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Central Asia Report: August 22, 2003

22 August 2003, Volume 3, Number 28

REINVENTING TURKMEN GOVERNMENT. Turkmenistan's Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) met on 14-15 August in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi. A powerless body, allegedly embodying the vox populi and designed to give a spurious legitimacy to President Saparmurat Niyazov's decisions, it unanimously voted to make him a field marshal and to create an institute dedicated to studying his spiritual guidebook "Rukhnama." It also approved more substantive bills on combating terrorism, a socioeconomic development plan for the country until 2020, and various constitutional amendments including major changes in its own workings and status. Niyazov was clearly going to some trouble to reform its function in the system of government. The brainteaser for Central Asia watchers was why he would bother when all power in the country resides with him.

According to the 1992 constitution, the 2,507-strong body -- a combination of appointed and elected officials and tribal elders, including members of the cabinet, Mejlis (parliament), and judiciary, leaders of the clergy, party chiefs, labor union heads, delegates from public associations incorporated in the Galkynysh (Revival) movement, representatives of state enterprises, and provincial administrators -- is the country's highest organ of power. Last week it became Turkmenistan's top legislative body, displacing the 50-member parliament, when Niyazov told the council that henceforth it would decide the fate of Turkmenistan and solve issues of security and statehood. "Every year, at least once, there should be a forum of the Halk Maslahaty in order to accept and realize the new laws and proposals of the Halk Maslahaty for all Turkmenistan," the president suggested, and promptly called for a vote on the assembly's new powers. The motion passed unanimously (see "Turkmenistan: People's Council Assumes Duties of Parliament,", 20 August 2003).

The council has traditionally convened once a year, usually to confirm the decisions of parliament (initiated, as a rule, by the president himself). Now it is set to become a permanent body, with Niyazov as chairman. As first deputy chairman in charge of procedural matters he appointed Ovezgeldy Ataev, currently chairman of the Mejlis. As second deputy chairman in charge of records Niyazov appointed Rejep Saparov, head of the presidential administration. He also told the council that a permanent chairman's office would be established with various departments and a staff of 30-40 people. "The office will work with branches of the council in the etraps [districts] and welayats [regions]. We have to set up them, too," Niyazov said.

On 20 August, Turkmen state media published a new edition of the national constitution incorporating, among other things, the council's new status. The constitution, adopted in May 1992, has been amended only twice before, in 1995 and 1999. Described as the supreme permanent representative body of authority, the Halk Maslahaty now becomes in effect the fourth branch of government. It will continue to have 2,507 members. They will consist of the president, parliamentary deputies, the Supreme Court chairman, the prosecutor-general, the cabinet, the regional governors, the leaders of political parties, youth organizations, trade unions, the Women's Union and public organizations, elders, and the mayors of the regional and district centers. Not listed are the elected local representatives specified in the 1992 constitution, the only members of the assembly that were elected to serve in that capacity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 August 2003). The body's most indispensable members, Niyazov told the council, were the elders, for "they have lived through both good and bad days, and they can distinguish good things from bad thanks to their experiences." The revised constitution specifies that the council's chairperson must be over the age of 55, born in Turkmenistan, resident in the country for the past 10 years, fluent in the national language, employed in state government agencies, and already a member of the council.

What is behind this restructuring of Turkmen government? One theory is that Niyazov has divested parliament of its powers because he does not trust it. It is unclear what the Mejlis will do now. On 28 July, Niyazov gave the cabinet a preview of his plans to downgrade the parliament, saying that its role would be somewhat reduced "until the formation of statehood is brought to completion," which he predicted would happen by 2010, Interfax reported. Until that date, the parliament "will supervise the operation of local and regional bodies." But transferring its legislative authority to the People's Council is largely symbolic anyway since both institutions act solely as rubber-stamping bodies.

