Being a Turkmen citizen is big on drawbacks and small on benefits, which is why many Turkmen citizens took advantage of a 1993 agreement between Turkmenistan and Russia that enabled them to hold passports belonging to both countries. But with the government releasing a new version of the country's main travel document, dual passport holders may be forced to choose their side.
The 1993 agreement was unilaterally revoked by Turkmenistan in 2003, but remains in force in Russia. Up until now, dual citizens were able to exploit the legal limbo and travel on both passports, the Russian one subject to fewer restrictions.
The current Turkmen passport is now in its tenth year, and will expire on July 10. All Turkmen citizens will be required to have the new passport to go abroad by that point. Ordinary Turkmen fear the government is simply trying to achieve more leverage over the citizenry. The Turkmen side revoked the agreement in 2003 as part of a wider crackdown after the mysterious attempt reported on former ruler Saparmurat “Turkmenbashy” Niyazov's life the year before.
Trust in deeds, not words
Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov himself promised that the changing of travel documents would apply to all Turkmens equally, and that dual passport holders – many of whom are ethnically Russian – would not be caught in a “zero-sum” game:
… I, as the President of the country and guarantor of the Constitution …
Every citizen of Turkmenistan, regardless of ethnicity, gender, origin, proprietary and official status, language, creed and political belief, will be given a new-type passport of Turkmen citizen without fail.
…the constitutional rights and freedoms of those who had dual citizenship and then chose Turkmen citizenship will be respected, regardless of ethnic, religious or other affiliation
But state authorities have changed their mind in the past, and the roughly 100,000 dual Russian-Turkmen passport holders don't seem thrilled about the decision. They note that the introduction of the new passport gives the government a perfect opportunity to make them get rid of their Russian passports.
Moreover, despite Berdymuhamedov's utterances many Turkmen citizens with dual citizenship say they are already finding it hard to obtain a new Turkmen passport. Natalia Shabunts, interviewed by IWPR is one of those whose application for a new Turkmen passport was turned down.
Another anonymous source interviewed by Refworld, the news agency of UNHCR is also expecting difficulties:
My old Turkmen passport expires in 2013, and then I'll have to apply for a new one and become a citizen of just one country, … it is tremendous strain.
According to a report by ДОЖДЬ Оптимистик Channel LIVE [Dozhd Optimistic Channel Live] an independent Russian news channel, staff at the Turkmen Ministry of Internal Affairs staff were asked to declare their Russian passports if they held them. Five fairly senior officials confessed to their Russian passports and were promptly fired. Interviewed by Dozhd, Daniil Kislov, editor of Fergana News noted that Turkmen leaders are following previous leader Saparmurat Niyazov's program of trying to achieve ethnic homogeneity and total control over the republic.
In a comment on the Turkmen Chronicles newsblog, run by Turkmen diaspora, Rais wondered [ru] whether officials further up the Turkmen political chain would suffer the same fate:
У министра иностранных дел Туркменистана господина Мередова вся семья с двойным гражданством. Интересно,они будут отказываться от российского гражданства,или уедут в Россию???
The whole family of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan Mr. Meredov has dual citizenship. I wonder if they will give up their Russian citizenships, or leave for Russia??
Dual citizenship – freedom and security
People with dual citizenship feel more freedom and have more chances to travel and work than their fellow countrymen possessing only Turkmen citizenship.
Speaking to Refworld, an ethnic Russian man from western Turkmenistan says that his second passport allows him to visit relatives abroad without obstacles, while his neighbor, also ethnically Russian, only has Turkmen citizenship. He says:
She had to wait six weeks before she could obtain a [Russian] visa, while all i have to do is a buy a ticket and go.
A man from Ashghabat commented in the same article:
Officials from law enforcement and the Ministry for National Security treats them [dual passport holders] more cautiously … if you have dual nationality, they will treat you differently.
While an IWPR interviewee stressed:
Dual nationality gives you some security and the sense of that you are not alone, that you could seek protection in Moscow.
People with a second citizenship seem to experience security advantages outside Turkmenistan as well. Nadia, a Turkmen citizen with dual citizenship shared [ru] her experience in a comment on the Turkmen Chronicles newsblog:
…В свое время уехала из др. страны где происходили военные действия, Оттуда РФ своих и граждан СНГ эвакуировала. в Москве всех встретили представители из их стран, НО ГДЕ ТУРКМЕНские?…
Once I had to leave a foreign country where a military conflict was taking place. Russia evacuated its citizens and the citizens of other CIS citizens countries. In Moscow, everyone was met with representatives from their respective countries to make sure their well being was secured, BUT WHERE WERE THE TURKMEN REPRESENTATIVES?
The expiry date of the old passports is getting closer and closer. Dual passport holders will hope that the current status quo remains in place, but their government seems determined not to let mixed loyalties interfere with their grip over the Turkmen state.