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Qishloq Ovozi

Sunday 26 February 2017

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Turkmenistan, A Country For Old Men

  • Bruce Pannier
Members of Turkmenistan's Council of Elders attend a meeting in Ashgabat in September 2016.

Members of Turkmenistan's Council of Elders attend a meeting in Ashgabat in September 2016.

Turkmenistan's rubberstamp parliament is about to lose its rubber stamp, again.

Turkmenistan's rubberstamp parliament is about to lose its rubber stamp, again.

In his inauguration address on February 17, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said he would raise the status of the country's Council of Elders above that of parliament.

That means this group of "white beards," as they would be termed locally, all of them over 70 years old, are about to officially become the legislative branch of government.

This is the second time Turkmenistan's parliament has been demoted.

There was a body called the People's Assembly (Halk Maslahaty) that, like the Council of Elders, had existed since the early days of Turkmenistan's independence in late 1991. Under Turkmenistan's first post-independence president, Saparmurat Niyazov, the People's Assembly was a group that composed a cross-section of Turkmenistan's society -- state officials and employees, businessmen, famers, social organizations, and others.

The assembly proposed changes, ostensibly on behalf of the groups and people it represented: ideas like making Niyazov president for life, which it started proposing in 1995 and eventually achieved on December 28, 1999, when the People's Assembly finally "convinced" Niyazov that he should bow to the will of people and stay in power for the rest of his life.

'Assassination Attempt'

In the wake of a reported assassination attempt on Niyazov in late November 2002, Niyazov turned to the People's Assembly, not parliament, to act.

Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who had declared himself in opposition to Niyazov's government in November 2001 while serving as Turkmenistan's ambassador to China, was apprehended inside Turkmenistan shortly after the purported assassination attempt. He was identified as the alleged leader of the plot.

On December 30, 2002, Niyazov showed the People's Assembly a video of what some outside Turkmenistan believe was a coerced confession in which Shikhmuradov said, "I really wanted to kill the Turkmen president and undermine the constitutional system."

Former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died suddenly in 2006.

Former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died suddenly in 2006.

Not long after that, Niyazov asked the assembly to define "high treason" and punishments for such an offense (in the end, the assembly chose life imprisonment). At the end of an August 14-15, 2003, session of the People's Assembly in Turkmenbashi City, the assembly was named the country's highest legislative body and its membership -- which had ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 over the years -- was set at 2,507. Elections were conducted to fill those seats on April 6, 2003.

One of the new People's Assembly's first acts was to award Niyazov the "international" Makhtumkuly prize -- named in honor of Magtumguly Pyragy, a famous 18th-century Turkmen poet -- for his books Blessed Be The Turkmen People and Five Epochs Of The Spirituality Of The Turkmen People.

Hastily Approved Document

In its time, the People's Assembly not only made Niyazov president for life but, in its capacity as Turkmenistan's highest legislative body, it continually blocked half-hearted proposals, usually from Niyazov, to conduct a new presidential election.

The People's Assembly approved Niyazov's proposal to change the names of the days of the week and the months of the year. It also adopted regulations requiring state officials to have their ancestry checked back six generations to ensure they were suitable to serve in the government.

Current Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (file photo)

Current Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (file photo)

And, in late December 2006 after Niyazov's death, the People's Assembly hastily approved a document that stripped parliamentary speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev of his immunity so he could be arrested, clearing the way for Health Minister Berdymukhammedov to become acting president. At that same time, the People's Assembly voted to remove the constitutional prohibition against an acting president running for the presidency.

The People's Assembly was abolished when Berdymukhammedov introduced constitutional changes in September 2008, and its theoretical powers were redistributed to the parliament and the executive branch.

Filling The Void

The Council of Elders quickly filled the void, and it now appears to have followed the same path as the People's Assembly.

The council proposed the constitutional changes that were adopted in September, lifting the age limit (of 70) for a candidate to run for president and extending the presidential term from five to seven years. The council has also proposed ending state subsidies that gave the country's citizens allotments of electricity, gas, and water for free.

The Elders Council has also voted to give Berdymukhammedov awards, such as "Hero of Turkmenistan" in 2011 and called his rule "paradise on earth."

The council has not publicly floated the idea of naming Berdymukhammedov president for life, but such a proposal -- sometime in the future -- cannot be discounted.

Like so much of what happens in Turkmenistan, the reasons for subordinating parliament to the Council of Elders are unclear -- all the more, since Turkmenistan is going through difficult economic times and it is hard to see how a group of people who spent two-thirds of their lives in the Soviet Union can come up with a plan to extract Turkmenistan from its current crisis.

Members of the Council of Elders are selected, not elected. The qualifications for being on the council are a bit clearer. Qishloq Ovozi, working with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, heard from a former member of the council not so long ago, and his story is probably similar to many of the 600 elders (100 from each of the five provinces and 100 from the capital, Ashgabat).

Making the Council of Elders the highest legislative body in Turkmenistan is still only a proposal. But that proposal comes from President Berdymukhammedov, so the clock just might be ticking for parliament.

The director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Farruh Yusupov, contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Yurts in front of the Khazret Sultan mosque during the Norouz celebration in Astana.

