TURKMENISTAN’S CLANNISH LEADER  President Berdymuhammedov’s court consists of a 
handful of political survivors but mostly protégés drawn from his tribe.  By 
Aisha Khan

rights issues, regime accused of tidying them away.  By Andrei Grishin

international calls for new post dedicated to protecting human rights 
defenders.  By Alisher Kholdarov, Kamilla Abdullaeva, Inga Sikorskaya

rivalry the way forward, leading expert Alexei Malashenko says.  By Dina 

perform hajj on the basis of rigorous loyalty checks.  By Nazik Ataeva

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President Berdymuhammedov’s court consists of a handful of political survivors 
but mostly protégés drawn from his tribe. 

By Aisha Khan

President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov’s policy of appointing kinsmen and people 
from his home area to positions of power risks alienating other important 
groupings, commentators say.

In a country as closed as Turkmenistan, political connections and spheres of 
influence are hard to identify. IWPR interviews with experts inside and outside 
the country indicate that Berdymuhammedov governs via the same kind of 
hierarchical network as his predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niazov, albeit 
with significant differences in the people he chooses to have around him.

Berdymuhammedov was elected in 2007 after a precipitate rise to power.

When Niazov, who styled himself Turkmenbashi – “Leader of the Turkmen” – and 
was the centre of a Stalinist personality cult, died suddenly in December 2006, 
there was no obvious successor. But within days, an inner circle had cleared 
the way for Berdymuhammedov so that he was not only acting head of state but 
was eligible to run for the presidency.

After his election, Berdymuhammedov promised a break with the past – 
improvements to health and education, both areas where Niazov had made damaging 
cutbacks – and even hinted at political liberalisation. However, the move 
towards democratic governance and respect for human rights never came, perhaps 
because Berdymuhammedov himself was a product of the Niazov system and depended 
on its hierarchical structure and its ability to eliminate dissent for his 

If he did not institute root-and-branch reforms, he did make structural changes 
such as abolishing the cumbersome Khalk Maslakhaty, a national congress that in 
theory had supra-parliamentary powers but in reality served merely as a rubber 

Berdymuhammedov rapidly set about removing Niazov-era officials from positions 
of power, so that most top figures have now been replaced except for a handful 
of significant figures. Even Akmurat Rejepov, the powerful head of the 
presidential security service believed to have been instrumental in engineering 
Berdymuhammedov’s ascent to power, was sacked and then put in prison in 2007.

In their place, the new leader appointed people who owed loyalty to him, not 

As an orphan, Niazov had no close relatives to place around him. 
Berdymuhammedov, who does, has nevertheless followed the same path and has not 
placed many immediate family members in senior positions, unlike some other 
Central Asian leaders.

One of the most visible of his identifiable relatives is a brother-in-law, 
Dovlet Atabaev, who heads a presidential agency overseeing the control and use 
of oil and gas resources.

Others operate under the radar, for example relatives who are widely believed 
to be expanding their control over businesses including cafes, restaurants, 
internet cafes and shopping centres.

Instead of immediate relatives, Berdymuhammedov selects members of the Teke, 
the Turkmen tribe to which he belongs, to fill important and even 
not-so-important posts. Almost all come from south-central Ahal region, where 
the capital Ashgabat is located. A commentator in the capital Ashgabat was able 
to reel off a long list of ministers, past and present, from this background.

“There’s no question of any clans having any influence these days except for 
the Teke. They control everything,” the commentator said.

The Turkmen traditionally divide into several large and many smaller tribal 
groupings, each based in a different part of what is now Turkmenistan.

The Teke of the south-central Ahal region were important throughout the Soviet 
period. Two other important but politically marginalised tribes are the Yomud 
in the west, in areas close to the Caspian Sea; and the Ersari who live in 
eastern areas adjoining Uzbekistan. The Teke tribe is also dominant in the 
southeastern Mary region, but this branch is sidelined from power despite 
sitting on major natural gas reserves.

“Approximately 70 to 75 per cent of the top posts in government, in the 
presidential council and other institutions are held by people from Ahal 
region, ” another local observer said. “Berdymuhammedov tries to back only his 
own Teke, the ones from Ahal, which makes the Teke of Mary unhappy.”

