Saparmurat Niyazov, the mercurial president-for-life of resource-rich Turkmenistan, survived an assassination attempt November 25 that left several of the attackers dead and at least one bodyguard seriously wounded. Experts now expect Niyazov to intensify purges of security forces and other government agencies and tighten control over society.
According to various sources familiar with developments, the attack against Niyazov came as the president was traveling in a motorcade, making his way from his official residence outside Ashgabat to his presidential office. According to the semi-official Turkmenistan.ru, "unknown persons using automatic weapons" fired from several vehicles on the highway. Niyazov reportedly escaped unharmed, according to the sources. The web site said one police officer, a member of Niyazov's security escort, was seriously wounded during the exchange of gunfire.
Turkmenistan.ru indicated that at least two attackers were killed at the scene of the incident. The web site went on to say: "several of the criminals were taken into custody, the remaining ones [who escaped] succeeded in going into hiding."
Later in the day, the Itar-Tass news agency reported, Niyazov identified the organizers of the attack as former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, former deputy agricultural minister Saparmurat Yklimov, former Central Bank head Khudaiberdy Orazov, and the former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey, Nurmuhammed Khanamov. All are political opposition leaders living in exile. Efforts to reach Shikhmuradov for comment were not immediately successful.
Meanwhile, one source familiar with developments suggested that disgruntled security authorities and other officials within Turkmenistan may have had a hand in the operation. The source added that some opposition leaders were poised in neighboring states to make a quick return to Turkmenistan in the event the attempt had been successful.
There is no active political opposition within Turkmenistan. However, Niyazov's recent actions have indicated that he is concerned about his grip on power, especially about the loyalty of security forces and other government institutions. Throughout the summer, Niyazov purged law-enforcement agencies of officials who apparently had been deemed unreliable.
Since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, Niyazov has built an all-encompassing cult of personality - going so far in 2002 as to rename the days of the week and the months of the year. Over the same period, Niyazov has relied on police repression to buttress his authority.
However, despite the recent purges, a significant number of Niyazov opponents remain in positions of authority, a source said. "There are lots of disgruntled people [within the government]," the source said. "Some were neutralized [by the recent purges]. Still, there are many who remain in senior positions." Indeed, such opposition was on the rise, driven in part by the perception within Turkmenistan that Niyazov's policy decisions are becoming increasingly unpredictable.
The failed assassination attempt will likely prompt Niyazov to broaden his purge of official structures. "There will probably be a massive crackdown," the source said. "It is a severe blow to the opposition."
News of the assassination attempt spread within Turkmenistan, even though the government maintains strict control over mass media outlets. Sources inside the country said that by the evening of November 25 there were no visible signs of tightened security, such as a larger than normal police presence, on the streets of major cities.
"We are afraid that in this case violence may beget violence. The last major public challenge to President Niyazov was in July 1995, when tens of protestors demonstrated peacefully in the capital, holding signs that called for democratic elections. Police and security agents broke up the demonstration forcibly and detained and arrested demonstrators," said Erika Dailey, director of the Turkmenistan Project of the New York-based Open Society Institute. Dailey added that those accused of organizing that 1995 protest were tortured and given jail sentences, and that one died of his injuries.
"If this was the outcome of a peaceful demonstration, we can only fear for the safety of individuals whom the government may detain in connection with the assassination attempt, whether they're guilty or not," Dailey said. "The main thing is to insure that the government uses legitimate law-enforcement practices to capture those responsible and does not use the attack as an excuse to launch a manhunt against dissidents."
The source said he expected Niyazov to become more insular in the assassination attempt aftermath. Already in 2002, the Turkmen leader has taken steps to isolate the country from outside influences. For example, Niyazov has issued decrees in recent months that closed the philharmonic orchestra and opera, as well as drastically curtailed educational opportunities. The state now provides education for Turkmens through ninth grade. At the same time, the Ruhnama - a book purportedly written by Niyazov to serve as a spiritual guide for Turkmens - is being increasingly utilized both in schools and government agencies.