Focus on the Russian minority

A sense of panic gripped the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, on Thursday as the country's Russian minority battled to meet a Sunday nationality deadline.

Between sobs, Tatiana, a former paediatrician, now jobless, told IRIN that leaving Turkmenistan was the last thing she wanted, but for the sake of her two children she was packing her bags. "It has been a month of vodka and tears," she said from her run-down apartment in the capital. An ethnic Russian, time is rapidly running out for her and more than 100,000 others with dual nationality, who have until the weekend to decide if they want to take Turkmen or Russian citizenship.

This figure contrasts marketly with government claims that less than 50 people would be affected.

But as the deadline approached, crowds outside the state airline office in central Ashgabat swelled as Russians battled to get tickets. Russians who do not inform the authorities of their citizenship decision by the deadline automatically become Turkmen, a thought that motivates Ivan, a former postman, to push more aggressively to the front of the mass of people trying for an air tickets. "I don't want to die here, if I become one [a Turkmen citizen], they'll never let me out of this country," he shouted, referring to Turkmen government restrictions on international travel for its citizens.

Ashgabat's decision to terminate the dual-citizenship agreement was announced in April during a meeting between Turkmen President Saparmyrat Niyazov and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ethnic Russian residents of Turkmenistan holding dual citizenship were given two months to choose which passport they would give up. The consequences for the Russian minority had been hugely problematic, said a community leader in Ashgabat, who declined to be named, fearing reprisals in this authoritarian state.

"It's an outrage that Russians who came here, often voluntarily to help build this country, now have to choose at such short notice between two evils," he said.

Noting that many people he knew were having to sell houses and apartments at far below market values in order to leave by the deadline, he emphasised the hardship many people would face if forced back to Russia. "OK, we're Russian, but most of us, having been in Turkmenistan for decades, have few ties and little chance of finding work in Russia. We've been sold out by Putin."

A recent visit by Russian officials to the capital failed to persuade the Turkmen leadership to reverse its decision and allow dual citizens to hold on to their passports. Moscow says it does not recognise Ashgabat's unilateral decision to abolish the dual-citizenship agreement, and insists that any decision in this respect is subject to the approval of the Russian legislature, the State Duma.

A delegation from the Russian foreign ministry visited Turkmenistan last week to discuss the issue with their Turkmen counterparts, but apparently walked away empty-handed. Ashgabat continues to insist on a unilateral withdrawal from the agreement, but as a concession proposed setting up a special commission to oversee the termination of dual citizenship. However, nobody believes the commission will be able to change anything.

Many Russians gathered around the Russian embassy in April, after the initial announcement by the Turkmen government. They said they did not want to stay in Turkmenistan forever, but were not sure that they would be able to settle in Russia. Tens of thousands of Russians who left the former Soviet republics in the 1990s have had difficulty finding proper employment and housing in Russia.

Russians living in Turkmenistan have seen their position in society steadily eroded since independence. They led privileged lives during the Soviet period, holding superior jobs and receiving better pay than Turkmens. But after 1991 nearly half of them packed their bags and left for Russia or Kazakhstan. Over the past decade Russians have been systematically discriminated against, and currently hold no positions in Turkmenistan's government or state institutions.

Russian language schools have been closed down, and a 2000 government decision that all official business must be conducted in the Turkmen language has marginalised many. The Russian role in the Turkmen economy has also shrunk. From being largely in charge, their main role today is as intermediaries in gas and oil deals between Moscow and Ashgabat. On the streets of the eastern city of Turkmenabad, Russians appear to be rapidly becoming an underclass in a nation mired in poverty.

Many scrape a living as taxi drivers, waitresses or in other low paying, insecure jobs. "Before, life was good for us here," a Russian marine engineer now shining shoes, told IRIN. Niyazov's attitude hardened following last November's alleged assassination attempt, and analysts attribute his 'final solution' to the Russian issue to his desire to sever contact between Turkmen opposition groups in exile in Russia and people at home.

Others say the move to oust the Russian minority has been sanctioned by Moscow as recompense to Niyazov for a lucrative gas deal signed on 10 April.

"It seems very much that because the business deal was so much to the financial advantage of the Russian Federation there had to be some quid pro quo for the Turkmenistan authorities. That appears to be silence, or at least acquiescence, on the part of Russia on Turkmenistan’s unilateral withdrawal from the dual-citizenship agreement," Erika Dailey, the director of the Turkmen Project at the Open Society Institute, told IRIN from Budapest.

"Putin has sold us out for gas. I'm very sad, because now I must become a Turkmen, and I'll never see the grave of my father, who died for the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War," one elderly Russian woman told IRIN with disgust.

But many Russians in Turkmenistan had no qualms about handing in their Russian passports and adopting Turkmen citizenship. "Life is very risky in Russia, there are no subsidies and no jobs, life is easier here," Roza, a waitress in one of Ashgabat's few hotels, told IRIN. Other Russians pointed to a lack of crime and family ties as reasons why they had no objection to relinquishing their dual-citizenship status.

Other observers say that dual-citizenship for Russians living in Central Asia is a privilege, not a right. "Every other CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] country has put an end to dual citizenship, so why not Turkmenistan? Everyone says it will lead to a capital and skills flight, but most Russians with money or marketable skills left here years ago," a Western diplomat in Ashgabat told IRIN.

Meanwhile Murat has just bought a one-way ticket to Moscow, and said the authorities were only too delighted to stamp an exit visa in his passport bearing the Russian crest. He has a daughter at school in the Ukraine and has sold his car and accepts that as an ethnic Russian, he is not wanted in Turkmenistan. "It's all part of their [the Turkmen government's] policy to get rid of us, we have suffered here for too long. I have nothing going for me in Moscow, but then not much here either," he said with a shrug of resignation.