What Saparmurat Niyazov's sudden death may mean for the population of Turkmenistan
The president' sudden death stirred the political establishment and population of Turkmenistan and left everyone in turmoil. Some Ferghana.Ru news agency correspondents have friends and relatives in Turkmenistan, living there since we all lived in the Soviet Union. It is only understandable therefore that they want more on the situation in Turkmenistan that what may be glimpsed from laconic official reports.
Placing a call to Ashkhabad this Thursday was a sheer impossibility. "Line is busy," a recording kept repeating in Russian and English. It generated all sorts of panicky assumptions, the least alarming of them suggesting that the communications were down deliberately to maintain a total information blackout.
One of our frantic calls went through after 10 p.m. Moscow time. We talked to our friends, a Russian family living in the center of Ashkhabad, on Prospekt Mira not far from the square with the famous golden statue of the Father of all Turkmen.
"We are all right here," Ferghana.Ru correspondent was told. "Phones are working and have been working. TV networks where we watch Russian programs maintain their usual broadcasting schedule. Flights take off and land on schedule. We do not know of course what is happening "upstairs". Ordinary people like us remain indoors, waiting to see what will happen now."
"One would think that Russian-speakers are supposed to wish for changes more than anybody else. The fact is, however, very many are genuinely upset by the news of the president's death," the contact continued. "First, it is human to feel sorry that another life is over. Second, we felt pretty secure here with Saparmurat Niyazov in charge of things. There have been no ethnic or religious conflicts in Turkmenistan for years. Third, everything is cheap here - transport fees, food, and so on. We are not charged anything for running water, gas, or electricity. Communal fees for a three-room apartment in the center of Ashkhabad amount to about 50,000 manats a year [approximately $2 - Ferghana.Ru]. We owe it all to Niyazov... Nobody knows what is going to happen now."
The words "Russian-speakers are supposed to wish for changes" require an explanation. Several years ago, presidential decrees introduced Turkmen language exams at all colleges and universities throughout the country. Russian groups in all of them were abolished altogether shortly afterwards. That is why Russian-speakers have been leaving Turkmenistan en masse all these years.
Even the late Turkmenbashi admitted in one of his speeches that more than 200,000 Russian-speakers had left the country between 1989 and 2001 (less than 100,000 left where there had been 330,000). Professor Shohrat Kadyrov who now lives in Oslo claims that over 150,000 Turkmens (the pick of the crop i.e. scientists, teachers, businessmen) left Turkmenistan over the same period.
There is no saying at this point what the Russians should expect in Turkmenistan now that the "messiah" and tyrant is gone. Russia the stepmother once pretended not to notice abolition of dual citizenship for the Russians ordered by the Turkmenbashi, Moscow's principal and reliable gas partner. Even if something happens in the gas sphere now, the Russians in Turkmenistan cannot expect life to become any worse than it already is. Russian TV networks will remain available - to whoever has a dish antenna.
As for the indigenous population, journalists and tourists who visited Ashkhabad and provinces (Chardzhou, Mary, Bairam-Ali, and even more distant places) say that Turkmen families, particularly the ones with many children, have been impoverished for years.
What comments are made by Russian experts from Sobyanin to Jemal to Zyuganov plainly show that nobody really cares about the down-trodden, hapless, and isolated from the world Turkmen people the Turkmenbashi's reign plunged into the Medieval era.