Kuliev, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan (left) and Nazar Soyunov, former Deputy Prime Minister of Turkmenistan (right)
WASHINGTON, DC, February 8, 2002 -- The strong U.S. presence in Central Asia is welcomed by many Turkmen who have become disillusioned by corruption in their own government and have given up on the hope that Russian involvement will bring about any kind of positive change in their country. This was the main conclusion reached by Nazar Soyunov and Avdi Kuliev, two former Turkmen political leaders at a February 8, 2002 briefing at The Eisenhower Institute on the current state of affairs in Turkmenistan. They are now hoping that U.S. influence will not only contribute to regional stability, but also instigate democratic and economic reforms and in general provide the leadership that has been absent during the rule of President Saparmurad Niyazov.
In addition to the political discussion, Islamic scholar and current Turkmen Spiritual Leader, Makhtum Abdelkarim remarked on the status of the Turkmen community in Afghanistan and presented his views on the Taliban Mullah Omar's version of Islam. Institute senior associate, Roald Sagdeev moderated the discussion.
According to Kuliev, Turkmenistan is a country beset by widespread government corruption, woeful economic conditions and a crumbling civil society. Basic human rights are ignored and an economic depression grips the country. Average salaries range between $5 and $10. Drug trafficking is rampant. Kuliev asserted that President Niyazov and members of his Internal Intelligence Ministry profited personally from a major drug trafficking conduit that ran from Afghanistan through Turkmenistan. In 1993, Niyazov effectively legalized drugs by announcing that people carrying 5 grams of opium would not be arrested. As a result, Kuliev estimated that approximately 50% of the population is involved in either the use or sale of drugs.
Poor economic conditions play a major role in the proliferation of drugs in Turkmen society, and President Niyazov's education policies have only exacerbated the problem. Niyazov reduced mandatory school attendance to nine years and curtailed the number of university placements. Out of 80,000 students who graduate from what Kuliev called "abridged high schools," only 3000 go on to college. There are no jobs available, so many of the remaining 77,000 students choose to enter the drug trade.
Kuliev described Turkmenistan as "President Niyazov's private company." Niyazov privatized everything that belonged to the state, closed the Academy of Sciences and the National Conservatory. Theaters have been shut down and major libraries (some of which were started in the 19th century) have had their collections dispersed. There is only one hospital in the country and it is accessible only to those with the money to pay for medical attention. Kuliev said that the state's funds run directly into Niyazov's pockets, but Niyazov has no desire to pay salaries himself. Therefore, he laid off approximately 100,000 doctors and teachers, claiming that there is no money in the state budget to pay the salaries. By doing so, Niyazov has curtailed the formation of an educated constituency, eliminating the possibility of political opposition within Turkmen society.
Kuliev criticized what he saw as a number of mistakes made by the US. administration in its policies towards Turkmenistan: non-involvement in the region and relying on Russia to install a democratic regime in Ashgabat. However, Russia has no interest in changing the status quo since the oligarchs and their government friends benefit from the corrupt Niyazov regime. Sagdeev questioned Kuliev on Russia's position towards the Turkmen opposition, which Kuliev described as "non-committal." He alleged that the Russian oligarchs and their friends in the Russian government are involved in organized crime enterprises with President Niyazov and as such, are not interested in opposition groups. Political groups such as the KPRF (Russian Communist Party), the nationalist wing of the Duma have expressed interest in the plight of the Turkmen people. However, their influence in Turkmenistan is slight and there is little that can be done. Additionally, the United States relied on Turkey to institute change, but Turkey's involvement served only to further erode human rights.
Kuliev stated that assistance from the United States is the only hope for instituting democracy and a market economy in Turkmenistan (so far, Niyazov's dealings with the US have only touched on humanitarian aid issues). Following the events of September 11, 2001, Niyazov opened some humanitarian aid channels, but there exist no official agreements between the Niyazov regime and the US.
Kuliev took a dim view of the possibility of democratic reform in Turkmenistan. He asserts that as long as President Niyazov complies, there will be no objections from the US government and, therefore, nothing will be done to institute democracy in Turkmenistan. He made the point that foreign investment does not equal democratization and in the future more vigilance should be exercised.
According to Soyunov, President Niyazov has also mismanaged Turkmenistan's abundant oil and natural gas resources, which has had a negative impact on the economy. Although the economy has grown over the past several years, and Turkmenistan has resumed the exporting of natural gas to other CIS states, the people still suffer. Niyazov has refused to privatize the oil and gas industries until at least 2015, further stifling economic growth and modernization.
The large Turkmen population in Afghanistan has endured decades of conflict and societal upheaval. Abdelkarim discussed how the Turkmen Diaspora in Afghanistan survived the Soviet invasion, the civil wars and the Taliban by remaining largely apolitical and removed from the fighting.
In the 1920s, roughly 2 millions Turkmen left their homeland and settled in Afghanistan. When Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979, the Turkmen banded together to repel the invasion. However, during the civil war that followed the Soviet pullout in 1989, the Turkmen were reluctant to fight. When the Taliban came to power, most Turkmen remained apolitical. Now, in spite of the difficult conditions in Turkmenistan and the fall of the Taliban, most of the Turkmen in Afghanistan want to return home.
Sagdeev concluded the meeting by asking Abdelkarim about the impact of Osama Bin Laden's interpretation of Islam on the Turkmen people. Abdelkarim rejected Bin Laden's extreme views. He stated that Islam calls for the education of women. Indeed, Adbukerim asserted that it is the duty of all Muslim men and women to learn. The Turkmen spiritual leader thinks that it is unfortunate that Osama Bin Laden and his ilk associate Islam with terrorism, because the true tenets of Islam reject anything related to terrorism. According to Abdelkarim, Islam holds that killing a single person is equivalent to killing all mankind. Furthermore, Abdelkarim stated that Taliban leader, Mullah Omar's views are not shared by Turkmen Muslims. "Mullah Omar doesn't know anything about religion," Abdelkarim said. "What he [Omar] promoted had no relation to Islam." Abdelkarim called the Taliban's view towards women, "one of Omar's biggest perversions."