Yurts in front of the Khazret Sultan mosque during the Norouz celebration in Astana.

Only when the rare crisis hits Central Asia does the area receive a lot of attention.

Central Asia’s image has often suffered from international media coverage. The region rarely figures in the reports of the big television networks and print media. Only when the rare crisis hits Central Asia does the area receive a lot of attention.

So, someone following international news might remember the violence in Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Andijon in 2005 when security forces opened fire on protesters, or the revolutions in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010, or that the region borders Afghanistan, or that it was once part of the Soviet Union.

Not the best publicity for Central Asia.

One thing no one seems to forget is that Central Asia is home to an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Articles and reports have appeared in recent months portraying Central Asia as a hotbed of unrest, a breeding ground for extremists, a region from which the Muslim population could potentially pour out into conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or maybe, even further away.

It is a characterization many of the journalists and scholars familiar with Central Asia -- people who have lived there -- reject.

There are some ill-founded assumptions making their way into reports and some information that is simply incorrect.

To discuss where these misconceptions come from and offer a different view, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to consider media and think-tank coverage of Central Asia.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.From the Massachusetts-based organization Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion (CEDAR) http://www.cedarnetwork.org/ David Montgomery, who is also author of the book Practicing Islam: Knowledge, Experience, and Social Navigation in Kyrgyzstan, joined the Majlis. Participating from New York was Edward Lemon, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University, member of the Harriman Institute, and author of in-depth studies focusing on Tajikistan’s citizens who have gone to fight in the Middle East. Also taking part, from Prague, was Noah Tucker, associate at the Central Asia Program at George Washington University, managing editor at the Registan website, and currently working with us at RFE/RL. I just had to be in on this also.

First, it is not the intention of this work to criticize anyone, any particular article, or any particular media outlet. I probably speak for many when I say I welcome any interest in Central Asia. I simply wish for an accurate picture.

The suggestion that somewhere in the five Central Asian countries there is a spark waiting to ignite the Muslim population into violence and extremism is not new, as Tucker noted. “If we go back far enough into the 1980s, people have had this same discussion about Central Asia over and over again,” he said.

Lemon recalled, “If we look at the Soviet period and the titles of books like The Islamic Threat to the Soviet State: Moscow’s Muslim Challenge, there was this assumption that if the Soviet Union was going to collapse it would come from the soft underbelly… from Central Asia.”

As part of the Soviet Union, most Muslims of Central Asia could not openly practice Islam. Not surprisingly, when the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, the Muslims of the now five independent states of Central Asia, who had been cut off from the greater Islamic world for some 75 years, reembraced the religion that had dominated the region since the 8th century.

In some reports, this seemingly sudden zeal to practice Islam, to construct new mosques, the desire of some to dress in clothing they consider Islamic, and other outward expressions of the faith are implicitly putting the people and the region on the course of extremism.

Montgomery explained, “In a lot of the reports there’s already this assumption that somehow Islam is, if it becomes too Islamic, too active in its practice, it’s somehow threatening.”

During the last approximately five years, a few thousand people from Central Asia, from a population of nearly 70 million, have gone to the Middle East, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. Citizens of Central Asia have carried out terrorist attacks that gained large international attention -- the attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport in 2014, the attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport in 2016, and allegedly the Istanbul New Year’s Eve nightclub attack.

Again, people are more likely to remember incidents such as these and draw their conclusions on Central Asia based on these attacks.

Research has already shown most of the young Central Asian men who have gone to join extremist groups in the Middle East or elsewhere, tend to have little knowledge of Islam. Indeed, their reasons often seem to have nothing to do with religion at all.

Tucker recounted a story of a young Uzbek man from Tajikistan who was in Donetsk, fighting on the side of pro-Russian separatists. “Most of the young men from his village had gone to fight in different theaters but most of them had gone to fight for ISIS,” Tucker said. “He didn’t have a foreign passport, so he wasn’t able to go to Syria but he could travel within the former Soviet Union. He was a young guy who just wanted to go out somewhere, make some money, have an adventure, and fight.”

And Lemon said often for those who go to join extremist groups in conflict zones, “It’s about masculine pride, it’s often about local connections… it’s not a matter of where they’re fighting or who they’re fighting, it’s just the process of fighting and seeking an adventure that appears to be most important for these individuals rather than any kind of religious commitment to jihad.”

Tucker’s research has shown that Central Asians can be found in the ranks of various groups in Syria and Iraq, sometimes fighting against each other.

“It’s not that we deny that these things are happening,” Montgomery said, but he continued that reading some recent reports on Central Asia could leave one with the impression “things are really bad and they’ll only get worse and probably the only thing that makes sense is Islam.”

This was a meaty topic and it led the discussion into the evolution of traditional and new manifestations of Islam in the region, how government polices toward religion and domestic security often reinforce general international perceptions of Central Asia as a volatile region, and other issues.

An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard at:

*NOTE: Qishloq Ovozi is assembling a list of organizations and individuals who can be contacted for information on Central Asia in the hope such a list can prove useful to journalists and others who have questions about Central Asia. It should be up on Qishloq Ovozi soon.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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