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Turkmenistan: President Calls Early Parliamentary Elections

Turkmenistan is holding parliamentary elections on 6 April, nearly two years ahead of schedule. The call for early elections came as a surprise, as the Turkmen parliament is widely viewed as a legislature with no real power beyond rubber-stamping the decisions of President Saparmurat Niyazov. With such a compliant parliament, what is the necessity of early elections?

Prague, 9 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The state-owned Turkmen daily "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" made the announcement last week in a small article: In just over 30 words, the newspaper announced that elections to the country's 50-seat parliament will be held on 6 April. Elections had been scheduled for December 2004.

Daphne Ter-Sakarian is an analyst for Russia and Central Asia at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. She links the early elections to the alleged assassination attempt in November against President Saparmurat Niyazov. She said Niyazov may now be looking to consolidate his position. "Now with the situation that we have in Turkmenistan, where there's repeated purges and this bizarre assassination attempt, it seems to me that behind the scenes maybe there's a reallocation of positions and posts as Niyazov shuffles the cards to strengthen his position. So maybe he's decided that he needs a more thorough redistribution than we have seen thus far," Ter-Sakarian said.

Turkmen authorities followed the alleged assassination attempt with a harsh crackdown. Human rights groups claim that more than 100 people have been arrested in connection with the attack, including citizens of other countries, as well as former Turkmen government officials and businessmen.

The most significant arrest was of former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov. Shikhmuradov surrendered to authorities in Turkmenistan, claiming in a public statement released just before he handed himself in that he was doing so because "arrested people have been tortured, beaten up, and subjected to psychological pressure in the cruelest way to receive any information about my whereabouts."

He later confessed on state television to masterminding a coup attempt against Niyazov and was sentenced to life in prison.

Shikhmuradov still occupied his post as foreign minister when the current Turkmen parliament was elected. As a veteran of the Turkmen government for nearly a decade, Shikhmuradov would likely know all of the sitting deputies and could perhaps count many among them as friends or acquaintances.

Analysts say Niyazov could feel threatened by these relationships and is calling early elections in an effort to purge disloyal deputies.

Alexander Zaslavsky is the director of consulting at the New York-based Eurasia Group, a research and consulting group specializing in emerging markets. He said the situation in Turkmenistan prior to the 25 November attack against Niyazov was "fluid" and that many Turkmen opposition figures in exile were meeting and traveling, including trips inside Turkmenistan itself.

Zaslavsky said it would not be surprising if some of these opposition figures had made contact with individuals in Turkmenistan, including sympathizers in the government itself. "I would not be surprised if there were quite a few opposition sympathizers in the parliament currently or among the population," Zaslavsky said.

Though many Turkmen government officials have been charged with crimes and jailed in the past, it is rare that they are charged while serving in office. The usual scenario is that officials are fired for shortcomings in their work, and sometime later criminal charges surface.

While it is unclear who, if anyone, Niyazov may suspect, analysts say the number of deputies under suspicion could be enough to avoid simply sacking them en masse. Such large-scale dismissals would not go unnoticed, and explaining such firings by admitting they were part of a conspiracy would be politically embarrassing and potentially dangerous, since any hint that anti-Niyazov feelings had widespread support in the government could encourage others.

However, Zaslavsky said the reason for holding early parliamentary elections could simply be as a symbolic show of support for the Turkmen president. "President Niyazov is clearly seeking to legitimize his position further, as if it was particularly necessary, in the aftermath of the alleged assassination attempt. I think the logic is in establishing yet another popular show of mass support for the president, and undoubtedly the turnout will be enormous," Zaslavsky said.

Ter-Sakarian of the Economist Intelligence Unit said the early elections could be a warning to some that Niyazov is unsatisfied with their level of loyalty or are an attempt to placate groups whose support Niyazov feels he needs at this time. "Perhaps this sends a signal that he's serious about a thorough reshuffle. It's maybe a signal of his [Niyazov's] discontent with how things are going. It could be also a signal to factions that are discontented. Maybe they want broader access and this is, in fact, a concession. It could be either of those things," Ter-Sakarian said.

According to Turkmenistan's law on elections, it is "forbidden to directly or indirectly interfere with the election rights of Turkmenistan's citizens due to nationality, place of origin, gender, language, education, religion, political convictions, or party affiliation."

However, Niyazov instituted a rule a few years ago that anyone serving in the Turkmen government must have his family history checked back three generations, which would exclude anyone who is not from a Turkmen family whose background is acceptable to the Turkmen government. The only religions tolerated in Turkmenistan are moderate Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy. The only officially registered political party is the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, headed by Niyazov.

All this leads analysts to believe the new members of the Turkmen parliament will be as compliant as their predecessors and possessed of a loyalty toward Niyazov that would suffer no rival.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)