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Turkmenistan: President Promises Changes On Eve Of U.S. Visit

By Naz Nazar and Bruce Pannier

Prague, 31 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In his speech to parliament last Thursday (March 26) Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov spoke of the need for economic and democratic reforms in the country. Niyazov said he is in favor relinquishing some of his presidential powers to parliament, and of Turkmenistan's citizens having a greater role in the government.

He even set a timetable by stating that following the December 12, 1999, elections to the Majlis (parliament) there will be amendments to the constitution and a new civil code which will reflect these changes in civilian rights and liberties. These adjustments are intended to usher in the twenty-first century.

Niyazov's statement comes on top of similar comments in February. The orientation is seen as unusual by observers because the Turkmen president is usually viewed as having worked to consolidate almost complete political power into his own hands. Turkmenistan has largely ignored the reforms under way in other CIS countries, and has repeatedly shrugged off criticism from international rights organizations.

Niyazov's comments this time would therefore seem to be a positive signal, but their timing and vague phrasing leave room for doubt. One possible explanation for them could be that the first official visit of Niyazov to the United States comes on April 22-23.

Some observers tie the reform statements to the meeting the Turkmen president will have with Bill Clinton. Turkmen newspapers, all state-owned, have already been billing the visit as a great opportunity for the country's economy, a way to surmount the obstacles Turkmenistan faces in exporting its natural gas and oil. The papers also say the visit to the White House represents a victory for Niyazov's policies.

There is certain to be discussion in the U.S. about Turkmenistan's hydrocarbon wealth, but some words about the human rights record would seem to be unavoidable when meeting with the leader of the free world. Those skeptical of Niyazov's statements for reforms at the expense of his own powers express doubts about their genuineness. They say that greater civilian participation in government is not likely in the near future simply because people in Turkmenistan will consider it a risk to participate. Though Niyazov speaks of a democratic state, human rights organizations continue to produce lists of political prisoners. Niyazov denies there are any political prisoners in Turkmenistan.

In late 1993, at a meeting of Turkmenistan's prominent artists and organization leaders, Niyazov said he was prepared to allow a multi-party system. He said introduction would be slow, and would start with a peasants party. More than four years later this has still not happened. While his speech last week had words of reform, they did not include any references to pluralism.

At this week's end an election to the Halk Maslahaty or People's Council is due to be held. While there are approximately 65 candidates running for the 50 seats all come from a list approved, if not personally written, by President Niyazov. A group of 352 people from a village in the Bayramali region submitted a petition less than two weeks ago suggesting four alternative candidates from their region. Although the district electoral commission first said it would include the four, it later hedged on this point and has taken no action so far. One of the candidates has since withdrawn.

The short history of independent Turkmenistan does not inspire the hope that democracy will come to the country soon. Though statements concerning new reform should not be ignored, what happens in Turkmenistan following Niyazov's visit to the White House will be much more important than any statements leading up to that visit.