Russian President Vladimir Putin is a judo black belt who likes to shoot a dagger-eyed stare at underlings who vex him. But it seems that the Kremlin’s resident tough guy is in the process of getting drilled by a certain dentist from Turkmenistan.
On March 11, Putin huddled on the phone with Turkmenistan’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to examine the general state of bilateral relations. According to the Russian presidential website, Putin paid “special attention … to the situation concerning people with dual-citizenship [in Turkmenistan].”
As Turkmenophiles well know, tens of thousands of Turkmen citizens also hold Russian passports thanks to a 1993 dual-citizenship agreement. So it’s no surprise that Putin is interested in the issue. Turkmenistan over the years has made life difficult for its Russian “dual” citizens, and Turkmen officials have periodically made attempts to terminate the practice, including a major push a decade ago.
Late in 2012, Turkmen leaders again sent signals that they are thinking about doing away with dual citizenship. Specifically, a question that was part of the country’s census asked respondents to state a preferred citizenship. There’s little doubt that Putin, in raising the issue with Berdymukhamedov on March 11, flexed his muscles and tried to use all powers of persuasion to get Ashgabat to ease up on Russian passport holders.
But Berdymukhamedov is sending Putin a message of his own. In the week since the phone chat, Turkmen authorities have stepped up the use of aggressive tactics against dual citizens. Observers report that local officials have been going door-to-door to ask dual citizens to make a choice between Turkmen and Russian citizenship. Some dual citizens report receiving telephone calls asking them about a citizenship preference. This new wave of government pressure has “shocked” many Russians and stirred fears about the future, according to a Central Asian journalist with detailed knowledge about what’s going on in Ashgabat.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that Turkmen media outlets, in reports about the Putin-Berdymukhamedov call, don’t emphasize the dual-citizenship question. In fact, looking at bilateral relations through Ashgabat’s cracked lens, one gets the impression that there are no problems at all. “According to the press service of the President of Turkmenistan, the heads of state praised the level of bilateral relations, noting the constructive nature of the long-standing successful partnership and great potential for new joint projects,” said a report distributed by the semi-official news service Turkmenistan.ru.
It’s also worth noting that the Turkmenistan.ru report concluded with the news that Putin had “accepted with gratitude” an invitation from Berdymukhamedov to visit Turkmenistan. The dates weren’t specified, and it’s likely the visit will remain up in the air as long as there is a lack of clarity on the dual-citizenship matter.