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Turkmenistan: People's Council Assumes Duties Of Parliament

Turkmenistan's parliament appears to have lost some of its authority after the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) last week was given the duties of parliament. It's not clear what the Turkmen parliament will do now or why the change was made in the first place. One possible explanation could be that the country's president does not trust parliament. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 20 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts and specialists in Central Asia, and even a casual observer, could tell you Turkmenistan's parliament has proven to be a rubber-stamping body, continually and unanimously supporting President Saparmurat Niyazov's position on everything.

Last week, the 50-member Turkmen parliament lost even its rubber stamp. At the annual session of the 2,507-member Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) the Halk Maslahaty became the country's highest legislative body, displacing parliament. It's now unclear what duties parliament will perform.

Traditionally, the Halk Maslahaty meets once a year, usually to confirm the decisions of parliament, which themselves are usually initiated by Niyazov. Some Halk Maslahaty members are elected, some are appointed, and some are chosen because of their region, ethnic group, or clan.

The Halk Maslahaty's most memorable decision to date came in 1999 when it confirmed parliament's proposal making Niyazov "president for life."

Niyazov himself called for the vote that removed power from parliament and gave it to the Halk Maslahaty. "Every year, at least once, there should be a forum of the Halk Maslahaty for [formally] accepting new laws and proposals of the Halk Maslahaty for all of Turkmenistan and for their fulfillment," Niyazov said. "The make-up of the Halk Maslahaty consists of 2,507 members. We will confirm these new powers through a vote. Against? No one. Abstaining? No one. Then it is accepted."

Similar moves to curtail the powers of parliament in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the early and mid-1990s met with strong opposition. This appears unlikely in Turkmenistan.

Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, based in Budapest, said the change in the Halk Maslahaty's status is to some degree an expression of Niyazov's gratitude for the body's compliance following the reported assassination attack last year.

"This is certainly a reward for the Halk Maslahaty for its loyalty, which it showed during the crisis in November and December, as you'll remember. It was cooperative with President Niyazov in two particular points -- one was passing the law on terrorism, which was immediately implemented in the aftermath of the attack, and the other is that it cooperated in changing the maximum sentence for people convicted of this particular coup attempt, or alleged coup attempt, from a prison sentence of maximum 25 years to life sentences," Dailey told RFE/RL.

Niyazov also called for the creation of smaller, local versions of the Halk Maslahaty. "A Halk Maslahaty should be created in the willayats [provinces] and districts," he said. "If a threat arises to the country, God forbid, bad times come to us, in order to save ourselves from ruin quickly and take the needed steps, the [local] Halk Maslahaty must quickly assemble and then muster the national Halk Maslahaty."

Niyazov's description suggests that local versions of the Halk Maslahaty will be doing some of the work the National Security and Interior ministries usually perform. Dailey said these local councils will provide an added layer of security, for a government that many would say is obsessed with internal security.

"I think [the local Halk Maslahatys] could be interpreted as another layer of control over the population," Dailey said. "Certainly the Ministry of National Security is in place throughout the country and is the primary control over the population. But this additional layer, which is technically legislative and executive, is ominous particularly because the body is traditionally loyal to the president." She said now, it formally "answers to a special commission, an administrative commission, that is the direct link between this enormous member body and the president himself."

It's not clear what effect the changes will have. In the short term, they could complicate passing legislation, as the Halk Maslahaty is an unwieldy body. But any impact is likely to be small since all important decisions are made only with Niyazov's approval.

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