The plight of ethnic minorities in Turkmenistan remains bleak, despite claims to the contrary by the Turkmen government during this month's session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
"Each of Turkmenistan's ethnic and racial minorities bears a heavy burden of discrimination and exclusion in the environment where preferential treatment is openly afforded only to ethnic Turkmen," Robert Arsenault, president of the International League for Human Rights (ILHR), asserted from New York. He went on to describe the human rights situation in the largely desert but energy rich state, as alarming.
"The president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov, has defined the newly created country of Turkmenistan as the glorified home of ethnic Turkmen," Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, added from New York. "In that conceptualisation, there is no room for non-ethnic Turkmen in Turkmenistan. So the state has attempted to "turkmenify" its non-Turkmen population," added Dailey.
Their comments come during the 67th session of the CERD from 2-19 August, held in Geneva, to review anti-discrimination efforts undertaken by the governments of Venezuela, Georgia, Zambia, Barbados, Tanzania, Iceland, Turkmenistan and Nigeria. These countries were among the 170 states which were party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The 18-member Committee, the first body created by the United Nations to review actions by member states to fulfil obligations under a specific human rights agreement, examines reports submitted periodically by state parties on efforts to comply with the Convention. Government representatives generally present the reports, discuss the contents with Committee members and answer questions.
But reclusive Turkmenistan, a country of just five million, slightly larger than California and wedged between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Iran, has been a 'black hole' as far as information is concerned, since it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
President Niyazov has established a personality cult centred on himself. Following an alleged attempt on his life in November 2002, human rights activists have reported a further tightening of restrictions on travel, opposition members and the media. This has prompted Human Rights Watch (HRW) to describe the hermit state as being one of the most repressive countries in the world today.
That lack of transparency was evident in Geneva, when in the official report presented by Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov on 11 August, he concluded that there is no discrimination of national minorities in the country. Yet according to rights activists, the minister's report raised many questions, which, when put, were either answered evasively or not at all.
"There was a complete denial of the problem of ethnic minorities, as well as the obvious facts of abusing the rights of ethnic minorities," Farid Tuhbatullin, chairman of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights group, said. "It was an absolutely non-constructive position. There was an absolute lack of understanding for a need of dialogue between the government and NGOs, between Turkmenistan and the UN," said Tuhbatullin, citing conflicting statistical figures provided by the government.
EXAMPLES OF DISCRIMINATION
According to activists, racial and ethnic minority populations were excluded from employment in the public sector, denied access to education in their native language, restricted in their practice of religion and continuously intimidated by police.
"Employment in the public sector, which dominates the national economy, is conditional on the fulfilment of the 'third generation' test, requiring an applicant to prove his/her Turkmen ancestry for three generations," Arsenault said. He added that since 1991, Kazakh, Uzbek and Armenian language schools have been closed, while instruction in Russian has diminished greatly.
"Such important religious confessions as the Armenian Apostolic Church and Shia Islam, remain unregistered and thus illegal," the ILHR official added. He noted that Uzbeks, traditionally a rural population in the northern and eastern parts of the country, represent a special case as they are viewed with particular suspicion by the authorities as people not loyal to the regime.
Meanwhile, Dailey accused the government in the capital, Ashgabat, of fabricating population data that significantly underestimated the actual numbers of ethnic minorities in the country. In the report to the UN CERD, for example, the Turkmen government claimed that minorities make up only 5.4 percent of the population. However, according to a 1995 population survey, Uzbeks made up 9.2 percent of the population, though in a recent report to the UN, that figure was placed at no more than 2 percent.
"Where could so many people have gone so quickly?" Dailey asked. "Emigration of that magnitude would surely have been obvious to the international community," she explained, suggesting the more likely explanation was some form of forced assimilation.
In a further discriminatory move, the government reportedly coerced other Turkic people such as Uzbeks and Kazakhs, to assimilate and "pass" as Turkmen under threat of a loss of job, which in Turkmenistan is tantamount to being sentenced to a lifetime of poverty.
"Since the overwhelming majority of jobs in Turkmenistan are government jobs, this form of discrimination is a powerful tool for promoting the part of the population that the government wishes to see prosper (ethnic Turkmen) and to impoverish those the government wishes to see fail (ethnic minorities)," Dailey claimed.
To counter such possibilities, it is not unusual for non-ethnic Turkmen to add a typical Turkmen ending to their last name, she said, while others enter into fictitious marriages with ethnic Turkmen as a means to secure Turkmen-sounding names. As for those who could not easily "pass" as Turkmen - mainly Russians and Ukrainians - the government purportedly undertakes measures to bring about their emigration.
In April 2003, the same day it signed a 25-year gas contract with the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, Ashgabat withdrew recognition of dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship.
"It forced such citizens - not all of whom were ethnic Russian, but all of whom had Russia as a place of national origin - to either renounce their Russian citizenship, or keep their Russian citizenship but lose their property in Turkmenistan. It was a horrific and clearly discriminatory Hobson's Choice," Dailey asserted.
Forced into a corner, according to an IRIN report in July 2003 [Focus on the Russian minority
], thousands of ethnic Russians left the country under an imposed deadline to choose.
CLAIMS OF FORCED RESETTLEMENT
Dailey also cited 'ethnic internal exile' as another example of racial discrimination virtually unseen anywhere else in the world. Domestic laws allow for the "resettlement" of five categories of individuals, including those deemed "unworthy", she claimed. She noted that to date, some 25 families have already been "resettled" with plans reportedly calling for the resettlement of up to 6,000 people to uninhabitable and barren regions of the country.
With limited access to the Central Asian state, such reports have yet to be confirmed and consequently receive the international attention they deserve, leaving outside observers in a quandary as to what they can do.
A WAY FORWARD
According to Arsenault, Turkmenistan has made some responses to criticism from the international community and individual states in the past, with the relaxation of registration requirements for religious groups and organisations in 2004 being a notable example.
"International institutions, such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), need to keep up the momentum by engaging the government of Turkmenistan in meeting its obligations under international law," he said. He added that observers should not underestimate the role that countries enjoying extensive bilateral relations with Turkmenistan - mainly Turkey, Ukraine and Russia - could play.
Dailey, however, was more blunt. She said the best deterrent to ethnic discrimination is international recognition and condemnation of the country's appalling human rights record. There should also be close monitoring of the government's compliance with measurable benchmarks for stopping such practices - even in courts outside the country.
"The UN, in particular, can play an enormously constructive role in calling for the government to account for its discriminatory practices," she emphasised.
In advance of the official presentation made by Turkmenistan to the committee, ILHR and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights presented a joint alternative report to the CERD members and NGO representatives. They offered factual evidence of violations of the rights of national minorities on behalf of the Turkmen state, as well as an analysis of the state's legislation showing certain laws that contain discriminatory norms.