Turkmenistan: Jailed opposition leaders Boris Shihmuradov and Batyr Berduyev are alive
President of Turkmenistan Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov, 50, is to address the UN General Assembly in New York today in what will become his first appearance in the United States in the new capacity. Berdymuhammedov became the president following the unexpected demise of president for life Saparmurat Niyazov also known as Turkmenbashi the Great in Ashkhabad last December.
Berdymuhammedov has certainly done his homework. The Turkmen Foreign Ministry enlisted the services of American PR companies to give the visitor good press. According to Die Deutsche Welle, the president himself regularly consulted with his counterparts from Iran (Mahmud Ahmadinejad) and Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbayev). Ahmadinejad and Nazarbayev are in New York too, their speeches at the UN General Assembly already delivered.
Berdymuhammedov's visit to the United States began with appearance at the Columbia University where he preceded Ahmadinejad by a couple of hours. This alma matter of American liberalism received the Turkmen leader much warmer than what was arranged for the Iranian president. At the very least, the Turkmenbashi's heir was spared pickets and protests. The only fly in the ointment was an appeal from the Committee to Protect Journalists to US State Secretary Condolleezza Rice to demand an impartial investigation of the death of freelance journalists Ogulsapar Muradova in a Turkmen jail in August 2006. Rice met with Berdymuhammedov on the UN General Assembly premises, yesterday.
Accompanied by a retinue of senior Turkmen state officials, ministers, and diplomats, Berdymuhammedov was 15 minutes late for the Columbia University appointment. (Every man accompanying the Turkmen president wore an inevitable golden badge with the Turkmenbashi's profile.) A girl in Turkmen traditional dress was meeting the president with flowers. Berdymuhammedov beamed when told that she was a Turkmen girl, come to study in the United States. Turkmen organizers of the visit apparently knew that it would be a proper way to start off the visit. Indeed, his 20-minute long speech in Russian was accompanied by a brief video. Berdymuhammedov thanked the US Administration "for the effective aid within the framework of education programs", hailed "appearance of students from Turkmen in the United States, establishment of the US-Turkmen university and branches of US colleges in Turkmenistan." Berdymuhammedov even asked his hosts at the Columbia University to accept Turkmen teachers for tours of duty.
The very first question the Turkmen leader was asked, however, was not particularly amiable. One Peter Zalmayev, student and former activist of the International League for Human Rights, reminded the guest of the worries of the US Department of State and OSCE over the lot of ex-foreign ministers of Turkmenistan Boris Shihmuradov and Batyr Berduyev, arrested and sentenced to imprisonment nearly five years ago in connection with the so called attempt on the Turkmenbashi's life (November 25, 2002). Zalmayev asked Berdymuhammedov directly if they were still alive and said nobody - doctors, families, or lawyers - had ever seen the arrestees.
At first, Berdymuhammedov's answer left Zalmayev under the impression that the answer would be ducked. "He began with saying that he was a young president yet and that upping prosperity of the people was his first priority," Zalmayev told Vremya Novostei. The president then switched over to Turkmen festivities and made a particular mention of the so called Gadyr Gijesi or Night of Forgiveness (October 9) celebrated on one of the ten last days of the sacred month of Ramadan. A nationwide amnesty traditionally accompanies Gadyr Gijesi in Turkmenistan. "As for the two people you were asking about, I'm convinced that they are alive," Berdymuhammedov suddenly said catching everybody by surprise. That was a big-selling news. Granted that the Turkmen leader did not identify Shihmuradov and Berduyev by names, he did say they were still among the living. What will happen to them yet is anybody's guess. Could Berdymuhammedov's reference to Gadyr Gijesi mean something? Eleven prisoners sentenced in connection with the November 2002 episode were released a couple of months ago. Will others be released too?
The Turkmen president meanwhile wouldn't admit encroachment on the freedom of expression in his country. "There were no encroachments on it in the past, and there are none at this point," Berdymuhammedov said. Neither would he promise to remove Ruhnama studies from daily life [Ruhnama is the book by the Turkmenbashi - Vremya Novostei]. "The Serdar [leader] founded our state. This is our legacy, after all," Berdymuhammedov said. On the other hand, Zalmayev was surprised that the Turkmen leader had never identified his predecessor by name.
Asked a question about Moscow and its current policy, Berdymuhammedov said he did not perceive any "strengthening imperial chauvinism" in it. "No, can't say we perceive anything like that," he said. Neither did he have any objections to the situation where Russia was buying gas from Turkmenistan at $100 and selling it to Europe at a much higher tariff. The Turkmen leader was somewhat evasive on the matter and admitted that Turkmenistan and its partners (Russia, China, EU) were working on the gas tariff formula. He only added that Turkmenistan was not going to be at a disadvantage and left it at that.
Last but no the least, Berdymuhammedov subtly evaded the question about whether or not the next presidential election in Turkmenistan were to be free and fair. "I wish the next president constructive work in the name of the people," he said.
All in all, Berdymuhammedov's appearance at the Columbia University was met cordially. Zalmayev was under the impression that the Turkmen leader was genuinely upset by the state of affairs with health care and education in his native country. "It was like a cry for help," Zalmayev said.
Arkady Dubnov, Vremya Novostei, September 26, 2007, p. 2. © Translated by Ferghana.Ru