By Charles Carlson/Bruce Pannier
At a meeting in the Czech capital, Prague, leaders of three Turkmen opposition organizations in exile pledged to work together to replace the dictatorship of President Saparmurat Niyazov with a parliamentary democracy. RFE/RL correspondents Charles Carlson and Bruce Pannier spoke with the participants and filed this report.
Prague, 29 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of three main Turkmen opposition groups based abroad have concluded a three-day meeting with a pledge to work together to establish a parliamentary democracy.
Attending the meeting, in the Czech capital, Prague, were former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, of the United Democratic Opposition, Alexander Dodonov of the Vatan Opposition Movement, and Nurmuhammed Hamanov of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan. Also attending were Vitalii Ponomarev of the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center and Peter Zalmaev of the International League for Human Rights.
The leaders pledged to formally unite efforts to create an opposition Union of Democratic Forces to free Turkmenistan from the dictatorship of President Saparmurat Niyazov. It's not clear yet who would head the new union.
Kuliev said the opposition is guided by three principles. "We agreed that in our joint struggle we will be guided by three principles -- the principles of democracy, freedom of speech and [respect for] human rights," Kuliev says.
He added that Turkmenistan needs a new constitution, and that the opposition alignment is in the process of drafting one. The union has set an ambitious goal of putting their pledge into action within a year.
"I hope that on September 29, 2004, [one year from today] the Turkmen opposition will no longer be the opposition but will head a democratic process in Turkmenistan," Dodonov said.
Rights groups have repeatedly condemned the Niyazov regime as being the most repressive to emerge after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. They say it is a virtual one-man state, with Niyazov having appointed himself the country's "president for life."
Ponomarev says Turkmenistan is the only country of the former Soviet republics where any form of opposition is banned.
"You probably know already that the situation with human rights in Turkmenistan is catastrophic and at the same time it is the only country of the former Soviet republics where there is not an openly functioning opposition or rights activists. And there is not even a hint that President Niyazov, who personally controls all the structures of power, is ready for even minimal dialogue with the international community," Ponomarev says.
The three groups also called on the international community to impose economic and political sanctions against the Turkmen government. They said outside pressure is needed on Niyazov to allow representatives of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent to visit political prisoners in Turkmen jails.
Those prisoners include two former foreign ministers, Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdev, both sentenced for their alleged participation in a purported assassination attempt against Niyazov last November. Western analysts point to a number of serious discrepancies in the official Turkmen reports of what happened. Some even question whether any such assassination attempt took place at all.
The participants also urged authorities in Turkmenistan to abolish the institution of president-for-life and hold fair and free elections under international observation.
Khanamov, who served as Turkmenistan's ambassador to Turkey until early 2002, said he now sees no possibility of dialogue with Niyazov in the present circumstance.
"No dialogue between the opposition and Niyazov, or between the international community and Niyazov is possible, because this person does not respect the decisions of such large international organizations as the United Nations, or the recommendations of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]. Therefore, we consider dialogue with Niyazov to be useless," Khanamov said. "A dialogue is only possible with a normal person but with a sick person it is useless."
It's not clear how successful the new union can be. Previous attempts by the various opposition groups to forge common positions have largely failed. Niyazov's hold on power looks to be very strong.
Kuliev, for his part, said he felt "some guilt" for having been a part of a former Niyazov government, but he said that in the early 1990s officials believed Turkmenistan needed a strong leader. He said he realized by 1992 that further support for Niyazov would be a mistake.