Prague, 7 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In January the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) set up an office in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, with the stated aim of helping to promote democratization and human rights in the country.
The task seems daunting. Turkmenistan has consistently received low marks from human rights organizations and journalist's protection groups. There are no registered opposition parties, only President Saparmurat Niyazov's Democratic Party. Television is censored and foreign journals and newspapers are confiscated upon entering the country.
There is no prime minister -- Niyazov heads the government. He appoints all officials at all levels and provides a list of who will run in elections. The last elections to parliament, for example, featured only candidates submitted by Niyazov. In the parliamentary elections 51 candidates ran for 50 seats.
But the next elections to parliament are this December and Niyazov has promised to give up some of his powers as president and give them to the new parliament. He repeated this promise last Friday at a session of parliament and said some words about improving human rights with the help of the OSCE.
"We should work more closely with the [OSCE]. We have signed more than 30 international treaties, among them several with the OSCE concerning human rights. We will fully implement them. We will pursue all ways of democracy. The people of Turkmenistan are free to do whatever they want. They are also free to criticize the leadership."
The Human Rights Officer at the OSCE office in Ashgabat, Pyotr Iwaszkiawiscz, told RFE/RL this week that a memorandum of understanding between the OSCE's Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Turkmen government has not yet been signed, but is expected to be when the ODIHR sends a delegation to Turkmenistan in June. But Iwaszkiawiscz said the lack of a signed memorandum has not hindered the realization of OSCE work in Turkmenistan.
Since the OSCE office's opening in January, its head, Paul Ullman, has already visited all five of Turkmenistans Velayats or districts. Some citizens of Turkmenistan have already accepted the invitation to come to the OSCE office and discuss matters related to human rights or elections. Iwaszkiawiscz said they have received complaints about human rights violations and plan to soon visit areas in the Mary and Balkan districts to investigate these complaints. The OSCE also plans to hold seminars on human rights and on elections.
At the April 30 session of the Turkmen parliament Niyazov said that while the people of Turkmenistan are free to criticize the government, there are limits to how far criticism should go.
"One should not insult the value or honor of another. Our people dislike those who throw mud at us, or seek our shortcomings. Our people judge [others] on the basis of values, that means, clean work, ....., simplicity and human kindness. What comes beyond this can not fall under democracy."
Pyotr Iwaszkiawiscz and others at the OSCE office in Ashgabat express cautious optimism about Turkmenistan and about the elections in December. It remains to be seen whether what is still a very early dialogue between the Turkmen president and the OSCE on democracy and human rights will lead to a common view, or to frustrated hopes.
The conduct of the December elections are likely to offer clarification.
(Guanch Gueraev and Naz Nazar contributed to this article)