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Central Asia Report: August 15, 2002

15 August 2002, Volume 2, Number 31

TURKMEN ROUNDUP: PEOPLE'S COUNCIL CONVENES. Some 2,000 delegates met in the eastern town of Turkmenabat (former Charjew) on 8-9 August for a two-day session of the People's Council, chaired by President Saparmurat Niyazov. The supposedly annual council had not met for almost three years. Although the gathering was commonly referred to as the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), Turkmen television specified that it was more accurately the 12th joint forum of three bodies: the Congress of Elders, intended to be an advisory group to the president; the National Revival Movement of Turkmenistan, a coalition of political parties and public associations in the country; and the People's Council proper, consisting of parliamentary deputies and Niyazov's appointees. Interfax added on 8 August that according to the state constitution, the council included cabinet members, heads of local executive bodies, judges, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations. As Turkmenistan's highest consultative body, its resolutions are binding for all state officials. Local media stoutly maintained throughout their coverage of the session that it represented a forum for meaningful consultations and debate, whose consent to presidential proposals was an important step in the political decision-making process. To independent observers, its unhesitating adoption of all the president's proposals, punctuated by scripted acclamations of Niyazov's political, social, and literary achievements, suggested otherwise.

ECONOMY ROSY, PRESIDENT SAYS. In his speech opening the council on 8 August, Niyazov told delegates that by pursuing its own model of development that was neither Western nor Eastern, the country was "on the right path" and "everything in [Turkmenistan] is calm and bright," RFE/RL and ITAR-TASS reported. There was no need "to copy European or oriental models of state development," he said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 August 2002). The government's economic program for 2002 includes ambitious production targets for the oil-and-gas sector, whose exports have been the main engine of Turkmenistan's GDP growth over the past three years. Niyazov boasted on 8 August that for the third year in a row, Turkmenistan occupied first place in the world in terms of leading economic indicators, claiming that last year's gross domestic product increased by more than 20 percent and that this year's record wheat harvest came to more than 2 million tons, an achievement that he called a "miracle." He said that the country had now attained self-sufficiency in food production. Turkmenistan's economic statistics are not possible to verify independently, and analysts repeatedly stress that official statistics are likely to overestimate economic outputs by a wide margin (see "Turkmenistan: Leader Optimistic On State Of Country, But Others Have Doubts,", 9 August 2002).

Niyazov promised that natural gas, electricity, flour, and salt would remain free of charge, although he noted that in individual cases the gift could be revoked as a punishment: "If a member of a family breaks the law, we cut one year of gas and electricity delivery," he warned. Discussing economic and infrastructure development, the president said that the government had spent over $4 billion in internal investment in 2002, Turkmen TV reported. Niyazov mentioned the improvement of highways between the capital Ashgabat and the cities of Dasoguz (former Dashhowuz), Turkmenbashi (former Krasnovodsk), and Turkmenabat, the modernization of the Balkan oil refinery, and the construction of new fertilizer, cement, and paper plants. On 9 August, he talked about creating 500,000 new jobs by 2010, the TV reported.

ELECTIONS THIS DECADE? At the session, Niyazov also made one of his periodic references to the possibility of holding presidential elections. He had promised in February 2001 to step down in 2010, while in June 2002, he said that presidential elections might happen in 2007-08 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2001 and 24 June 2002). On 8 August, however, he told the council, "I believe that we should not always depend on one person, and so with your approval, I think the correct thing to do will be to hold presidential elections in 2008-2009," Turkmen television reported. Presidential elections were originally scheduled to be held this year, but that idea has been quietly shelved. Niyazov suggested that six or seven years from now elections could be contested by "three or more" candidates, but that candidates would have to be approved by the People's Council after reviewing their platforms. Following a resolution of the council, carried by a two-thirds majority, "new presidential elections can be held within a two-month period," Niyazov said.

Yet, in its only show of dissent, the council appeared to dismiss the president's proposal and passed a decision that Niyazov should hold office until his death. Safarmarmed Voliev, the head of the state gas-and-oil company, declared there was no need for any leader but the "beloved eternal President Saparmurat Niyazov," saying that he ruled by the will of Allah and concluding: "therefore, to our leader's proposal to hold presidential elections we say: No! No! No!" (see "Turkmenistan: People's Council Opens Sessions,", 8 August 2002). Since the parliament voted in 1999 for a constitutional law removing all term limits on Niyazov after a similar demand by the People's Council at its last session, he was effectively president for life already.

Interfax and AP reported that on the council's first day, Niyazov initially seemed to refuse the idea of being named president for life, but he eventually bowed to pressure after a long ovation. But he backtracked on 9 August, announcing that he was now rejecting the honor thrust upon him the previous day, saying that he would rather continue to rule in accordance with the 1999 law "without limitation of term," and AP reported. "Let us not make any decisions concerning my personality," Niyazov said, adding that the topic of passing power to a successor would be resumed later. He repeated that presidential elections were necessary, "in eight to nine years," as quoted by AP. In so saying, it was unclear if Niyazov's math was fuzzy or if he was thereby extending his term by two years at a stroke.

SHADES OF NERO. Niyazov opened the council with a presentation of his most recent collection of poetry titled "Long May My Native People Prosper." He was promptly voted the appellation Great Writer of Turkmenistan, but decided on the following day to turn it down, Interfax said on 9 August. At the same time, he also declined the threefold Golden Age medal that delegates had voted to award him the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2002). While deeply grateful for the honor, he said, referring to himself in the third person, that the president already had enough prizes, and that awarding all three degrees of the Golden Age award "goes against the rules," Turkmen television reported. But he added coyly that the issue could be revisited in the future.

