Turkmenistans Attempted Coup: Repercussions and U.S. Concerns

CRS Report for Congress
Turkmenistan's Attempted Coup:
Repercussions and U.S. Concerns
Jim Nichol
Analyst in Russian and Eurasian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Turkmenistan’s President Saparamurad Niyazov announced on November 25,
2002, that assassins had just tried to kill him, and alleged that several prominent
expatriate oppositionists had been aided at least tacitly by neighboring countries in
hatching the attempted coup. The United States, international human rights
organizations, and others have raised strong concerns about apparent human rights
abuses committed by the Turkmen government in pursuing the coup plotters. This
report may be updated. Related products include CRS Issue Brief IB93108, Central
Asia’s New States, and CRS Report 97-1055, Turkmenistan.
Since the 1980s, Turkmenistan has been ruled by strongman Saparamurad Niyazov,
whose cult of personality includes such titles and accolades as “Turkmenbashi the Great”
(father of all Turkmen). According to the U.S. State Department, Turkmenistan is among
the most authoritarian of the former Soviet republics, with the government frequently
violating civil and human rights. The former communist party is the only one permitted
and all dissent is harshly suppressed. Some oppositionists who have fled Turkmenistan
have formed a People’s Democratic Movement, headed by former prime minister and
former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, ex-deputy prime minister and former
Central Bank chairman Khudaiberdy Orazov, and former ambassador to Turkey
Nurmukhamed Khanamov. This group states that it supports democratic reforms and the
peaceful replacement of Niyazov. The Niyazov government has viewed many of the
expatriate oppositionists as criminals and terrorists, and has called for host governments1

to apprehend and extradite them to Turkmenistan for prosecution.
1 Sources for this report include the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), Central
Eurasia: Daily Report; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Newsline; Eurasia Insight; Central
Asia-Caucasus Analyst; Central Asia Monitor; and State Department and wire service reports.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

There have been some recent signs of rising popular and elite discontent with
Niyazov’s rule within Turkmenistan, such as protest rallies against poverty, the
anonymous distribution of anti-regime leaflets, and a large-scale purge of security
officials, but in general, Turkmenistan has appeared to be under Niyazov’s firm control.
This appearance of stability was shattered on November 25, 2002, however, when
Niyazov announced that he had been the target of an alleged assassination attempt that
morning while on his way to work. Curiously, he stated that he had been unaware until
arriving at work that the attack had occurred, but that it had involved a firefight with his
motorcade during which several police had been wounded or killed. He asserted that
Turkmen security agents had already discovered that four prominent opposition figures
who had fled the country – Shikhmuradov, Orazov, Khanamov, and former agriculture
minister Imamberdy Yklymov – were its prime organizers. He stated that several of the
local attackers already had been arrested and that demands for the extradition of expatriate
suspects had already been sent to foreign governments. Niyazov’s presidential spokesman
the next day asserted that the assassination attempt constituted international terrorism.
All four opposition leaders immediately issued denials of responsibility and Yklymov
called for Niyazov to release two dozen detained relatives.
Most observers have accepted the Turkmen government’s claim that a coup attempt
in fact took place, but opinions differ on the reasons for the coup attempt. Rising poverty
and popular discontent over authoritarian policies and corruption are probable factors, as
are tribal and clan schisms in Turkmen society. Struggles for control over revenues from
energy exports and drug trafficking may be in play. Some observers have speculated that
some interests in Russia and other neighboring states may be encouraging Niyazov’s
departure from power, including some Uzbeks concerned over Turkmen water and border
policies and Russian energy interests aiming to enhance their control over Turkmenistan’s
natural gas resources and export routes.
Coup Repercussions
Immediately after the attempted coup, the Turkmen government orchestrated massive
rallies and media support for Niyazov’s rule. During televised rallies of thousands of
government officials and supporters on November 27-28, speakers contended that the
relatives of the accused and foreigners were heavily involved and demanded death
penalties. On December 2, 2002, Turkmen Chief Prosecutor Kurbanbibi Atadzhanov
asserted that the coup attempt had involved months of intricate plotting, with
Shikhmuradov, the key plotter, providing forged passports and visas to hired assassins
who were sent to Turkmenistan and were hidden by Turkmen businessman Guvanch
Dzhumayev. Dzhumayev, whose opposition newspaper had been closed by Niyazov in
the early 1990s, was accused of personally directing the assassination attempt. In a
sensational televised “confession” the next day, he “repented” for his role in the plot, and
stated that he was “ready for execution.” Indicating a clan aspect to the round-ups,
Niyazov announced on December 5 that about two dozen of the “Dzhumayevs,
Shikhmuradovs, Yklymovs, and Khanamovs” had been detained, but asserted that they
were merely the pawns of foreign governments that were “envious” of Turkmenistan.
As part of the campaign to round up alleged coup plotters, several prominent former
and present Turkmen officials were arrested, including Tagandurdy Hallyyev, a legislator,
and Batyr Berdiyev, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Some observers speculated that Hallyyev