A second interpretation sees the change as a way for the regime to further tighten internal security. Niyazov's call for the creation of smaller, local versions of the People's Council in the etraps and welayats, which, he said, "will have a mandate to take effective measures on countering antistate activities," suggests that they will be doing some of the work performed by the National Security and Interior ministries. "If a threat arises to the country, God forbid, and bad times come to us, in order to save ourselves from ruin quickly and take the necessary steps, the [local] Halk Maslahaty must quickly assemble and then muster the national Halk Maslahaty," Niyazov said on 14 August.

It is significant that provisions for increasing the council's authority were incorporated in bills, drafted by the parliament in early August, that were aimed at combating terrorism and countering efforts to overthrow the regime. The bills were prompted by directives issued by the council itself on 30 December 2002, when it met in emergency session following the previous month's assassination attempt against Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 2 January 2002). Niyazov commented on the new antiterrorism legislation on 1 August. "If somebody acts to change the constitutional order by force, the Halk Maslahaty will meet and issue legislation to counter the intrigues of the conspirators," he said, as quoted by Interfax. Thus it appears that local branches of the People's Council are set to become a new nationwide network of commissars sniffing out treachery and subversion, reporting directly to a standing, national council that is newly empowered to take legislative action whenever necessary against perceived threats.

A third possibility is that Niyazov is plotting a scenario whereby he relinquishes the presidency yet retains power in another position. Although he was declared president for life in 1999 (the motion, proposed by the parliament, was confirmed by acclamation by the People's Council), Niyazov has floated the idea of stepping down on several occasions. He created a sensation in 2001 when he stated that a presidential election would be held in 2010, the year he turns 70. In 2002, he suggested an election might be held in 2008. On 14 August, he told the assembly that it should start thinking at its 2005 and 2006 sessions about a presidential election in 2006 or 2007. "We will change leaders and hold elections. If everything goes as planned we will hold presidential elections too.... There is nothing permanent on Earth, so let presidents be replaced, too Never should the fate of an entire nation depend on a single person," Niyazov said as quoted by On the same day, the parliament passed a law stipulating that Turkmenistan's president must be between 40 and 70 years old, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported. "A president will have to be newly elected, because the Turkmen Constitution sets the age limit for the head of state at 70 years," Niyazov (born 19 February 1940) noted.

Since there is nothing permanent in Turkmenistan, clearly the constitutional age limit could be altered to suit Niyazov at any time. The parliament, having just passed the aforementioned law, obviously saw no contradiction in proceeding to approve a bill titled, "On the election of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, president-for-life of neutral Turkmenistan, as chairman-for-life of the Halk Maslahaty." Voice of America reported on 15 August that observers no longer took seriously Niyazov's talk of resignation, which they regarded as mere verbal theater to appease critics abroad. On the other hand, last week for the first time he went as far as naming possible candidates to replace him, reported. Ahal Welayat Governor Enebay Ataeva, Balkan Welayat Governor Kakageldy Kurbyshov, or Dashoguz Welayat Governor Ishankuly Gulmuradov would all make good choices, Niyazov allegedly told the People's Council: "I hope that these young leaders will become presidents in the future, if the continue to work as well as they work now."

On 22 August the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" pointed out that if Niyazov was thinking of relinquishing the post of president, then making the Halk Maslahaty a permanent body, investing it with legislative and executive authority, and placing himself at its head was a pretty good scheme for ensuring that power remained in his hands. "As for the new president, that can be an easily controlled figurehead with no real power. Meanwhile, even who exactly is worthy of this wholly ceremonial role will be determined by Turkmenbashi himself," the paper speculated.

Undiminished control, international kudos for keeping his promise to step down, and -- instead of cabinet meetings involving a couple dozen listeners -- a permanent captive audience of 2,507: it might just be the kind of plan to appeal to the ever-unpredictable Niyazov.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT OUTLAWS DUAL CITIZENSHIP. Revisions to the Turkmen Constitution, published on 20 August, also contained an unpleasant surprise for the country's Russian residents. According to Article 7 of the new version, citizens are forbidden to hold the citizenship of any other country. The constitution's previous version authorized dual citizenship. The amendment means that, from Ashgabat's point of view, holders of dual Russian-Turkmen citizenship are breaking the law if they retain both passports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 August 2003). The Russian Embassy in Ashgabat has registered 95,000 such dual citizens, RIA-Novosti noted on 20 August.

