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Turkmenistan: President Orders Major Changes To Constitution

  • Bruce Pannier --> The Halk Maslahaty has anywhere between 2,500 and 3,000 "members" (ITAR-TASS) Turkmenistan is planning rare amendments to its constitution that signal the leadership's desire to present at least a veneer of change in Central Asia's most isolated country.

A constitutional commission will draft the changes at the request of the State Commission for Constitutional Reforms, which is headed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

Expected amendments include lengthening the presidential term and otherwise enhancing the already-powerful presidency, as well as scrapping a rubberstamp superlegislature known as the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) in favor of a more transparent but long-marginalized parliament, the Mejlis.

The overhaul could make Turkmenistan's political landscape less inscrutable for the country's 5 million residents and foreigners alike, but most observers are likely to withhold judgment until the particulars are in place.

Since stepping in to assume the presidency following the sudden death of strongman Saparmurat Niyazov in late 2006, Berdymukhammedov has sought to present himself as a reformer who can alleviate an impoverished public's worst suffering while opening the hydrocarbon-rich country up to increased trade.

On May 22, the recently created State Commission for Constitutional Reforms held a session chaired by President Berdymukhammedov that was billed as an opportunity to hear about constitutional concerns raised by the public since citizens were invited to comment in April.

Akja Nurberdieva, the speaker of the Mejlis, articulated the desires of "the people" to the commission. "First of all, it should be noted that numerous proposals have been received from citizens on changing the status of the Halk Maslahaty of Turkmenistan," Nurberdiyeva said, "assigning its powers related to state affairs to the president of Turkmenistan and the parliament of Turkmenistan."

Unwieldy Legacy

The Halk Maslahaty is currently the leading legislative body in Turkmenistan, with considerably more power than the Mejlis. It comprises some 2,500 representatives, although some sessions have drawn up to 3,000 people. All of its members except the parliamentary deputies are appointed rather than elected. Members come from disparate groups across Turkmenistan -- business and government officials, workers and farmers, heads of social organizations, ethnic groups, and village elders.

On its surface, the effort to devolve powers of the unwieldy Halk Maslahaty to the more manageable Mejlis looks like an effort to simplify proceedings.

"Infrequent sessions of the Halk Maslahaty, held once a year, and the large number of its members create difficulties in convening [Halk Maslahaty] sessions and in solving issues quickly and adopting constitutional laws," Nuberdieva said.

A desire for opacity was among the reasons that the late President Niyazov transfered the powers of the Mejlis to the Halk Maslahaty in August 2003. An alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002 was followed by a sweeping crackdown in which very few people were above suspicion.

Niyazov and his administration regarded the Mejlis with suspicion because the constitution gave it the power to confirm a new president if a sitting president died or was otherwise unable to perform his duties.

All 65 members of the Mejlis were, and still are, members of the Halk Maslahaty as well.

Political Cover

With virtually all political power in Turkmenistan held by the president, the role of the legislature is largely confined to formal approval of the president's proposed laws.

The Halk Maslahaty demonstrated its loyalty to the president when it decided to make Niyazov the head of state for life (and presented him with a white robe and a palm staff, the symbols of the Prophet Muhammad) in December 1999.

The Halk Maslahaty consistently opposed Niyazov's dubious "suggestions" over the years to hold new presidential elections, however. At a memorable session in August 2002, the Halk Maslahaty approved renaming the days of the week and the months of the year based on Niyazov's relatives, books he wrote, and even the name "Turkmenbashi," or "head of the Turkmen," Niyazov's preferred title. (The Turkmen government recently decreed that the traditional, pre-Niyazov names of the days and months would be used again from July 1.)

Parliament speaker Nurberdieva suggested that the Halk Maslahaty would be abolished and reorganized into an "Elders Council of Turkmenistan."

President Berdymukhammedov then introduced Baba Zahyrov, the head of the State and Law Institute, who proposed devolving many of the Halk Maslahaty's powers to the president.

There was also a proposal -- by Shirin Akhmedova, the head of the Turkmen National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights under the presidency -- that the new parliament have nearly double the current number of 65 seats.

"In connection with proposals on changing the Halk Maslahaty and the institution of people's representatives and with the aim of increasing the people's representation in the high legislative body of the country," Akhmedova said, "proposals have been made to increase the number of deputies in the Mejlis to 125."

After taking over in a rapid transition following Niyazov's death of heart failure, Berdymukhammedov was elected to a five-year term in February 2007. The election marked the first presidential election in Turkmenistan since 1992, when Niyazov ran unopposed and the official tally showed him receiving 99.5 percent of the vote in a poll in which 99.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Turkmenistan is one of the last Central Asian states with a five-year presidential term.

But Nurberdiyeva proposed that Turkmenistan follow Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan's example and expand that period to seven years. Nurberdieva described it as an effort "proceeding from the goals of creating guaranteed opportunities in terms of time for the president of Turkmenistan to implement fundamental long-term programs."

"These proposals are inseparably linked with the wide public support to fundamental, long-term programs of the leader of the nation aimed at serving the interests of the people," Nurberdieva said.

Tough Act To Follow

Niyazov was a Soviet-era holdover who governed with a tight fist and clamped down mercilessly on public dissent.

It is tempting to view an extension of the presidential term as a step backward. But in fact, Turkmenistan has had just two presidential elections since independence in 1991. Berdymukhammedov's election 16 months ago to a five-year term represented the country's first presidential balloting since 1992.

Western officials, analysts, and activists have argued in the past that virtually any talk of elections in Turkmenistan should be taken as a positive sign.

The Turkmen National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights' Akhmedova said many sources are being considered in the constitutional committee's drafting of the new document.

"The norms of UN conventions, to which Turkmenistan is a signatory, OSCE documents, existing law-making and law-enforcement practices and the constitution-building experience of the CIS countries and other states have been studied and taken into consideration while preparing proposals on making amendments and changes to Turkmenistan's Constitution," Akhmedova said.

Such comments might bring hope to groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

It might also bring smiles in the European Union, since Europe is eager to receive Turkmen natural gas but reluctant to embrace a Turkmen government that has long had a reputation as a severe human rights violator.

Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report