Ethnic minorities in Turkmenistan continue to be subject to surveillance and restrictions despite the change of leadership last year, local observers state.
On May 21, Knut Vollebaek, the OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities, discussed the position of ethnic minorities with President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, elected in February 2007.
During the meeting, Vollebaek said that "national minorities living in Turkmenistan should be able to communicate their needs and aspirations to the authorities".
In the last census, conducted in 1995, minority groups accounted for 23.4 per cent of the population. Half were Uzbeks, and the rest Russians, Kazaks, Beluchis, Azerbaijanis, Koreans and others.
According to local civil society activists, the Uzbek community remains numerous, but other groups have shrunk significantly due to emigration. Many people were prompted to leave by the policy adopted by the late president Saparmurat Niazov – who died in December 2006 – of "Turkmenising" other ethnic groups.
As part of this policy, the authorities shut down all ethnic cultural centres in 1998-99, while from 2000, school and university education was conducted entirely in Turkmen, and institutions that had used Russian, Uzbek or Kazak as an additional teaching medium were closed.
Another blow to ethnic minority members came when the authorities stopped recognising academic qualifications obtained outside the country, which made for a Turkmen-only employment policy.
The few newspapers in languages other than Turkmen were banned, and people from ethnic minorities found obstacles placed in their way when they applied for passports or marriage certificates.
Commentators and human rights activists say that in practice, the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all is ignored, and is undermined by various legal regulations.
An NBCentralAsia observer in the northern Dashoguz region says the authorities are still following the discriminatory secret directives issued in Niazov's time which bar non-Turkmen from being appointed to the police, civil service, or any management position, regardless of whether the individual concerned has the right educational qualifications or professional experience.
The informal leaders of ethnic communities are subject to observation and their movements are tracked. Any attempt to gather support or voice disagreement with the status quo is quashed, said the observer.
"The security services keep a close watch on any activity by minority representatives," he added.
An Uzbek woman from Turkmenabat, the administrative centre of Lebap region in the north where this minority has a strong presence, said she felt like "a second-class person".
She said she was "constantly afraid of the ever-present Ministry of National Security, which forces you to remain silent and put up with things when you want to voice dissent or protest".
Roza, a member of the Tatar community, said minorities are still treated in a "confrontational" manner, which does nothing to help. Instead, she believes the authorities should allow all ethnic minority associations to operate legally.
"They should stop persecuting us and give us a chance to register and work properly," she said.
Legal experts say the authorities should take radical measures such as changing the law and adopting a new programme to encourage tolerance towards minorities.
However, no one expects change to come quickly.
"Even if the authorities gear up to take radical steps, the habit, inertia and fear of doing the wrong thing that are deep-rooted in decision-makers will continue to be felt for a long time to come," said a commentator.
(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.)