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Turkmenistan: Elections Will Not Provide Real Choice

As Turkmenistan prepares to elect a new parliament next month, there are an average of two candidates for each seat. That may seem a great step forward from the last election, in which almost every candidate was unopposed. But RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports the elections still do not promise to be a true democratic exercise.

Prague, 23 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- December's parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan will be different from any election so far since the country became independent in 1991 -- they will be contested.

The country's only presidential election, in 1992, had only one candidate -- Saparmurat Niyazov -- who remains president. And the parliamentary elections in 1994 had 51 candidates competing for 50 seats. This time, however, there are 103 candidates running as independents for the 50 places in parliament.

Still, the race does not seem to mark much of a step forward in democratization. The head of Turkmenistan's Central Elections Commission, Murad Karyyev, recently admitted that all candidates are members of Niyazov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. All serve the state in some official capacity.

Niyazov said recently that Turkmenistan would not make a show of having multiple parties just to conform to other countries' standards:

"We have an absence of political parties, an absence of political discussions, but that is not because our people do not occupy themselves with politics. But the process should be natural. It should not be artificially aroused to show so-called pluralism. We are not following anyone's lead, we stand on our feet."

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service spoke with opposition leaders and officials with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to get their impressions of the upcoming elections.

Avdy Kuliev was once the foreign minister of Turkmenistan. He has been in self-imposed exile for several years, attempting to coordinate an opposition to the Turkmen government from Moscow. Responding to Niyazov's declaration that any citizen of Turkmenistan can run for a seat, Kuliev announced his intention to run in the December elections. But as he told RFE/RL recently, he has made no progress in registering as a candidate.

"In July of this year I sent a letter to the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Russia, saying that I want to participate in the elections and I want to go to Turkmenistan. I still haven't received an answer to this letter. On September 14 this year, I called the Turkmen ambassador to Russia, Nuri Orazmuhammedov. I told him about my wish to go to Turkmenistan. He asked me when I wanted to go, and I said in September. He told me he would speak with Ashgabat and then would let me know, but I still have not received any news."

The Turkmen government can deny Kuliev entry into the country, as Kuliev has Russian citizenship. Although dual citizenship is legal, he is no longer considered a citizen by the Turkmen government.

Yovshan Annagurbanov is a Turkmen journalist living in self-imposed exile since last year. Annagurbanov covered both of Turkmenistan's previous elections, and says the lack of choice contributes to widespread apathy, even hostility, toward voting.

"In the Soviet era, the nation did not have any possibility to decide on a person [because the candidate] was already named from above. This mentality is preserved and has even increased, so much that the people do not even want to think about elections. For this reason, voters do not participate in elections and referenda and do not go to [the polls], so that organizers are forced to go round to homes with ballot boxes. All the same, people try not to vote and send them away. Election organizers force people to vote in groups. Because of this, the old [Soviet] mentality still exists."

Annagurbanov's portrayal of Turkmenistan's elections is a very different picture from that given out by the government. Turkmen officials report voter turnout for Turkmen elections at 99 percent.

The OSCE has indicated it will probably not monitor the elections to parliament, though a final decision will be announced in the coming days. Niyazov has made it clear that all who wish are welcome to come observe the elections, but no one will be specifically invited. The OSCE needs an invitation, however, before it can even consider sending an observer mission.

Hrair Balyan from the OSCE says that the organization is concerned about the elections and recently sent a team to review preparations.

"From what we have seen -- even before the needs-assessment mission -- we are extremely concerned with the framework under which these elections will take place."

Few people seem to expect much from the December 12 elections. Niyazov said just this month that there will not even be an alternative political party in the country any time soon. But for the first time, the people of Turkmenistan will have a choice, even if it is between one handpicked ruling-party-backed candidate and another.

(Zarif Nazar, Rozinazar Khudaiberdiyev, Khoudaiberdy Khallyev and Ayna Khallyeva of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)