Furthermore, he said, Berdymuhammedov was placing his own people even in other 
regions where their Teke tribe is not dominant. He described this process as 

Niazov too came from Ahal region, and favoured Teke tribe members from there. 
So Berdymuhammedov’s policy does not represent a break with the past, just the 
systematic removal of his predecessor’s allies and protégés.

A university lecturer in Turkmenistan teacher expressed concern that giving 
preference to a such closed network, Berdymuhammedov could alienate other 
important groups.

“Berdymuhammedov is following the path pursued by the former Kyrgyz president 
Kurmanbek Bakiev, and getting more and more drawn into clan affairs,” he said, 
referring to allegations by Bakiev’s opponents that he dispensed senior 
positions and business opportunities to family members. Bakiev was deposed 
following popular unrest in April.

“He is digging himself into a hole when he makes some appointment and shows a 
preference for his local Teke tribe, and specifically [those from] the areas he 
comes from, and when he offers patronage to his numerous family members. People 
will tolerate this, but they’re whispering about it, memorising all the details 
and telling one another. The rumours are proliferating, and sprouting ever more 
additional detail. None of that can bring any good.”

For the moment, the lecturer said, “It’s a good thing the other tribes are not 
showing their irritation openly, but how long that can last?”

A Turkmen historian, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he disagreed 
that tribal rivalries were the main threat to Berdymuhammedov.

Instead, he said, the main danger would be if the president crossed swords with 
an inner circle of political figures who have remained in place since Niazov’s 

Analysts name a group of three figures led by presidential aide Viktor Khramov, 
the others being Vladimir Umnov, also a presidential aide, and Alexander 
Zhadan, deputy head of the presidential administration. They are of Russian 
rather than Turkmen background.

A former diplomat said the three helped mastermind the transition of power 
after Niazov’s death, and remained powerful figures behind the scenes.

An Ashgabat-based analyst said it was Khramov, above all, who pulled the 
strings, but that he preferred to stay out of sight.

“He has personal oversight over the oil and gas sector. With the help of Zhadan 
and Umnov, he also controls other important areas such as ideology, the media, 
international relations and education,” the analyst said.

A journalist who left Turkmenistan recently and moved to Russia said Khramov 
played a key role in defining the Turkmen state’s ideological direction and the 
limits to press freedom, acting as the regime’s de facto chief censor.

He said Khramov began wielding serious political influence when the late Niazov 
was in power.

“He was the ‘eminence grise’ under former president Niazov and has continued 
this under the current president Berdymuhammedov,” he said.

Asked why Khramov did not make a bid for power himself given that he was so 
influential, the former diplomat explained that as an ethnic Russian, he was 
not eligible to run for presidential office, for which only Turkmen are 

He added that Khramov enjoyed the benefits of unrestricted power without being 
exposed to public scrutiny. “As he’s doing this unofficially and with no 
unnecessary publicity, he doesn’t have to take responsibility,” he said.

Some analysts, like a former top official interviewed by IWPR, said the three 
men could attribute their political longevity to backing from Moscow, which 
nurtures good relations with these Russians so as to secure its position in the 
natural gas market.

Russia has historically been the major purchaser of gas from Turkmenistan’s 
vast reserves, and is resistant to schemes that would all the Central Asian 
state to export gas to Europe without going through its pipeline network.

One area where Moscow has been unable to exert influence is in assisting 
Russians in Turkmenistan who are sidelined from many educational and employment 
opportunities because of the government’s Turkmen nationalist policies. They 
are under constant pressure to renounce the dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship 
many took out in the Nineties, and have seen the influence of Russian language 
and culture wane.

The former top official said members of the Khramov-led group had little 
interest in improving the lives of ordinary Russians living in Turkmenistan, 
and cared only about their own political survival.

Aisha Khan is the pseudonym for an IWPR trainee journalist. Additional 
reporting by Inga Sikorskaya, IWPR’s editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway.


Instead of promoting human rights issues, regime accused of tidying them away.

By Andrei Grishin

Kazakstan’s efforts to present a positive image at the forthcoming summit of 
the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE are more show 
than substance, critics say. 

Human rights activists say that not only has the Kazak government failed to use 
its time as OSCE chair to promote civil liberties, it has prepared for the 
event by cracking down on people identified as potential troublemakers.

This year’s OSCE summit takes place in the Kazak capital Astana on December 
1-2, and represents the culminating moment of the Central Asian state’s year in 
the rotating chairmanship of a grouping that promotes security, human rights, 
democracy and rule of law among its 56 member states.

