenistan. Change for its own sake, without a clear idea of what follows for Turkmenistan, would be a risky policy to pursue, the observer warned.
Alec Appelbaum is a contributing editor to EurasiaNet.