By Annette Bohr (6/18/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)
BACKGROUND: According to official reports, President Niyazov\'s motorcade was fired upon at about 7 a.m. in downtown Ashgabat as he was traveling to his office from his residence in Arshabil, 28 kilometers outside the capital.
BACKGROUND: According to official reports, President Niyazov\'s motorcade was fired upon at about 7 a.m. in downtown Ashgabat as he was traveling to his office from his residence in Arshabil, 28 kilometers outside the capital. Turkmen authorities immediately publicized the attack as a coup attempt masterminded by the Turkmen opposition in exile with the aid of foreign mercenaries. President Niyazov was quick to name his most prominent rivals as the organizers of the attack, including former Foreign Minister and current Chairman of the People\'s Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan (PDMT) Boris Shikhmuradov, and former Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of Turkmenistan\'s Central Bank Hudaiberdy Orazov.
Both Shikhmuradov and Orazov, believed to have been living in exile in Russia, denied complicity. Within a few days of the incident, Orazov fueled speculation by claiming that Niyazov\'s security services had staged the attack in order to provide a pretext for launching a full-scale crackdown on the opposition. Several factors lent plausibility to Orazov\'s explanation of events. Although Niyazov claimed to have been unaware of the attack, within thirty minutes of reaching the presidential palace he was able to list the names of the alleged organizers. Second, numerous conflicting accounts of the attack were issued by authorities before a single version was settled upon several days later. Third, the tight security precautions surrounding the President\'s daily commute make it difficult for unidentified vehicles or persons to even approach the presidential motorcade. Moreover, the use of automatic weapons to carry out their plan was unlikely, given the well-known fact that the presidential Mercedes is extensively armored.
At the end of December, it was revealed that Niyazov\'s most renowned opponent among the chief suspects, Boris Shikhmuradov, had made a clandestine return to Turkmenistan from abroad some time before the attack, reportedly in order to organize a series of anti-governmental actions. On December 25, he was arrested in Ashgabat. In a statement allegedly written by him on December 24 and posted on the PDMT website on 26 December, he announced his plans to surrender to the Turkmen authorities voluntarily in order to save his relatives from torture and prevent further arrests.
A new twist was added to an already complex story in June 2003 when Orazov, in clear contradiction to his earlier statement, revealed to Der Spiegel that Shikhmuradov had indeed plotted a coup d\'etat, but with no intention to kill Niyazov. According to Orazov, the aim had been to capture Niyazov and take him by force to the Parliament building, where he would then be impelled to publicly renounce power. However, according to Orazov, the plan miscarried when the President\'s motorcade was stopped seconds too late and Niyazov managed to escape. Orazov\'s initial story was presumably intended to avoid further incrimination of Shikhmuradov, who was still at large in Turkmenistan at the time. Orazov\'s new version of events was borne out by U.S. businessman Leonid Komarovsky, who was apparently with Shikhmuradov in Ashgabat on the morning of the attack. Komarovsky, charged by Turkmen authorities with organizing and carrying out the plot to overthrow Niyazov, spent five months in a prison in Turkmenistan. Upon his release in May 2003, Komarovsky stated that Shikhmuradov had in fact organized the aborted coup, after which he had been given refuge in the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat before giving himself up to Turkmen authorities at the end of December.
IMPLICATIONS: The attack, if in fact a failed coup attempt, provided Russia with important leverage in its mission to conclude a major, long-term gas agreement with Turkmenistan. Although denying complicity in the attack, Moscow failed to publicly condemn the alleged assassination attempt or even to send a statement of support to Niyazov until January 2003, when Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo and Russian Energy Ministry officials went to Ashgabat to negotiate bilateral security issues and, inter alia, a contract for the sale of Turkmen gas to Russia. Rushailo emerged from a five-hour meeting with Niyazov to declare the attack a \'manifestation of terrorism\' and to sign a protocol on mutual cooperation in the search for and extradition of suspected criminals. Russia\'s belated condemnation of the November attack, and the simultaneous negotiation of a security agreement and a gas agreement (both of which were signed when Niyazov and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow in April 2003) strongly suggest a link between Russia\'s support for Niyazov and the Turkmen President\'s agreement to commit his country to export nearly its entire gas output through Russia\'s pipeline network. The gas mega-deal, if implemented, would in essence constitute the amalgamation of Turkmen and Russian gas reserves into one export pool under Russian control.
While Niyazov\'s regime clearly lacks a solid institutional foundation, his centralization of power combined with revenues from gas sales could continue to prop up his seemingly shaky rule for a number of years to come. This possibility was underscored by the spectacular failure of Shikhmuradov\'s purported putsch attempt, a misadventure that does not augur well for other even less influential groups who might be hoping to mobilize against Niyazov.
CONCLUSIONS: Whether planned by the opposition or staged by the government, President Niyazov has managed to shrewdly use the November attack to accomplish several goals simultaneously. First, the alleged assassination attempt served as a pretext to embark on a widespread purge of hundreds of people with actual or putative links to the opposition. Second, the arrest of Shikhmuradov and other members of the opposition might well have pre-empted a series of anti-governmental actions that the PDMT had planned to hold at the end of 2002. Third, in calling it \'an act of international terrorism\', Niyazov\'s regime attempted to manipulate the event so as to exploit heightened world-wide anti-terrorist sentiment. Fourth, the attack provided Niyazov with another premise on which to base his demands for the extradition of his prominent foes who are resident in Russia. Fifth, the armed attack enabled Niyazov\'s to have Turkmenistan\'s decade-old dual citizenship agreement with Russia annulled, after claiming it had allowed suspected criminals to find refuge abroad. Sixth, the alleged assassination attempt facilitated the regime\'s subsequent tightening of restrictions on both internal and foreign travel for Turkmen citizens as well as on travel by foreigners to Turkmenistan. Consequently, at least in the short term, what now appears to have been an unsuccessful coup attempt inadvertently abetted Niyazov\'s propensity to lead his country into an ever-greater state of isolation.
AUTHOR BIO: Annette Bohr, Research Fellow in Central Asian Studies, University of Manchester, UK.