Ahead of the summit, the OSCE is holding the third phase of its review 
conference on November 26-28, also in Almaty.

“For President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev, hosting the summit is a matter of 
prestige and an acknowledgement [of his role] as a regional peacemaker,” Aynur 
Kurmanov, a civil society activist who addressed the European Parliament’s 
subcommittee on human rights in Brussels last month.

Kurmanov, who heads the socialist movements Talmas and Kazakstan-2012, said the 
country’s leaders were clearly hoping the Astana summit would create a positive 
image and thus attract foreign investment in its natural resources sectors.

He argues that the prospect of hosting such an event has led the authorities to 
put more pressure on its critics than usual.

“It’s a policy that has been conducted previously, but the summit seems to have 
become a kind of catalyst,” he said.

He is not alone in this view. Vyacheslav Abramov, the deputy director of 
Freedom House Kazakstan, said the authorities seemed intent on “heading off any 
visible or suspected threats” so that the OSCE meeting would run smoothly.

Trade unionists say they have been singled out, presumably to avoid the 
embarrassment of industrial action coinciding with the summit.

“Local government and the law-enforcement agencies have received orders from 
above not to allow any protests to take place on the ground,” Ivan Bulgakov, 
leader of the Labour Protection trade union association. “They’re operating on 
the principle that it’s better to be over-vigilant than not vigilant enough.”

In October, a group of coalminers from Karaganda who were retired because of 
work-related injuries were prevented from staging a protest in Astana to demand 
better legislation for disabled workers. Earlier the same month, trade union 
activist Igor Kolov from Kostanay, was held for three days on charges of 

Tahir Muhamedzyanov, deputy head of the Miner’s Family association, said 
various members of his group had been pressured because their activities were 
unpopular with the authorities, and especially because they were located close 
to Astana. Muhamedyzanov’s car blew un in an unexplained explosion in October, 
and police later tried to lock him up in a psychiatric ward.

In September, three activists from an independent oil workers’ union at 
Janaozen in the western Mangyshlak region, were detained by police after 
attending a meeting of Kurmanov’s Kazakstan 2012 group in Almaty, the second 

Political analyst Dosym Satpaev said it was common for regime opponents to be 
charged with non-political offences like disorderly behaviour or tax evasion.

“This is to avoid suspicions that there’s a connection with the political or 
public activities of those who are detained,” he said.

The spotlight is on the capital, in particular, where the authorities appear 
keen to tidy away anything politically troublesome or just unsightly.

Participants in the Decent Housing campaign, which brings together people who 
have lost money in housing investments or are struggling to repay mortgages, 
say they have been refused permission to stage a demonstration outside the OSCE 

Since mid-October, police in Astana have been gathering up the city’s homeless, 
conducting ID checks and removing some to other cities like Karaganda and 
Pavlodar. Recently-released convicts are also being paid visits.

The Astana mayor’s spokesperson Aygul Aspandiarova told IWPR that the homeless 
were being dealt with in their own bests interests.

“We search for them, clean them up and bring them back to their old families,” 
she said, “if you regard that as a violation of human rights and liberties.”

Around 7,000 police will be deployed in the capital during the OSCE event, more 
than half of them drafted in from other regions.

Police are stopping and checking all cars that do not have Astana number 
plates, and drivers of such vehicles report difficulties in entering the city. 
The restrictions are already in place although the deputy head of Kazakstan’s 
traffic police, Kabyljan Maytybaev, said they would only come into force on 
November 29.

Travellers have also been warned that local flights to Astana airport will be 
cancelled because of the expected volume of air traffic.

In a posting on his official blog, Astana’s mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov has 
said residents of areas near the summit venue are being issued with special 
permits to ensure that outsiders stay away.

Finally, schools in the capital are being given a week off to reduce traffic.

A spokesman for Kazakstan’s foreign ministry, who asked not to be named, told 
IWPR, “This is a key event for Kazakstan in every respect, but all these 
preparatory measures are technical issues.”

Andrei Grishin is a staff member at the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and 
Rule of Law.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway.


Local groups back international calls for new post dedicated to protecting 
human rights defenders.

