Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Jul 13 13:16:33 UTC 2004

Eurasia Insight:
Igor Torbakov: 6/04/03


Rancorous rhetoric between Russia and Turkmenistan is escalating over
Ashgabats swift action to eliminate dual citizenship, a move that could
have devastating consequences for potentially tens of thousands of
Russians and Russian-speakers. The Turkmen Foreign Ministry fired the
latest salvo in the dispute, accusing Russian leaders of engineering a
mass media campaign designed to discredit Turkmenistan.

In late May, Dmitry Rogozin, the chairman of the Russian parliaments
Foreign Relations Committee, condemned Turkmen strongman Saparmurat
Niyazov for planning the mass deportation of Turkmenistans Russian
population a reference to an April 22 decree that unilaterally rescinded a
Turkmen-Russian agreement on dual citizenship. Rogozin also alleged during
an interview broadcast on the Russian NTV television channel that Turkmen
officials were involved in drug trafficking and had supported Afghanistans
former rulers, the radical Islamic Taliban movement.

If intelligence that Ashgabat has supported international terrorism proved
to be accurate, Rogozin told NTV that Niyazovs regime should be isolated
by the international community. Later reports by NTV provided additional
information on alleged misdeed committed by Turkmen officials.

Rogozins comments and the subsequent NTV reports provoked a fierce
response from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry. A May 30 statement said some
Russian mass media outlets were attempting to delude public opinion by
disseminating false inventions about the situation in Turkmenistan.

Some representatives of state organs of Russia have also turned out to be
involved in this unseemly act, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry statement
continued. The statement demanded that Moscow bring to book those
responsible for the NTV reports on Turkmenistan. If the competent
authorities are not able to ensure the execution of laws within their
state [Russia], then a question arises about their ability to ensure state
authority in the country at all, the statement said.

The seeds for the existing row were sown just under two months ago, when
Niyazov and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow to seal a gas
deal, which at the time was hailed as a breakthrough in bilateral
commercial relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During their April summit, Niyazov reportedly obtained Putins consent to
rescind a dual-citizenship agreement.

Putins concurrence provoked a political storm in Russia that has yet to
subside. It appears Russian leaders were caught off guard by the speed
with which Niyazov moved to eliminate dual citizenship  a move that
affects mostly Russians and Russian-speakers, who must choose their single
citizenship by June 22. The Kremlin simply didnt expect such swiftness
from its Turkmen partner, political analyst Vitaly Portnikov said in a
commentary published in the Vremya MN daily.

With the deadline looming, those in Turkmenistan who opt for a Russian
passport could end up forfeiting their homes and other property, as, under
Turkmen law, only Turkmen citizens have the right to own real estate.
According to Russian press reports, prices for apartments in Ashgabat have
already dropped threefold. At the same time, those who decide to retain
Turkmen passports will not be able to travel to Russia freely since
Turkmen nationals now need to obtain an exit visa to leave the country.
The way Russians are being treated [in Turkmenistan] is a real tragedy,
said Sergei Kamenev, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies
in Moscow.

Popular outrage in Russia has Putins administration on the defensive. Some
have accused Putin of swapping 150,000 co-nationals for gas. Others say
Putins actions are perceived across the former Soviet Union as a betrayal
on Moscows part. With the parliamentary and presidential elections coming
soon, both the president [Putin] and the party of power may pay dearly for
this [betrayal], regional analyst Arkady Dubnov wrote in the Vremya
Novostei newspaper.

Shortly after Niyazov issued the dual-citizenship revocation decree in
April, Russia tried quiet diplomacy in order to get the Turkmen leader to
soften the measures impact. Turkmen officials rebuffed the Russian
diplomatic feelers.

In the days following Rogozins late May demarche, few Russian observers
believed the Kremlin was prepared to harden its stance on Turkmen human
rights violations. Instead, most analysts believed that Rogozin, who has
close ties to the Kremlin, was acting on behalf of Putin in an attempt to
restore the presidents tarnished domestic image.

At this point, analysts contend, the dispute over the dual citizenship
issue likely does not pose a long-term threat to bilateral relations. They
note that Niyazov attended the CIS summit in St. Petersburg, which
occurred the same day that the Turkmen Foreign Ministry statement was
issued. If Niyazov had truly been angered by the Russian media reports, he
probably would have canceled his visit to Russia.

At the same time, some observers say that given Niyazovs mercurial nature,
bilateral relations could take serious and unpredictable twists at any
point. In addition, the dual citizenship issue appears to retain its
ability to politically damage Putin. Turkmenistans prickly response to
Russias human rights criticism could bring pressure to bear on Putin to
get tougher with Turkmenistan.

Some influential members of Moscows policy-making elite have long argued
that Russia should adopt a more hardline position towards Niyazovs
repressive regime. Authoritarianism in Central Asia poses no less a
strategic threat to Russias security than militant Islamism, political
analyst Aleksander Arkhangelsky argued recently in the Izvestiya daily.
The tyrannical regimes are fluid and poisonous like mercury, Archangelsky
wrote. If we dont arrest their contagious expansion today, we might
seriously regret this failure tomorrow.

Editors Note: Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who
specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from
Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.
He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian
Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute,
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a
Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow
at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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