Monday, May 29, 2006

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov’s political repression and economic misrule have left his poor Central Asian country ripe for exploitation by Islamic radical movements, dissidents and human rights activists warned last week.

“It doesn’t attract the attention it should in the West, but Turkmenistan is a country near collapse. It is nearing the status of a failed state,” said Sergei Kalamytsau, Central Asian program researcher for the New York-based International League for Human Rights.

A delegation of regime critics visited Washington last week, hoping to highlight human rights abuses and other failings of the Niyazov regime. They say Turkmenistan’s government had become a personality sect built around the only man to lead the country since it broke from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mr. Niyazov, who survived a coup attempt in 2002, refers to himself as the “father of all Turkmen” and has made the study of a philosophical “book of spirituality” that he wrote the centerpiece of the national curriculum from kindergarten through college.

Some of the president’s dictates have inspired ridicule around the world. A month of the official calendar was renamed in honor of Mr. Niyazov’s mother.

But regime opponents say the president’s one-party rule is no joke.

The government’s anti-intellectual campaign — it closed the national academies for science, arts and architecture, while shortening compulsory education from 12 years to nine — is creating an impoverished younger generation susceptible to radical Islamic appeals, they warn.

“We’re seeing the Talibanizing of our youth,” said the dissident, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation at home. “There’s a growing Islamist movement, and the stability of the country is completely illusory.”

Vitaly Ponomarev, Central Asian program director for the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, said Mr. Niyazov has been able to deflect some Western criticism because of his country’s natural-gas reserves and by offering limited military cooperation for the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.

But Mr. Ponomarev said the situation in Turkmenistan is far worse even than in neighboring Uzbekistan, which has clashed sharply in the past year with Washington over its human rights record.

“There is no civil society left in Turkmenistan,” he said. “Any criticism of the government is considered a direct criticism of the president.”

Human rights groups expressed outrage over news this month that the European Union had moved a step closer to a trade deal with Turkmenistan. Mr. Ponomarev said the 55-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was also “missing in action” in confronting Mr. Niyazov.

Farid Tuhbatullin, who was jailed by the regime in 2002 for his political activism, now heads the Austria-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.

“The U.S. role becomes very critical,” he said, “because now all the power in my country is in one man’s hands.”

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