By Alisher Kholdarov, Kamilla Abdullaeva, Inga Sikorskaya

Central Asian human rights defenders have welcomed attempts by international 
watchdog groups to make human rights a priority at a forthcoming OSCE summit in 
the Kazak capital Astana. In particular, they are keen on a proposal for the 
OSCE to introduce a special post responsible for protecting human rights 

At the same time, human rights defenders interviewed by IWPR doubted the 
initiative would be successful, given regional governments’ policy of silencing 
critics and the fact that the OSCE chair is currently held by Kazakstan, which 
itself has a questionable human rights record.

An appeal to prioritise human rights at the December 1-2 OSCE summit was issued 
jointly by the International Partnership for Human Rights based in Brussels, 
the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Stockholm-based Civil Rights Defenders, 
the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, the Norwegian 
Helsinki Committee and the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, during 
a Human Dimension Implementation Meeting hosted by the OSCE’s Office for 
Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, in the Polish capital Warsaw 
between September 30 and October 8.

The statement contained specific recommendations addressed to each of the five 
Central Asian governments and said the OSCE summit should produce “concrete 
measures to enhance protections for human rights defenders who are at at risk 
in the region”.

These included creating the new post of OSCE special representative for human 
rights defenders, developing the organisation’s ability to step in and offer 
swift assistance to activists under threat, and greater cooperation among 
member states to promote the independence of judges, prosecutors and police.

The joint statement highlighted the challenges facing human rights defenders 
across Central Asia by citing a number of specific cases.

In November 2009, for example, Ganikhon Mamatkhanov, a human rights defender in 
Fergana in eastern Uzbekistan was sentenced to five years in prison for bribery 
and fraud. Criminal charges of this kind are routinely used to smear and 
convict rights activists. Mamatkhanov’s real crime is more likely to have been 
his work to promote the rights of farmers.

Surat Ikramov, leader of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights 
Defenders in Uzbekistan, was accused of libel, and duly lost the court case in 
September. (See IWPR report Uzbek Human Rights Activist Loses Libel Case.)

Government pressure in Turkmenistan has forced most civil society groups there 
out of existence. Of the handful who remain, environmental activist Andrey 
Zatoka was expelled from the country in November 2009.

In Tajikistan, lawyer Solijon Juraev was charged with defamation in February 
for remarks he is alleged to have made about members of the judiciary. (See 
Tajik Prosecutors Take On Courts.)

Similar questions about political interference in trials were raised when 
Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights 
and Rule of Law, was jailed last year for causing a death in a traffic 
accident. (Kazakstan: Jailing of Rights Activist Condemned. ).

Human rights defenders who reported on the widespread ethnic violence in 
southern Kyrgyzstan this June found themselves accused of spreading false 
information and even promoting the disturbances.

In September, Azimjan Askarov, director of the Jalalabad-based human rights 
group Vozdukh was given a life sentence for alleged participation in the 
unrest. Once again, his colleagues in the human rights community say he was 
punished for trying to uncover abuses.

Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Citizens Against Corruption, left Kyrgyzstan in 
July after receiving death threats following her reporting on abuses committed 
during the ethnic violence.

Human rights activists in Central Asia said the international effort to push 
OSCE members to do more to support them could be helpful, although real change 
would have to come from within the five states, with the growth of strong civil 
societies, independent ombudsmen, free media and independent judiciaries.

They said international organisations like the OSCE could exert influence by 
directly supporting local rights groups or pressuring regional governments when 
cases of persecution arose. They were generally supportive of their 
international colleagues’ call for “a special OSCE representative to address 
and visibly raise issues relative to the situation of human rights defenders”. 
ODIHR already has a Focal Point for Human Rights Defenders and National Human 
Rights Institutions, but the proposed post would mean a senior official was 
dedicated to this key area.

A human rights activist from Uzbekistan said the proposed post would hold out 
the hope of swift action whenever individuals were targeted.

“The lack of a special representative [to date] means that rights activists are 
thrown on their own resources, which are generally limited,” he said.

Abdumalik Sharipov, programme coordinator of the human rights group Spravedlost 
based in Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan, was similarly positive about the proposed post.

“We have become more vulnerable,” he said, adding that it was not human rights 
activists who were at risk because of their activities, but their family 
members too.

“I think the time has come for international donors to tie their assistance to 
countries in this region to human rights.”

Ikramov said a human rights special representative should focus attention on 
those OSCE members where the situation was worst.

“In advanced countries which have established democratic procedures, rights 
activists don’t face major risks, whereas in Central Asia, particularly in 
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and more recently Kyrgyzstan, the risks are obvious,” 
he said.