CALENDAR OVERHAULED, AGES OF MAN REDEFINED. In keeping with his predilection for returning to the roots of Turkmen culture, Niyazov instructed the People's Council on 8 August to rename the months and the days of the week, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2002). He said that the months should have pure Turkmen names because their present designations were foreign imports with no particular significance for his people, Turkmen television reported. "We ourselves are not fully aware of their origin even if the names of the months have become very familiar to us," Niyazov said. Inadvertently, Niyazov proceeded to give a practical demonstration by mistakenly asserting that the current month of August "derived from the name of an ancient Greek empress known as Augusta." The new names of the months are as follows: Turkmenbashi (January), which Niyazov stressed "is not dedicated to me"; Baydak, or Flag (February), to commemorate Flag Day; Nowruz (March), meaning the festival of the vernal equinox; Gurbansoltan Ije (April), in honor of Niyazov's mother; Makhtumguly (May), after the national poet; Oguz-han (June), considered the founder of the Turkmen nation; Gorgut (July), after the hero of an epic poem; Alp Arslan (August), after an ancient Turkmen commander; Rukhname (September), after the spiritual guide authored by the president; Independence (October), to mark Independence Day; Sultan Sanjar (November), after a historical figure; and Neutrality (December), to remind Turkmen of their country's official status as a neutral state.

The days of the week will also be renamed with various adjectives, RFE/RL reported. Monday will be Main Day; Tuesday, Young Day; Wednesday, Favorable Day; Thursday, Blessed Day. Friday (Anna) will not be renamed. Saturday will be Spirituality Day, as a result of which, Niyazov said, Turkmen would think about their spiritual health instead of drinking and gossiping and would "devote their leisure time to lofty thoughts and aspirations." Sunday will become Rest Day.

Niyazov further proposed on 8 August a redefining of the human life cycle, dividing it into newly named 12-year periods. A decree to this effect was issued five days later, AP and local media reported. According to the edict, childhood lasts until age 12, followed by adolescence until age 25. The period from 25 to 36 is youth, 37-49 is maturity, 50-61 is the prophetic age, 62-72 is the age of inspiration, 73-85 is the age of wisdom, and 84-96 is old age. From 97 to 109, Turkmen are considered to be living "the age of Oguz-han," a semilegendary figure said to have died at 109. It was unclear from the edict what happens to Turkmen if they outlive Oguz-han. One of the delegates at the People's Council delivered a speech in which he said that Niyazov should live 150 years and rule the country all that time (see "Turkmenistan: People's Council Opens Sessions,", 8 August 2002). The president, who is 62, wrote his spiritual and ethical guide, "Rukhname," while in the prophetic age, and is currently in the age of inspiration. Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy is 60 for Turkmen men and 65 for Turkmen women, AP commented on 13 August.

PRISONS TO BE EMPTIED. On 9 August, the People's Council authorized a presidential decree declaring an amnesty for almost all of the inmates in Turkmenistan's jails, Turkmen television reported. AP added on 13 August that there are 16,200 prisoners in the country, with a further 1,000 being held under investigation, and both groups will be eligible for the amnesty. Convicts will be released on the night of 1-2 December, "the holy night of Ramadan," Niyazov told the council. He said the only prisoners who would not be released were traitors to the country, those who had committed premeditated murder, and recidivists with three convictions. Since those categories represent only a small part of the prison population, according to a Justice Ministry official, the vast majority of inmates will go free, AP said. Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atajanova said over state radio that it would be the 24th amnesty since the country became independent in 1991 and that 112,000 people have been set free under these amnesties, RFE/RL reported on 11 August. A single act of clemency in 2001 freed 9,000 people at one time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 2002).

SALARIES TO BE RAISED. In what he stressed was "a well-considered...a well-calculated proposal," Niyazov said on 9 August that wages in all enterprises and organizations in both the state and private sectors would be doubled on Flag Day, 19 February 2003, Turkmen television and Interfax reported. He did not explain how a decree obliging nongovernment firms and institutions to implement salary hikes would be handled. At present, the average wage is 600,000 manats, which is worth $115 at the official, and $30 at the black-market, exchange rate. In what may have been the most genuine moment during the whole session, council delegates greeted the announcement by rising to their feet amid storms of applause, requiring Niyazov to call twice for them to resume their seats.

IMAGE OF UNITY MARRED BY PROTESTS ON SIDELINES. Before dispersing, delegates resolved that the 13th such council would be held next year during the first half of Alp Arslan (August) in the town of Turkmenbashi, the Turkmen State News Service reported.

On 13 August, Niyazov told a session of the Cabinet of Ministers that the 8-9 August session of the People's Council demonstrated "the unity and cohesion of the Turkmen people" and their determination to implement his projects to transform their lives, ITAR-TASS said. He and government-controlled media sources ignored the fact that the session was preceded, and followed, by rare protest demonstrations in Ashgabat. Before the council opened, about 200 women gathered outside the president's palace to try to deliver a letter and to complain about his policies that had left their families unemployed and impoverished, IWPR reported on 13 August. There were earlier incidents in June and on 6 August, when protesters burnt portraits of Niyazov in public, IWPR said. Furthermore, the National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan organized six separate protests against Niyazov's rule in various districts of the capital on 11 August, according to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. The movement's activists distributed leaflets appealing to the population to struggle against the regime and affirming its readiness to bring about the "normalization" of the political situation in the country. Police tried but failed to prevent the gatherings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 August 2002).