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Turkmenistan Marks National Day Without 'Turkmenbashi'

  • Bruce Pannier --> Turkmenistan's new look (AFP) October 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan marks Independence Day today, the country's first without the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, or "Turkmenbashi," who died in December 2006. RFE/RL looks at what has changed and what remains the same as Turkmenistan marks 16 years of independence.

Turkmenistan's five million citizens could have more reason than in the past to celebrate, since, as one analyst puts it, "there's less fear" under new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

For the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the guest of honor at Turkmen Independence Day celebrations is not "Turkmenbashi," or head of the Turkmen, as the man who spent two decades building his cult-like presence preferred to be called.

Days of celebration in the past would inevitably be accompanied by massive parades, carefully orchestrated displays of national pride, and shouts of "Long live the great leader!" from obedient troops.

A New Hope?

But this year's focus will be on the new president -- Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. And some say the change in leadership means that for the first time in years, many people can mark Independence Day with a sense of hope.

Berdymukhammedov inherited one of the most repressive governments in the world. Turkmenistan has appeared regularly on the black lists of international organizations that monitor human rights, religious freedoms, media rights, and democracy.

Some now see a chance that Turkmen society might open up, and business transactions could become more transparent. The country generates vast wealth from sales of natural gas and oil that historically never benefited its citizens. Niyazov or his cronies even had the temerity to deposit some $3 billion in German bank accounts under Niyazov's real name.

There is currently one registered political party in Turkmenistan. A lifting of the strictures that maintain the country's draconian form of order would be welcomed in a troubled region, where political stability could make Ashgabat a more reliable partner on many fronts.

Berdymukhammedov was propelled from relative obscurity into the country's top post within hours of the announcement of Niyazov's sudden death of heart failure. He has been in power for less than a year, but there have been some noticeable changes in government policy since Berdymukhammedov took over.

Timid Steps

Although it was clear well before a rubber-stamp election in February that Berdymukhammedov would win, he discussed things that his predecessor would never have mentioned, such as upgrading the country's antiquated education system to international standards.

His predecessor had reduced mandatory schooling from 10 to nine years, chased foreign teachers from the country, and dismissed many of Turkmenistan's own teachers. Coursework from elementary school to university centered around knowledge of Niyazov's "Rukhnama" (Book of the Soul), a sort of guidebook to proper behavior for Turkmen that was endorsed by government officials as a "second Koran."

Shortly after he took power, Berdymukhammedov promised sweeping education reforms. "In our country's universities, the curriculum will adhere to international norms," he said in February. "If need be, we will bring teachers, scientists, and specialists from the best schools in the world to come and teach our students."

Erika Dailey, the director of Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, opines that Berdymukhammedov has kept his promises only partially, with "Rukhnama" still the cornerstone of the Turkmen curriculum.

"He made [education reform] one of his top priorities almost immediately after his inauguration in February, and reports from the country indicate that, in fact, there are infrastructure changes that are happening, students are in fact returning to the 10th-grade classes, new teachers are being brought on board, new textbooks are available, and so on," says Dailey. "But in terms of curricular reform there's been very little change. Berdymukhammedov continues to make the "Rukhnama" the centerpiece of the curriculum, which obviously has very negative implications for any sort of hope for a progressive curriculum."

Half-Hearted Domestic Reforms

Some Berdymukhammedov promises concerning domestic policy have brought even more mixed results. He agreed to restore pensions to some 100,000 people whom Niyazov had said did not qualify for such benefits. Some pensions were restored, but Dailey says other groups have been deprived of their pensions.

Berdymukhammedov also vowed to bring computers and the Internet to schools and the average citizen. Internet cafes have opened, but costs are prohibitive for most Turkmen citizens and documents must be shown to enter such cafes -- sufficient to frighten away many people.

Meanwhile, Berdymukhammedov's administration has eased restrictions on domestic travel, including removing some of the numerous checkpoints along roads.

Some observers also say there are signs that an announcement of more frequent amnesties and other presidential statements regarding prisoners could signal an easing of politically motivated persecution.

Opening To The Outside World

Turkmenistan's foreign policies have changed drastically under Berdymukhammedov. The United Nations officially recognized Turkmenistan as a "neutral" country in 1995 -- a distinction that Niyazov used to isolate his country from most alliances or regional groupings. Berdymukhammedov announced this week that he has made 11 visits abroad and signed some 50 new cooperation agreements with foreign leaders.

Turkmenistan Project director Erika Dailey says that represents a major shift. "The most dramatic changes are happening in terms of Turkmenistan's foreign policy. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has proven to be an aggressive bridge-builder. He is dramatically anti-isolationist, which is a 180-degree change from his predecessor's approach."

Such "bridge-building" includes mending relations with Caspian neighbor Azerbaijan and Central Asian neighbor Uzbekistan. Under Niyazov, Ashgabat had practically no contact with Azerbaijan due to a dispute over a Caspian oil field, and the situation was little better with Uzbekistan, whom Ashgabat accused of helping an alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov. Now Berdymukhammedov has already sought to engage the leaders in both countries.

'Easier To Breathe Now'

But perhaps the greatest difference so far under Berdymukhammedov is something that Dailey says cannot be measured. "There's a third area of change which is much harder to quantify and define -- [it is that] there seems to be a palpable lessening of fear in many quarters," says Dailey. It's impossible to make any generalizations, but I've heard from numerous sources -- completely independently -- that there does seem to be a very modest, very fragile loosening. It's been described to me as, 'it's easier to breathe now' -- there's a little bit less fear."

Turkmenistan is still a long way from showing the hallmarks of a democratic state. And there are no signs that Berdymukhammedov plans to loosen social controls immediately or that he's willing to drastically alter Turkmenistan's foreign policy outside of economic relations.

But the change of leadership in Turkmenistan has certainly fueled hopes that the country might change for the better.

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