– who had been a former legislative (Mejlis) Speaker, a Justice Minister, and a
presidential security advisor – had fallen into Niyazov’s disfavor after being linked to
officials purged earlier from the security apparatus, and that the coup attempt provided
a convenient pretext for his jailing. Hallyyev was accused of being another prime
organizer of the coup attempt and was stripped of his legislative mandate by the Mejlis
on December 12. Indicating that the wide-ranging round-ups continue, environmental
activist Farid Tuhbatullin was arrested in late December on charges of conspiring with the
coup plotters, charges many human rights organizations have disputed.
On December 18, Turkmen Prosecutor Atadzhanov announced that dozens of alleged
coup plotters would be tried on charges of attempted assassination, conspiracy to
overthrow the constitution, terrorism, attempted murder, arms smuggling, and other
crimes. She reported that one group of conspirators planned to attack the motorcade,
another to seize the Mejlis building to convene a meeting to transfer power, and a third
to take over state media to broadcast a speech by Shikhmuradov announcing that he was
the new president and speaker of the Mejlis. Allegedly, Shikhmuradov promised the
plotters that they would be awarded posts as deputy prime ministers or legislators. When
the attack on the motorcade failed, the other two groups went into hiding. During the
television broadcast of Atadzhanov’s report, clips showed more confessions, with
Atadzhanov boasting that all the plotters “have admitted as one that they were only the
executors of a criminal scenario worked out by Shikhmuradov.”
In the days after her report, Turkmen media launched intensified appeals for the
citizenry to turn in more conspirators. Shikhmuradov’s whereabouts were uncertain in
the days after the coup attempt, but the government eventually discovered that he was in
Turkmenistan and launched a manhunt that resulted in his capture on December 26 (he
has maintained that he turned himself in). A few days later, in a televised confession on
December 29, Shikhmuradov stated that he had been involved in the coup attempt, that
he was a heroin addict, that all so-called political opponents of Niyazov were merely
criminals, that he had embezzled, and that he was a “non-entity ... without intelligence or
experience” until Niyazov had hired him.2 His relatives and supporters dismissed the
statement as coerced and an attempt by Shikhmuradov to protect his family. The next
day, the Supreme Court quickly tried and sentenced Shikhmuradov, Orazov, and
Khanamov (the latter two in abstentia) to 25 years in prison. However, in a extraordinary
meeting of the quasi-legislative People’s Council later that day, Niyazov led the body to
proclaim life sentences for the three and to warrant such sentences for those convicted of
“betrayal of the Motherland” in the future.
U.S. and International Concerns
The U.S., Azerbaijani, Georgian, Russian, Uzbekistani, and Turkish governments
have protested against Turkmen government accusations that they or their citizens have
abetted the would-be coup plotters. Turkmenistan’s relations with Uzbekistan seriously
deteriorated following accusations by Turkmen officials that Uzbekistan was heavily
involved in the coup attempt. Turkmen police raided the Uzbek embassy on December
16, an action not only protested by Uzbekistan but internationally as a violation of the
sanctity of diplomatic premises. Turkmenistan subsequently expelled the Uzbek

