An Interview with Martha Brill Olcott, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializes in the problems of transitions in Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as security challenges in the Caspian region. She has followed interethnic relations in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union for more than 25 years and has traveled extensively in these countries and in South Asia.
Q: What are your thoughts on the current situation in Turkmenistan?
As a student of the former Soviet Union, and someone who has spent a lifetime studying Central Asia, it's deeply disturbing to see what's going on in Turkmenistan today. It must be even more disturbing for those people who actually lived through Stalin's terror to see what is going on. For me, even with my second-hand knowledge, it is such a frightening situation. Looking at the political trials and arrests of family members of alleged traitors that we see going on in Turkmenistan, it's impossible not to think back to the period of Stalin's trials - so much of it seems scripted from the same school of political theater. In the 1950s and 60s, when we learned the scale of what had gone on in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 40s, all over in the West the question was: "Why didn't people do anything?" And here, we are all standing by - all of us have this knowledge. Anyone who's ever met Shikhmuradov, anyone who's had even the most casual contact with him and listened to the tape of his confession knew immediately that this man had to have been drugged, simply because of the distortions in his voice. Yet there is virtual silence on this from the governments of various OSCE nations, including the US and Russia. There have been polite noises about how trials in Turkmenistan have to be made to conform to international norms, but there's been no penalty put down for those people who refuse to adhere to these norms, there's no consequence for Turkmenistan if its leader does not choose to re-examine his philosophy of dealing with political opposition.
Q: Why have the governments of other countries been slow to respond?
There are a number of reasons. It has to be admitted from the onset that changing the behavior of tyrannical states or leaders is very difficult - that's one of the challenges that the Bush administration has posed for itself in its focus on Saddam. Certainly in the case of Turkmenistan, the potential tools of statecraft are fairly limited, but there has been a reluctance to use even those limited tools. On the US side, I'm not sure if the administration feels that it is worth destabilizing a situation so close to Afghanistan, and I'm not sure that the US has a vested interest in some sort of redefined Turkmenistan. US policy-makers would clearly like Turkmenistan to be more democratic and to have a market economy, but there aren't major US investments in Turkmenistan right now, there isn't a large diaspora community from Turkmenistan living in the US. Turkmenistan has more or less complied with what the Bush administration has asked of it, in terms of supporting the war on terrorism, so there is nothing propelling more dramatic action on the part of the US.
But it's hard for me to view Russian inaction in as neutral a fashion, because it seems to me that Russia has both closer economic, political and emotional ties to Turkmenistan. There are Russian citizens being arrested in Turkmenistan. So what's going on is in direct violation of the rights of Russian citizens. Obviously, economically Russia has a big stake in Turkmenistan. Gazprom is a major purchaser of Turkmenistan's gas, so on the one hand, if Russia were to declare some sort of economic boycott against Turkmenistan, and personally I would like to see everybody declare that boycott - Russia, US, the OSCE nations - there would be consequences for Russia, it would be harder for them to get the gas. But there is power in that kind of action - it wouldn't be an empty gesture, it would be a gesture capable of sparking a change in the behavior. It's hard for me to imagine that Niazov can sit there indefinitely if he can't sell his gas anywhere, and if nobody in the OSCE will buy his cotton. This is demanding a bold foreign policy step for Russia, but as Putin looks for new meaningful roles for Russia, this kind of economic move could really become the beginning of a much broader-reaching set of economic and political relationships. Russians like to say that they play a leading role in this part of the world, well here's a way for the Russian government to say that it has a new ideology, and that it can find a way to integrate humanistic norms across the region.
And I think only economic sanctions would have any effect, I don't think he would be convinced by any diplomacy. The only way to get him to change his strategy is to create economic disincentives for him to continue in this manner. Simply the threat of economic sanctions, if he believed that it was serious, might be sufficient to get him to begin modifying some of his policies, or at least rolling back the atmosphere of terror. But right now, there's absolutely no reason for him to do this.
Q: What will it take for Russia or America to make that threat?
One of the signs of his increasing irrationality - or he may be wholly rational, but terror takes on its own logic - is his idea that the US supported the aborted coup against him, or that the US had supported Shikhmuradov's activities in Turkmenistan. The Uzbek ambassador was sent home for allegedly facilitating Shikhmuradov's entry into Turkmenistan., and the Turkmenistan ambassador was not sent home, creating the possibility that there was some collusion on the Uzbek side. But Niazov is kind of getting fixated on the idea that he was doing it with the support of the US, and while he personally hasn't said anything, he clearly authorized a number of officials to make strong statements, implying that the US Ambassador somehow supported Shikhmuradov, and saying very explicitly that statements made by the US State Department are in violation of Turkmen law. If he continues to escalate in that way, there is a possibility that he will back Washington into a corner, where not to respond, not to withdraw the ambassador, not to have an official response would be a blow against US prestige. And it may not even be self-delusion on his part, it may be this internal life that terror takes on, that when you're staging theater you have to stage it all the way.
Q: Can the smaller countries around Turkmenistan, like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, play any role in this?
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan see the situation as increasing the instability of the area.
Certainly these countries feel much more than Russia that their security is directly threatened. For example, the border situation with Uzbekistan and the situation with the allocation of water between the two countries has really exacerbated in the past year or two.
Q: If the situation remains the same, where do you see this going in, say, five years?
I don't think you have five years. I think you have a year or two. Niazov is really going for the destruction of the Turkmenistan people as a people capable of orderly self-government, and the systematic terrorization of the elite - the arrest of scores of people who have experience in running the government and the economy, the terrorization of their families, the push into exile and silence of dozens of other people has enormous consequences for the capacity of a state as small as Turkmenistan to govern itself. The economy seems to be increasingly mismanaged, and his policies are laying down the foundation for anarchy at the time that he physically begins to falter. Niazov may well have protected himself from an armed coup, but he hasn't protected himself from the inevitabilities of age and decline, and there's going to be nobody around to pick up the pieces.