Another area where the international community could usefully be active, 
Ikramov said, was in supporting and funding human rights groups that have been 
refused registration by the authorities.

“The position that international organisations cannot support unregistered NGOs 
must be changed,” he said.

Farid Tukhbatullin, head of the Vienna-based Turkmen Human Rights Initiative, 
was among those who remained sceptical that the statement would lead to 
anything, even if it got as far as being aired at the OSCE summit.

“The OSCE doesnt have any mechanisms to force its members to honour the 
obligations they have undertaken,” he said.

An official at the Kazak foreign ministry, who did not want to be named, agreed 
that the chances of creating a special post to protect human rights defenders 
within the OSCE were slim. But he said this was not because Kazakstan as 
chairman would block it.

“The complicated procedure for taking decisions within the OSCE offers little 
hope of a positive outcome in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Noting that all 56 OSCE member would have to vote in favour of the new post, he 
said, “The Turkmen and Uzbek foreign ministries will put forward their standard 
argument that there are enough European human rights institutions already, and 
that it makes no sense to set up a separate post.”

Alisher Kholdarov and Kamilla Abdullaeva are pseudonyms for journalists from 
Uzbekistan. Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR senior editor for Uzbekistan and 

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway.


Symbiosis, not great power rivalry the way forward, leading expert Alexei 
Malashenko says.

By Dina Tokbaeva

Leading Central Asia expert Alexei Malashenko says that if major external 
powers like Russia and the United States cooperate rather than compete on 
security issues in the region, everyone will win.

Malashenko, a specialist on Central Asian politics and political Islam at the 
Carnegie Centre in Moscow, discussed the prospects for Kyrgyzstan and the wider 
region in an interview for IWPR while he was in the capital Bishkek on November 
3. He was attending a round-table debate hosted jointly by IWPR and the 
Institute for Public Policy in Bishkek.

IWPR began by asking him what Moscow wanted from Kyrgyzstan, given the upsurge 
in speculation about Russia’s role on the political scene there.

Alexei Malashenko: Russia has yet to clearly formulate what its national 
interests are along the perimeter of its frontiers, including its relationship 
with NATO. Of course, attempts to define them are being made. This applies 
equally to Central Asia.

Central Asia is part of the former Soviet expanse, there’s a Russian military 
base here [at Kant airport, near Bishkek], many politicians express pro-Russian 
views, and there’s a fairly substantial Russian-speaking population.

If Russia backs stability here, then its influence in the region will 
automatically increase. Thus far, Russia has tried to play the role of mediator 
on some contentious issues, for example water. That hasn’t always been a 

Given that Russia wields substantial influence in Kyrgyzstan, and assuming the 
new prime minister is pro-Russian, that’s going to be very important for Russia 
– Kyrgyzstan will be a country where it feels comfortable. Kyrgyzstan 
represents a very good strategic platform for Russia. So we can talk about 
common national interests.

Relations with Russia are undoubtedly important to Kyrgyzstan, too. The media 
in Kyrgyzstan have even described Russia as the main focus for Kyrgyz politics. 
That may be true, but nevertheless, Kyrgyzstan is pursuing a multi-vector 
policy, which features the American factor as well as Kazakstan and China.

If this trend continues, [Russian-Kyrgyz] relations will strengthen. And it 
goes without saying that it’s not at all to Kyrgyzstan’s advantage to be in 
conflict in Russia.

IWPR: To what extent can we talk about a Great Game, the model used in the 
western media, with regard to the transit hub [US air base for supplies to 
Afghanistan] at Manas airport? Or are things a lot more complex than that?

Malashenko: This isn’t a game. It’s an attempt to somehow rethink current 
relationships. It’s an attempt by the Russians to assert Russian interests to 
the Americans, and by the Americans to see whether Russia can be an effective 
partner for establishing stability in Central Asia.

It’s too simplistic to talk about competition just because there’s the Manas 
base here and Kant there. First, Russia and the US are, after all, states of 
differing magnitudes. Second, Russia is not fighting in Afghanistan. And third, 
relationships in Central Asia fit into the broader context of American-Russian 
relations which cover NATO, the Caucasus and so on. In other words, it’s wrong 
to view trends here in isolation. At the moment, the Central Asian region is a 
kind of common area of cooperation, thanks to Afghanistan.