2 FBIS, December 30, 2002, Doc. No. CEP-148.

ambassador, alleging that he helped spirit Shikhmuradov into Turkmenistan and sheltered
him after the coup failed. Turkmen-Uzbek tensions rose further as each stepped up
deployments of troops along mutual borders. The Russian government strongly protested
Turkmen allegations that it tacitly supported the coup attempt, and dispatched one of its
top officials, Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, to talk to Niyazov in early
January 2003. The two sides reported that relations had been improved. Other
international moves by Turkmenistan in subsequent days to at least partially patch up
relations with its neighbors included an energy cooperation agreement it signed with
Uzbekistan in mid-January, although at the same time it tightened border controls.
Despite the swirl of the Turkmen coup investigation and questions about
Turkmenistan’s stability, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister
Zafarullah Khan Jamali traveled to Turkmenistan in late December 2002 to sign a
cooperation accord on building a natural gas pipeline. While these leaders appeared eager
to inaugurate the building of a pipeline, international financiers have so far balked,
pointing to lingering instability in Afghanistan. The apparently increasing civil unrest in
Turkmenistan, including the coup attempt, seems likely to heighten these concerns,
although the Asian Development Bank on December 20 nonetheless granted funds for a
feasibility and risk study of the pipeline. Turkey’s interest in retaining good relations with
Turkmenistan was illustrated by a visit by Turkish Justice and Development Party head
Recip Tayyap Erdogan in early January 2003. Erdogan’s talks with Niyazov included
energy and other trade issues.
Myriad human rights organizations, as well as countries and international
organizations have protested Turkmenistan’s human rights record in responding to the
coup attempt. On December 12, the then-Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE, Antonio
Martins da Cruz, raised concerns about reports of torture, lack of legal access for the
accused, and the detention of relatives of the accused, and called for Turkmenistan to
permit the OSCE to examine the investigative record. Denouncing the “Stalinist-style”
broadcasts of so-called confessions on Turkmen state-owned media, an OSCE official
also stated that same day that such broadcasts appeared designed by the regime “to
humiliate and terrorize anybody” in Turkmenistan who might question Niyazov’s rule.
Prominent Russians also criticized Niyazov’s abuses, including deputy speaker of the
Duma (lower legislative chamber) Vladimir Lukin, who on March 4 termed the regime
The United States has been at the forefront in urging the OSCE and other Western
organizations and governments to use their diplomatic resources to express dissatisfaction
with human rights conditions in Turkmenistan and to urge it to abide by its OSCE and
international commitments. The U.S. mission to the OSCE on December 12 called for
the OSCE to invoke its “Moscow mechanism,” a request that Turkmenistan provide
information to the OSCE on the “whereabouts and charges” against all those detained in
connection to the coup attempt within ten days. The United States highlighted its
concerns about reports of arbitrary detentions, the confiscation of property, torture, and
the lack of consular access to U.S. citizen and businessman Leonid Komarovsky, an
accused coup accomplice. Following-up on December 19, the United States reported that

3 OSCE. Press Release. CiO Regrets Ashgabad Violence, Urges Turkmenistan to Conduct
Restrained, Open Investigation, December 11, 2002; FBIS, March 5, 2003, Doc. No. CEP-433.

Turkmenistan had provided only a partial reply to the OSCE request, and raised concerns
about new detentions and the violation of diplomatic premises. Given these
circumstances, the U.S. mission stated, interested OSCE members would additionally
request that Turkmenistan permit a fact-finding mission to visit to ascertain whether those
detained in connection with the coup attempt were being treated in accordance with
international human rights standards.4 Turkmenistan refused to permit the mission to
visit, but in late February 2003 it prepared a report on the Turkmen government’s conduct
after the coup attempt that it forwarded to Turkmen officials. Under the Moscow
Mechanism, Turkmenistan is invited to respond to the report. It will be discussed by the
OSCE Permanent Council in mid-March and, if adopted, may become grounds for
possible sanctions. Reuters reported on March 3 that a copy of the OSCE report it
obtained stated that “large-scale violations of all the principles of due process of law”
took place after the coup attempt, including arbitrary detentions, “show trials,” and the use
of torture and drugs to obtain confessions.
On March 3, 2003, Niyazov met with visiting Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE, Jaap
de Hoop Scheffer, who urged Niyazov to respond to the OSCE report. He also urged that
OSCE representatives be permitted to observe future trials and that family members be
allowed to visit convicts. He raised concerns about the detention of Tuhbatullin. Niyazov
stated that Tuhbatullin would soon be released, de Hoop Scheffer reported. The next day,
however, Tuhbatullin was sentenced to a 3-year term, an outcome condemned by many
international observers. Indicating increasing shrillness, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry
on March 5 denounced some Western reports of de Hoop Scheffer’s visit that it claimed
maligned Turkmenistan, stating that such media had been bribed to lie.
Among the heightened U.S. concerns about human rights conditions was the
admission by Turkmenistan on December 3, 2002, that it had been holding U.S. citizen
Komarovsky as a coup suspect. The State Department spokesman immediately protested
the delayed notification and the failure to provide timely consular access, terming them
clear violations of international law. U.S. concerns were heightened on December 18
when Turkmen television showed pre-recorded footage of Komarovsky pleading that he
had been inadvertently “among those who prepared a plot.” Ominously dismissing the
plea, Turkmen Prosecutor Atadzhanov asserted that Komarovsky had helped the plotters
draw up planned post-coup propaganda. His family has denied that he supported the coup
attempt. U.S. concern about the safety of U.S. citizens was indicated on December 23
with the issuance of a travel warning urging Americans to “carefully evaluate travel to
Turkmenistan,” because of its heightened security climate.5
U.S. Policy Considerations. A dilemma for U.S. policy has been weighing
strong objections to human rights violations in Turkmenistan against the need to sustain
U.S. interests in the country and the region, including in Caspian energy development,
Turkmenistan’s support for U.S.-led coalition actions in Afghanistan, other counter-
terrorism efforts, and non-proliferation. U.S.-Turkmen relations have cooled somewhat

