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Turkmenistan: Opposition Leader Says Time Ripe For Democratic Change, Analysts Doubtful

A former senior Turkmen official is making the rounds in Washington to drum up support for his cause: to bring democracy to one of the world's most repressive societies. But analysts are skeptical he can achieve his goals, and wonder about the efficacy of his tactics.

Washington, 2 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A leading opposition figure from Turkmenistan is in Washington this week seeking support for what he calls a surefire strategy to oust Saparmurat Niyazov, Central Asia's most dictatorial ruler: Just ask him to leave.

Boris Shikhmuradov, who stepped down as Ashgabat's ambassador to China late last year after serving as foreign minister from 1993 to 2000, told a group of journalists and policy-makers in Washington yesterday that the time is ripe in Turkmenistan for a peaceful transition to democracy.

"Today, people are ready to forget their fear and publicly declare their opposition to Niyazov. The political elite and the opposition are ready to sacrifice themselves for the cause."

But Shikhmuradov's comments baffle analysts, who question the readiness of Turkmen society -- or of other, "less repressive" Central Asian countries -- for the kind of democratic tumult that shook Eastern Europe from its communist chains in the late 1980s. And analysts wonder whether a democratic upheaval in Turkmenistan would be peaceful or spill into violence, including a possible military coup d'etat.

They say that even extreme authoritarian countries like Belarus under Alyaksandr Lukashenka or Serbia under former President Slobodan Milosevic have had much more developed civil societies and political participation than Turkmenistan, where Niyazov has developed a cult of his own personality and declared himself president for life.

This week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the Turkmen government's restrictions on freedom of expression the worst in any of the OSCE's 55 member nations of Europe, North America, and Central Asia.

But that doesn't appear to faze Shikhmuradov, who like many in Ashgabat's small opposition, lives in exile. He heads the Provisional Executive Committee of the National Democratic Movement, an opposition group that includes several former top Turkmen officials and diplomats.

He is also said to be close to some in the Russian government -- a fact he denied when asked about it at another Washington forum earlier this week, though he admits he is friends with some Russian officials with whom he attended university.

Shikhmuradov says he and other exiled Turkmen opposition leaders have good contacts with their allies at home, even if communication is difficult. He says they also have potentially significant support from the people: "What is needed is a massive protest action against Niyazov. And in order to begin this process, a brave political step is needed."

Shikhmuradov insists his recipe for change involves no violence. He says it simply entails a visit to Niyazov's office: "It's very simple. We go home. We go to Niyazov with the people's support, and we tell him to leave his post."

The former foreign minister adds that opposition leaders could then assist Niyazov in leaving the country -- or, if he wants to stay and play by new rules -- in running for office in democratic elections.

But analysts are skeptical of such ideas. Fiona Hill is a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Hill says it appears that opposition to Niyazov in Turkmenistan is rising but admits it's hard to tell whether activism can actually replace apathy in Ashgabat.

"The big question, however, is what levers do they [the opposition] have at their disposal? And you know, do we really have an accurate read of what the political mood is in Turkmenistan? We really don't have enough information. But it will be really difficult to change the situation in Turkmenistan."

Abdumannob Polat is closer to the problem. A Central Asia analyst for the Union of Councils, a Washington think tank, Polat is a former Uzbek opposition leader. In 1996, he returned home to press for change -- much as Shikhmuradov wants to do -- but without success. Polat had this to say about Shikhmuradov's plan: "Let's advocate for democracy. Let's try to bring more openness to these countries. But I don't expect such naive schemes to be realized anytime soon."

Polat worries that Shikhmuradov's expectations -- at least his public ones -- are exaggerated and could end up having a negative effect on political developments. He also worries about the real possibility for peaceful change in Turkmenistan and Central Asia -- a region without any democratic traditions.

"If you look at the transition to more open, to more liberal, to more democratic political systems, we can see different scenarios. Even in much more modern countries, with more liberal environments like in Eastern Europe, it was not a smooth process."

Polat says not all the Eastern European revolts of the late 1980s were as peaceful as in Poland or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, both countries with strong dissident movements and democratic histories. And those countries that did experience violence -- such as Romania or, later, Yugoslavia -- still had stronger traditions of civil society than any place in Central Asia.

"I don't expect in Central Asian countries -- in such closed countries with very poor structures of civil society and openness like Turkmenistan -- I don't expect a Velvet Revolution."

Shikhmuradov, however, insists he is not advocating any kind of violence or military coup. He says simply that the people of Turkmenistan are suffering greatly, that they are earning no more than $10 a month -- and that they need and are ready for democratic change.

He won't say when he and other exiled opposition leaders will return to Ashgabat and ask Niyazov to leave power, but adds, "The situation has reached a point where this process can begin."