The Russian State Duma has still not yet ratified the protocol signed in April by Niyazov and Russian President Vladimir Putin revoking dual citizenship. A second round of bilateral talks is scheduled for September in Moscow to address the problems triggered by Turkmenistan's sudden unilateral decision to force resident Russians to stay or go. The first round took place in Ashgabat in June (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 26 June 2003). Niyazov's determination to go ahead and strike dual citizenship out of the Turkmen Constitution without waiting for the September negotiations would seem to give the lie to reassurances from Russian officials that the two sides were bridging their differences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 July 2003). The same goes for Niyazov's frequent promises, repeated last week to the Halk Maslahaty, that Russians' rights would be fully respected in Turkmenistan.

FREE SALT ON EVERY TABLE, A GIN IN EVERY DISTRICT. At last week's Halk Maslahaty session, Niyazov also briefly reviewed Turkmenistan's relations with its neighbors and described his program for the country's socioeconomic development up to 2020.

The president signaled Iran's importance by mentioning it first. (Iran is probably Turkmenistan's closest ally on the world stage after Belarus. Interfax noted on 21 August that Belarus does a roaring trade in wristwatches with Niyazov's portrait on the dial. The Vitebsk instrument factory manufactures and exports 60,000 such timepieces to Turkmenistan annually, the news agency said.) "We thank the Iranian people; we have good relations with them," Niyazov commented. He said the same about Afghanistan, and registered "no disagreements" with Kazakhstan. He noted that Russia was "a great country" and promised, "we will continue developing fraternal relations with Russia."

Uzbekistan was a different matter, however. Relations have deteriorated since Ashgabat accused the Uzbek government of aiding and abetting former Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov in his alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). "We also highly estimate and respect the Uzbek nation. It was not the fault of the Uzbek nation that its leaders let the terrorist Shikhmuradov come to Turkmenistan.... We will still respect the Uzbek nation in future even if its leadership commits bad deeds," Niyazov told the People's Council on 14 August according to On the previous day, perhaps by coincidence, Uzbekistan's troops launched military maneuvers in mountainous areas of Kashkadaryo Oblast along the Uzbek-Turkmen frontier. The objective of the exercises, in addition to practicing operations in mountainous terrain, was reported to be a study of the territory bordering Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 August 2003). Uzbekistan made a similar show of military strength on the border last December when bilateral tensions over the Shikhmuradov affair were running high (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002).

Turning to economic questions, Niyazov foresaw rosy days ahead: "The fate of the Turkmen is predetermined. There will be no poverty, no hunger." Claiming that GDP was currently $6,000 per capita, he said it would reach $10,000 per capita by 2010 and $15,000 by 2020. Beginning in 2005, salaries, pensions, and stipends will double every two years. He also said that by 2020 the exchange rate of the national currency, the manat, will be 10 to $1. The official rate of the nonconvertible manat is presently 5,200 to $1, but the black market rate is usually some four times higher (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2003). Current wages average 700,000 manats per month.

The president outlined a program to build by 2015 a textile complex in each of the 50 etraps (districts) that produce cotton. "Each etrap should have a [cotton] gin, a factory for yarn production, one for dyeing fabrics, and one for making clothes.... Four factories [in each of the 50 districts] will make 3,000-4,000 jobs." He concluded that Turkmenistan could generate in this fashion 200,000 jobs in the textile industry alone.

Niyazov also called on the People's Council to extend until 2020 his 1992 decree, originally intended to last 10 years, supplying the population with natural gas, water, electricity, and table salt free of charge. "At first nobody believed it was possible.... I was the only one to believe," he said. "Many people told me that it contradicted the laws of a market economy. But I am happy we made the decision. We did it for the people. Their wealth should belong to them."