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Turkmenistan: Niyazov Named President For Life

Turkmenistan's National Forum yesterday adopted a measure making Saparmurat Niyazov the country's president for life. Despite earlier stating his objections to the idea, Niyazov yesterday had reversed himself in response to what he termed the people's will. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that whether real or scripted, this week's developments will likely be seen as another setback to any hopes of building democracy in the country.

Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In Turkmenistan, yesterday marked the last day of a three-day National Forum, or Halk Maslahaty. The forum assembles every year but never has it addressed a more serious topic than this year.

Attending the gathering in Ashgabat's newly built Palace of the Congress were some 2,700 people, including cabinet ministers, deputies of the newly elected parliament, regional and local officials and the council of elders. The single event that dominated the gathering was the move, confirmed yesterday, to make current President Saparmurat Niyazov president for life.

The call to do so was made by the country's Foreign Minister, Boris Sheikmuradov, in an address to the forum on Tuesday:

"[Niyazov] is the first president, the first president has special authority. And we the Maslahat, in accordance with the constitution of Turkmenistan, have the right to seek a constitutional law. If the Maslahat agrees then the constitutional law should be such that the first president, elected by all the people of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, Saparmurat Turkmenbashi, be given exclusive right to be leader of the state without term limits."

Sheikmuradov's suggestion was one which had been making its way through the Turkmen media for several months. Many expected one of two proposals to be accepted during the National Forum. Either Niyazov, known as "Turkmenbashi", or leader of the Turkmen, would be made president for life or leader for life.

But modesty is a virtue according to the Koran and Niyazov exhibited just that on Monday at the forum's opening when he said he did n-o-t want to be made president for life. Niyazov said the presidential election scheduled for 2002 should go ahead as planned.

But, after calls of "Halk! Watan! Turkmenbashi! (The People, The Fatherland, Turkmenbashi) from inside the hall, an emotional Niyazov took the podium.

"I thank you very much. I am a little overwhelmed. Okay, we will form a commission. From every velayat (region) there will be five representatives. We will discuss this question with them. Dear friends, I would not say I am afraid of this task. Your desire is for me the law. But we have laws, we can not violate these laws. Respected friends, wait a moment. I want to say, honestly, that in Turkmenistan the people respect me so much I can not sleep. Respected people, I am so grateful to you, it is difficult for me to speak."

The gathering on Tuesday then easily approved an amendment to the constitution, striking the two-term limit for president.

As for the commission mentioned by Niyazov, it also acted quickly, paving the way for the forum to adopt yesterday a second constitutional amendment making the 59-year-old president head of state for life.

Yesterday's action follows elections to parliament earlier this month which were viewed as so flawed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that it refused to send any monitors. Only one political party took part in those elections, Niyazov's Democratic Party.

Officials from the OSCE were not available to provide reaction to yesterday's developments. But earlier this month they told RFE/RL they were concerned by suggestions Niyazov might be made president for life.

The OSCE's Elsa Fenet said the body would be concerned by any attempt to further enhance the powers of the president, which she said were already vast. In fact, western human rights groups and governments regularly describe Niyazov as a leader from the old Soviet, even Stalinist, mold.

In addition to winning his post for life, Niyazov made many promises at the forum. They included promises to double the minimum wage and to continue to provide free gas, water and electricity.

But in Turkmenistan, the reality is that wages are not always paid on time. Further, in real market terms even with the announced increase in the minimum wage, it will be set at the equivalent of some $30 per month. And while electricity, gas and water are free, for all but a few they are rationed.

All the same, after yesterday, Saparmurat Niyazov seems destined to remain leader of Turkmenistan until the day he dies.

(Gouanch Gueraev and Ayna Khallyeva of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)