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Turkmenistan: United Opposition May Be 'Missing Link' To Effect Change

By Charles Carlson/Bruce Pannier

Turkmenistan's opposition-in-exile took a long-awaited step when representatives from four major groups announced in Prague this week that they are joining forces. RFE/RL examines the aims of the Turkmen opposition and what working together may mean for the future of the country.

Prague, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Turkmen government long ago crushed opposition movements and parties in the country, leaving the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan -- once called the successor to the Soviet-era Communist Party of Turkmenistan -- as the only legally registered party in the country.

Several disillusioned government officials fled Turkmenistan and set up opposition groups in exile that have mainly operated out of Moscow. Many of these officials met in the Czech capital, Prague, on 27-29 September and announced plans to join forces to become the Union of Democratic Forces of Turkmenistan.

Erika Dailey is the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, based in Budapest, Hungary. Dailey attended the Prague conference and spoke to RFE/RL afterward. She said the opposition's previous efforts to influence politics in Turkmenistan proved unsuccessful.

"The [Turkmen] political opposition has been under tremendous pressure. It is tiny. It's very fractured. And it's largely impoverished. It's had a very spotty history up until this week's conference," Dailey said.

Among those participating in the Prague conference were Avdy Kuliev, former foreign minister of Turkmenistan and founder and current leader of Turkmenistan's United Democratic Opposition; Nurmukhammed Hanamov, former Turkmen ambassador to Turkey and co-founder of the People's Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan; and Aleksandr Dodonov, former deputy prime minister of Turkmenistan and current deputy chairman of the Watan opposition movement. Turkmenistan's Renaissance movement is also participating in the opposition grouping.

Kuliev said it was not difficult to agree on the formation of the new opposition union. "Over the course of two days of work, we agreed with one another on the creation of the Union of Democratic Forces [of Turkmenistan]. We were able to come to this agreement rather easily because we know one another, and we are acquainted with each other's [political] programs, and our unification is founded on basic principles," he said.

Kuliev listed these principles as the need for democratic reforms in Turkmenistan: respect for human rights and freedom of speech, including a free media.

Dailey said the decision to unite represents a significant change in the policies of the Turkmen opposition. "What was significant about this particular meeting was that finally the various factions of the political opposition came together and issued a united statement creating what they are calling the Union of Democratic Forces of Turkmenistan," she said. "It's a breakthrough in that it has never been reached before. In fact, there were some comments made sardonically at the conference that it was at this point difficult to understand why consensus had not been possible to reach before, when in principle there's a lot to rally around. There's an awful lot that unites them and that is, in point of fact, common to their philosophical and political approaches."

Dailey said there are still some important unanswered questions about the new union, however. "It is much too early, obviously, to draw any conclusions about how long this united front will last. It was very hard won. It's taken years to reach this consensus, and it's still in its infancy. Some very basic administrative and organizational issues have yet to be resolved, including who is going to lead this union, how are those decisions going to be made, in what way will it function, and what will its relationship be to the ruling regime, until such time as President [Saparmurat] Niyazov is no longer president, she said."

Dailey said the formation of this new union of opposition forces was likely driven in part by the increased international attention on Turkmenistan's plight from groups such as Amnesty International, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and even the Russian State Duma. Simply put, the opposition felt its hand had been strengthened by a renewed focus on Turkmenistan's poor human rights record.

Dailey said the confluence of international criticism and the Turkmen opposition's unity may be the "missing link" needed to prod reform, or even real change, in the Turkmen government. "There's always been a missing link, and that is the connection between the international outcry and the outcry from within the country itself," she said. "Now, the existence -- at least for the moment -- of a united opposition front completes that picture. And I think it at least stands a good chance of maintaining that momentum for the foreseeable future."

Watan leader Aleksandr Dodonov's 29 September prediction in Prague that the Turkmen opposition will no longer be in opposition but will be heading a democratic process in Turkmenistan next year at this time may prove premature. But by uniting their efforts, the members of the Turkmen opposition have already given themselves an opportunity to effect change that did not exist prior to the Prague conference.