4 U.S. Department of State. Concern About Arrests in Turkmenistan: Statement Delivered to the
OSCE Permanent Council, Vienna, December 12, 2002; Continued Concern About
Turkmenistan, December 19, 2002.
5 U.S. Department of State. Office of the Spokesman. Public Announcement: Turkmenistan,
December 23, 2002.

in recent months, with the Niyazov government moving to limit some U.S. as well as
other Western civil society assistance, viewing such aid as at least tacitly fostering rising
opposition activities. Relations may cool further if the Niyazov regime refuses to address
U.S. concerns and continues its human rights abuses. As recently as August 2002,
visiting U.S. Central Command head Tommy Franks had praised Turkmenistan’s support
for the coalition, but the Niyazov government might decide to limit overflights and
refueling operations and the trans-shipment of humanitarian aid by coalition partners to
Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Niyazov government’s desire to build a gas pipeline
through Afghanistan might well dispose it to continue to facilitate coalition actions. The
U.S. Administration has stated that it supports the building of such a pipeline, and also
has encouraged Turkmenistan to join in efforts to build a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to
join up with a proposed Azerbaijan-Turkey gas pipeline.
Perhaps indicating a further cooling of U.S.-Turkmen relations, the Turkmen
government on January 8, 2003, reacted harshly to the State Department’s late December
2002 statement by issuing an open letter ostensibly written by the editors of sixteen
state-owned newspapers and the State News Agency. The letter’s publication in the state-
owned press and its dissemination by the Turkmen Foreign Ministry indicated Niyazov’s
imprimatur. It termed the State Department’s concerns “lying fabrications,” and a “knife
stabbed into the heart,” at a time when Turkmenistan is assisting the United States in
combating terrorism in Afghanistan. Ominously hinting at possible diplomatic
repercussions, the letter accused the U.S. ambassador of “unseemly deeds” and an
“unfriendly attitude,” and implied that she colluded with the Uzbek ambassador in hiding
Shikhmuradov. It also alleged that the U.S. embassy disseminated “dirty libel” and
“slander” about the coup investigation to Turkmen media, terming such actions a
“slanderous attack by one country against another [that] can only be regarded as an
attempt to worsen relations.” On March 6, relations seemed further strained when the
State Department issued a statement “deploring” Tuhbatullin’s conviction as “politically
motivated,” and calling for his immediate release. The State Department asserted that
others had been politically targeted who also appeared to have no connection to the
attempted coup. One positive aspect of U.S.-Turkmen relations is Turkmenistan’s
continued permission for international aid trans-shipments to Afghanistan.
Congress supported increased U.S. aid and other engagement with Turkmenistan
after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States in large part because of
Turkmenistan’s support for U.S.-led coalition efforts in Afghanistan. However, concerns
about human rights abuses in Turkmenistan led some in Congress even before the recent
coup attempt, as well as afterward, to call on the Administration to more closely link the
continuation of enhanced U.S. ties on Turkmenistan’s commitments to democratization
and respect for human rights.6

6 107th Congress. 2d Session. S.J.Res. 50, Expressing the Sense of the Senate With Respect to
Human Rights in Central Asia, Congressional Record, October 17, 2002, pp. S10728-S10729.thst

108 Congress. 1 Session. S.J.Res. 3, CR, January 14, 2003, pp. S304-S305.