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Turkmenistan Opposition Tries to Grow Abroad - 2002-05-08

Turkmenistan, perhaps the most closed society in the world, is developing an opposition abroad. One of its leaders recently spoke in Washington, expressing confidence but conceding a regime change is not likely any time soon.

The Soviet Union has disappeared, says Boris Shikmuradov, with the exception of Turkmenistan. As a Turkmen opposition leader abroad, he is urgently probing for cracks in the monolithic state run by President Saparmurat Niazov. They are hard to find, said Mr. Shikmuradov, a former Turkemenistan foreign minister, at a meeting of RFE-RL in Washington.

"Niazov actually represents the most primitive and negative continuation of the Soviet tradition of leadership," he said. "After the late 1980s, the Turkmen people did not go through the transfer from the Soviet system to post-Soviet system. Rather they continued to live through the worst aspects of the Soviet system."

Mr. Skikmuradov emphasized the difficulty of creating a meaningful opposition from outside the country.

"Inside the country there is no opposition," he said. "No comments are allowed against Niazov. There is no political opposition party. There is no single accredited foreign journalist in the country, and it is impossible to get information from government sources since they are so unreliable."

President Niazov's power goes beyond Soviet times, says Mehrdad Haghayeghi, professor of political science at Southwest Missouri State University. In his opinion, Mr. Niazov acts like a Turkmen tribal leader who must be obeyed in all matters, however trivial. For example, he decides the color of napkins at state dinners.

Obviously, more significant matters do not escape his scrutiny, in particular, any sign of political opposition. Professor Haghayeghgi says that makes it very difficult for opposition abroad to make any headway. The opposition also tends to divide along not so consequential lines.

"Individuals who do decide to break away from the existing political structures tend to be more concerned about personal ambition rather than the longevity of the organization they have set up," he said. "That personality conflict permeates the Central Asian societies, in Kazakhstan, in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan is the same."

Professor Haghayeghi thinks Mr. Shikmuradov has the best chance to challenge the regime, but it is an uphill battle. Mr. Niazov has been busily purging his top ranks to forestall any defections.

"The only way you can survive is by constantly rotating people that hold high offices, and that rotation pretty much prevents consolidation of opposition within the power structure," he said. "He does that routinely. The latest wave of purges took place a couple of months ago when he got rid of heads of security forces."

Professor Haghayeghi says the purges suggest a certain desperation on Mr. Niazov's part, as if he realizes sooner or later his subordinates will have enough of his bizarre, tyrannical regime.