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Turkmenistan: Rejoining The Central Asian Fold?

(RFE/RL) February 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Under President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan was an extraordinary place -- one of the most repressive nations on earth ruled by one of the maddest hatters ever to occupy a presidential palace. But since Niyazov's sudden death on December 21, nothing out of the ordinary has transpired.

Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became acting president, hinted at reforms, ran against five window-dressing opponents in a February 11 presidential election, and won nearly 90 percent of the vote. By Central Asian standards, it hardly merits a shrug.

The events that preceded Berdymukhammedov's inauguration as Turkmenistan's new president today might have been humdrum by regional standards, but because they took place in a country on which Niyazov impressed what for now seems to be an indelible stamp, they have left opposition figures, international organizations, and even other countries off balance. The new president's ascent might suggest that Turkmenistan is rejoining the Central Asian fold, but no one seems quite ready to believe it.

For better or worse, Turkmenistan's relevance to the outside world is almost exclusively a function of its large reserves of natural gas.

During his lifetime, Niyazov brooked no dissent in his realm. The political opposition that existed had existed beyond Turkmenistan's borders. When Niyazov died, a number of expatriate opposition leaders vowed bravely to return. But Niyazov's security services proved longer-lived than their master, and no one from the opposition abroad was able to reenter the country and take part in the presidential election.

An Odd Mix

When the election took place on February 11, opposition statements offered an odd mix of condemnation and conciliation. Avdy Kuliev, head of the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan, told RIA Novosti by telephone from Norway on February 11 that his group "consider[s] the election being held in Turkmenistan illegal and undemocratic" and "cannot recognize it." Opposition leader Nurmukhammet Khanamov, speaking to RIA Novosti from Vienna, said that "we do not recognize the results of the presidential election." But he added that the opposition must "begin talks with the authorities" -- or noted that "at least [it is] planning to do so." Bairam Shikhmuradov, the son of imprisoned former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, said "we will have to work under the new president," adding that their "chief goal is to become involved in the political process in one way or another," Interfax in Moscow reported on February 11.

The late Saparmurat Niyazov

International organizations also offered a range of views. Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a hard-hitting statement on February 8 warning that "a new dictatorship will be consolidated in Turkmenistan by the pro forma presidential election on February 11 unless strong international voices insist on real human rights reform." And the International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report on February 12 urging the international community "to make it clear that serious trade and aid relationships and an end to Turkmenistan's isolation require its new leaders to take the first steps to reverse Niyazov's most egregious socioeconomic policies and improve human rights."

On the other hand, Erika Dailey, who heads the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute, told that "the acting president's reformist rhetoric has captured the imagination of the international community and sown seeds of hope that genuine reform will follow." But Dailey was careful to note that "Niyazov was also a rhetorical reformer," adding, "only time will tell whether the promised reforms will materialize."

'Ready To Help'

The OSCE sent an Election Support Team, but not an observation mission, for the presidential election at the invitation of the Turkmen authorities. OSCE Chairman in Office and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said he hopes for increased dialogue between the OSCE and Turkmenistan, according to an OSCE press release dated February 12. He said his organization was "ready to help in all areas where the OSCE is active, whether in the political-military dimension, environmental and economic matters, or human rights." He added that "the OSCE field center in Ashgabat should play a useful role."

Yet two members of a delegation from the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly to Turkmenistan made exceedingly blunt comments about the election itself. Jesus Lopez-Medel told Spain's "ABC" newspaper that the election was a "farce," the Turkmen opposition website "Gundogar" reported on February 12. Lopez-Medel condemned the Turkmen presidential election as having been "more like a play than an election, a farce instead of the citizens' real participation in the electoral process." He added that "everything was decided in advance, and the voting was just for appearances." Another delegation member, Joao Soares, said the balloting "may hardly be called elections" and was "absolutely not free and fair."

Quiet Capitals

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov (left), Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center), and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Ashgabat today (epa)

Government reactions to Niyazov's passing and the coming of a new leadership have been restrained. For better or worse, Turkmenistan's relevance to the outside world is almost exclusively a function of its large reserves of natural gas.

Russia controls almost all the export routes for Turkmen gas, currently purchases the bulk of the stuff, and has not made reform of any kind a part of its agenda in Central Asia. Moscow thus has no reason to rock the boat and has had little to say. Western states -- which fear upheaval in a key link in the chain of gas suppliers to Europe, abhorred Niyazov's megalomaniacal rule, and yet yearn to see Turkmenistan diversify its gas export routes -- also have not come forward with strong reform demands or bold cooperation initiatives.

Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan drifted away from the outside world into a realm of its own. Yet despite the past month's halting signs of a return to the Central Asian mainstream, outsiders remain reluctant to draw conclusions. Opposition leaders level broadsides with the hope of dialogue. International organizations look for light at the end of the tunnel. And other countries weigh their words and wait.

The election of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov might be the first step on Turkmenistan's journey back into the Central Asian fold, with all the good and bad that trip entails.

But for now, Niyazov's legacy lives on, and Turkmenistan remains a country at a remove from its neighbors and the world.

Human Rights In Turkmenistan

Human Rights In Turkmenistan
Tajigul Begmedova speaking at RFE/RL in Prague on July 21 (RFE/RL)

LIFE UNDER NIYAZOV: On July 21, RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center hosted a presentation by TAJIGUL BEGMEDOVA, chairwoman of the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (THF). Begmedova discussed the human rights situation in Turkmenistan under President Saparmural Niyazov, focusing on the arrests in June of THF activists and RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova. Begmedova, who graduated from the Institute of Economy in Moscow in 1987, fled Turkmenistan in 2002 and lives in exile in Sofia.


Listen to the complete presentation (36 minutes; presentation in Russian with consecutive translation into English):
Real Audio Windows Media

Some RFE/RL Coverage Of Human Rights In Turkmenistan:

Media Coverage Of Leader Distracts From Real Problems

Authorities Cast Wide Net In Conspiracy Allegations

Embattled Turkmen Writer Honored Abroad

RFE/RL Correspondent Recounts Arrest


RFE/RL coverage of Turkmenistan.

THE COMPLETE STORY: Click on the icon to view a dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.