Originally published in Izvestia, February 6, 2003.
State-sponsored terror persists because the international community is either silent in the face of it, or restricts its condemnations to actions that are of little or no consequence to the offending party.
In today's world we tend to concentrate on the terrorism of those who blow up buses or buildings in "enemy" states and sometimes forget that state-sponsored terror takes many other forms. Leaders that terrify their own populations into submission are also guilty of the most elemental form of terrorism.
This is precisely what is occurring in Turkmenistan today. The treatment of political prisoners and their families in Turkmenistan should be considered to be an example of state-sponsored terrorism, and it is incumbent upon both the US and Russia to think up ways to effectively counter it. To do otherwise is to abdicate the leadership that each aspires to in this part of the world.
It is no longer possible to view President Saparmurad Niyazov of Turkmenistan as a simple and somewhat ridiculous autocrat, a man whose appetite for public adoration is no more serious than wasting public funds on monuments trumpeting his greatness.
There should be no further doubt but that the behavior of Turkmenbashi the Great, as he likes to be known, is threatening the well-being and maybe even the survival of an independent Turkmen nation. It is also putting the security of neighboring states at risk.
The signs that something was seriously amiss have long been there, had we been willing to pay closer attention. The educational system has been destroyed. It is not just that there has been a sharp cutback in the number of places available in higher education. The distortions introduced in the curriculum, including virtually barring instruction in Russian, makes it virtually impossible for Turkmen youth to be educated in ways that make them competitive internationally in scientific and technical fields.
Niyazov has sponsored a form of totalitarianism that is reminiscent of Stalin's old ideological formulation, national in form, and socialist in content, but in this case instead of socialism the ideological doctrine being advocated is one of Niyazov's own creation.
The ideology revolves around the Ruhnama, a history of and spiritual guide for the Turkmen people. The month of September has been renamed Ruhnama in its honor, as part of the new calendar, which was put into use in 2002, when the days of the week were renamed as well.
Presidents of countries are frequently the author of foolish books, or at least authorize the publication of such volumes in their name. But the Ruhnama is in a class by itself. The text includes photographs of manuscript allegedly written in Niyazov's own hand. Parts of it are so incomprehensible that it seems unlikely that they were prepared by a ghost writer, although some of the historical sections seem obviously to have been written by others. The Ruhnama is said to define the ethical system by which Turkmen must live, its mastery is required of all students, and it has been offered up as a source for daily reflection. Even Hitler's Mein Kampf never served as the mainstay of Nazi Germany's education system.
The national in form is an effort to imitate traditional tribal culture. Calling the head of state Turkmenbashi---literally "head" Turkmen, is a revival of popular custom throughout Central Asia where for hundreds of years the rural population referred to the most powerful figure in the land as "bosh" or "pasha." The imitation, though, is more a parody of the past than its revitalization. Ballet and opera have been banned, for they are not traditional Turkmen art forms. In their place have been substituted folk singing and folk dancing, and the three Turkmen television channels are filled with musical ensembles, whose performers, clad in traditional dress, spend part of each performance offering up praise for the life of Turkmenbashi, his mother and his family.
In the face of the kind of national degradation they have been exposed to, it is not surprising that many in the Turkmen ruling elite decided to break with the Niyazov government. Some did this to end their complicity with what they saw as an increasingly depraved and incompetent regime, while others left less voluntarily, fearing that the state machine that was churning up those who served it was about to turn on them as well.
To express sympathy for the plight of these people, and even to support the political and economic goals of the Turkmen opposition is not the same as advocating the armed overthrow of the Niyazov regime. Outside intervention to oust a political leader must be saved for the most extraordinary of circumstances. It should only be resorted to once a series of preliminary steps designed to improve the situation have failed.
The truth about what happened in Ashgabat on November 25 has not yet been established. Whether the explosions were a failed coup, and if so who was behind it, are still a matter of conjecture. Those charged with these crimes should be face criminal procedures that meet OSCE and other international norms, and include the presence of international observers.
The international community must also protest in the strongest possible terms, the presumptions of guilt by consanguinity that are currently being applied in Ashgabat. Relatives of those accused in the November 25 events have variously been arrested, harrassed, or are facing deportation to some of the most inhabitable parts of the country.
The situation in Turkmenistan resembles that of the darkest days of the Stalin purges, when family members of the "enemies of the people" were considered criminals because they prevented to crimes for which their relatives had been arrested.
The confession of former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov is a chilling statement. Part of it was broadcast on Russian news programs, and I listened to it in its entirety on the website maintained by Shikhmuradov's political party.
For anyone who knows Shikhmuradov's voice, and through my work I have met him on several occasions, it was obvious to me that Turkmenistan's long-time foreign minister had either been drugged or so severely beaten that his speech was distorted. It was impossible to believe that Shikhmuradov was the author of the text. One of the most disturbing charges Shikhmuradov made since leaving office was that Niyazov had orchestrated and profited from the trafficking of drugs from Afghanistan through Turkmenistan. But in his confession Shikhmuradov told the Turkmen people that these and other statements were the actions of a delusional heroin addict who only now understood what a great gift Turkmenbashi was to the Turkmen people.
When hearing it, the prison scenes from Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, came immediately to mind. The inspiration for these were purge trials held in Ashgabat in the late 1930s, witnessed together by Koestler and the African American poet Langston Hughes, who wrote of this disturbing experience in his memoirs, I Wonder as I Wander.
It would be nice to think that the international community has learned some lessons since the days of the Great Terror, and will assume its moral responsibility to put the government of Turkmenistan on warning that the current treatment of political prisoners their families is unacceptable.
Moving slowly by application of the various OSCE mechanisms is unlikely to prevent grave damage to the health and well-being of those currently under arrest, or those fearful of pending arrest or extradition.
Both the US and Russia have an arsenal of diplomatic tools at their disposal, of escalating seriousness. Citizens of both these countries are now being held in Ashgabat and neither country has received assurances of their fair treatment. This gives both presidents
George Bush and Vladimir Putin a justification for further action.
The US and Russia could both place restrictions on travel to and from Turkmenista. If the treatment of political prisoners did not change, plans should be made to embargo Turkmen goods on an item by item basis, from a list designed to have escalating consequence for the Turkmen economy. The US and Russia should also lobby actively for the freezing of all international credit to Turkmenistan, including monies being provided for a feasibility study of a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline.
However much the US and Russia might like to see Turkmenistan's gas flow to market (be it flowing eastward or westward depending upon according to whose plan) neither should want to continue doing business with the Turkmenbashi the Great. Tyrants on the rampage are not merely morally repugnant, they also are undependable partners. The paranoia that fuelled the current wave of terror in Turkmenistan will have to find other outlets after the men who have been arrested and their families have been destroyed.