Of course both sides have ambitions. And the Americans aren’t planning to move 
out of somewhere they’ve moved into. Whatever one calls Manas, the main point 
is that it’s American planes sitting there.

IWPR: What’s the reason for Russia’s current enthusiasm for cooperating with 
NATO on Afghanistan, and what does that mean for Central Asia?

Malashenko: To answer that, we will need to know who’s going to head the US 
Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs after the Congressional elections; whether 
it will be [John] McCain or someone else. A lot will hang on that.

I’m not going to comment yet on how the Americans are going to behave and how 
Russia will react to this. Russian policy is entirely reactive. There is, 
incidentally, a risk that relations will deteriorate over Georgia, and this 
would have an immediate impact in Central Asia, since it’s all interconnected.

As for the fact that Russia is now cooperating with NATO – that’s normal.

The story of the joint US-Russian anti-narcotics operation [in Afghanistan in 
October] is interesting. The head of the Russian federal counternarcotics 
service Viktor Ivanov was there in the spring and was well received. But it 
looks like Afghan president Hamid Karzai was offended that he was not apprised 
of the operation; that they didn’t trust him. There have also been reports in 
Russia that Russian military instructors might return. That looks unlikely, but 
they are writing about it it. There’s no doubt that Afghanistan is keeping an 
eye on what Russia does.

IWPR: How great is the threat posed to Central Asia by the Taleban and the 
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] at the moment?

Malashenko: There will be a threat if the Taleban become part of the ruling 
coalition in Afghanistan. If the Americans and Russians agree to this 
happening, questions then arise as to what this means for the Islamic 
opposition in Uzbekistan. After all, the Islamic radicals there also talk about 
social justice and corruption, and they have the same ideology.

With regard to the IMU: first of all, it does exist, although it’s unclear in 
what numbers. Its fighters are armed and are trained. The IMU enjoys external 
support, in the shape of funding and training camps. Its combatants include 
Arabs and people from the North Caucasus and Uzbekistan; it’s a 
quasi-international movement.

They might play some role in the event of conflict situation in Uzbekistan. The 
same would be true of Kyrgyzstan, if it experienced something worse than what 
happened this year [mass ethnic violence in June]. It’s a real armed force 
which claims it is fighting for justice. So it’s potentially a very important 
factor. And there’s also [the banned Islamic group] Hizb ut-Tahrir.

IWPR: Who or what do you think was behind events in the Rasht valley [clashes 
between government troops and militants in eastern Tajikistan]?

Malashenko: In Tajikistan, it is a mishmash of things – problems to do with the 
Islamic opposition, relations between the regions, the “family” [of President 
Imomali Rahmon], and political Islam.

The Islamic Rebirth Party was the main force behind the United Tajik Opposition 
[in the 1992-97 civil war], but it’s been sidelined. As the situation 
deteriorates, it’s becoming more active, criticising the authorities and demand 
a role in decision-making. But it is loyal to the regime; it consists of 
“Islamic reformers”.

There is also Hizb ut-Tahrir… and once again the IMU. Islam thus occupies a 
political space in Tajikistan. Add to that the general trend for Tajik society 
to become more Islamic and more archaic, and the immense number of mosques and 
madrassas, and the conditions for an upsurge in Islam do exist. And Afghanistan 
is just over the [frontier] river. The Russian base [in Tajikistan] is thus a 
real factor for stability.

IWPR: Is it possible that Tajikistan could see a repeat of the kind of events 
that led to regime change in Kyrgyzstan?

Malashenko: If this happened, it would mean another civil war. But people are 
still worn out by that [first civil] war. After the conflict ended, I remember 
how people were proud of [small things like] having the traffic lights working 
again. Would a mother whose son was ten when the conflict ended send him, now 
aged 20-plus, to war?

IWPR: There’s often been talk of closing down the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. 
Is that just speculation by politicians to curry favour with Russia, or is it a 
realistic demand?

Malashenko: First of all, the reason the Manas base is there is the conflict in 
Afghanistan. It will remain there as long as [conflict in] Afghanistan goes on. 
The planes will stay - both the US and Russia need them.

Secondly, supposing there is speculation in Kyrgyzstan about closing the Manas 
base. The Americans can do without it if they have to. They can shift the base 
to Turkey, although that would be more expensive. No one would win.

The Manas-Kant pairing is truly pragmatic – it is a symbol of [US-Russian] 
proximity, and it’s to Kyrgyzstan’s advantage as well.

There could be another scenario where the Americans shift to Uzbekistan, and 
set up a large version of Khanabad [US air base until 2005]. An American base 
there would be permanent. Russia thus has no interest in driving out the [US 
base]. No serious politician in Kyrgyzstan is going to tell the Americans to 
remove the base.

Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR’s editor for Kyrgyzstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central 
Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the 
European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and 
Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no 
way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign 
Ministry of Norway. 


Government decides who can perform hajj on the basis of rigorous loyalty checks.

By Nazik Ataeva

In line with the tight controls it exerts over religious observance, 
Turkmenistan’s government is allowing only a tiny number of people to perform 
the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca this year. The lucky few will be hand-picked 
and carefully vetted by the security services, although some Muslims will find 
ways of going on the pilgrimage by other routes.

Typically, the October 14 decree approving the number of pilgrims was issued 
not by the Islamic authorities, but by the president of this secular state, 
Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov.

Deputy Prime Minister Khydyr Saparliev was put in charge of making the 
arrangements, while the national carrier Turkmen Hava Yollari was told to 
provide a charter plane free of charge. The number of seats on the plane 
appears to have decided the number of pilgrims – 188.

Allowing the pilgrims to travel at all is a welcome improvement on last year, 
when no one was allowed to go, officially because the authorities were 
concerned about the risk of swine flu contagion. But the number is miniscule 
compared with the number this majority Sunni Muslim nation could be sending. 
The Saudi Arabian authorities calculate a quota for each country, which works 
out at one pilgrim for every 1,000 Muslims there.

Kyrgyzstan, whose total population of 5.5 million is comparable to 
Turkmenistan’s five million, is sending 4,500 people on the hajj this year.

The annual hajj takes place during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, and 
this year it is set for November 14-17. The pilgrimage counts as one of the 
five basic obligations of Muslims, and for many it will be a once-in-a-lifetime 

In Turkmenistan, the state takes a close interest in personal belief, and 
controls mosques through an officially-sanctioned Muslim clerical hierarchy. 
Religious education is also tightly controlled, and working clerics must have 
been trained in Turkmenistan rather than abroad.

The presidential administration has a Council for Religious Affairs, which is 
selecting this year’s hajj participants. The religious rights watchdog Forum 18 
reports that applicants have to submit documents to the council’s regional 
branches before the central body will consider them.

Past practice suggests the party of pilgrims will be accompanied by security 
service officers who will monitor their activities.

“The authorities fear that devout Muslims, particularly those who have had a 
religious education in Turkey or Pakistan, could significantly increase the 
influence they can exert and acquire more followers if they perform the 
pilgrimage to Mecca,” a local activist who works on freedom of confession 
issues said.

Local observers say political loyalty is just as important as the strength of 
one’s religious feelings. Anyone suspected of having connections with the 
opposition in exile or civil society groups, or even being related to someone 
who has, will be automatically struck off the list of hajj applicants.

The same applies to members of the small Shia Muslim minority, not because they 
are particularly active, but just because they are different.

“We have applied to take part in the pilgrimage on several occasions… and have 
been turned down every time,” said a Shia from the capital Ashgabat who gave 
his name as Ali. “The Turkmen authorities select people who are loyal to the 
government, who are of the Sunni branch, and who hold moderate religious views. 
Anyone deviating from the norm – Shia Muslims, or anyone who is particularly 
devout and is being monitored by the National Security Ministry – will be 
stopped at the border controls and quite simply prevented from leaving the 

Ali is planning to travel to Saudi Arabia independently, although this is not 
encouraged by the Turkmen authorities.

Local observers say the Saudi embassy in Ashgabat is reluctant to issue visas 
to independent pilgrims because it does not want to annoy the government. Forum 
18 cited one Ashgabat resident who was turned down by the embassy and told that 
visas would only be issued to people on the government-approved list.

Others find ways of going on the hajj by travelling to Turkey on a business 
trip, and then travelling on to Saudi Arabia. An interviewee who performed the 
pilgrimage in this manner last year said that on arrival in Saudi Arabia, there 
were no obstacles to entry to Turkmen passport-holders precisely because their 
country had used up so little of its hajj quota.

Nazik Ataeva is the pseudonym of a journalist in Turkmenistan.

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