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Turkmen President Orders Up An Opposition

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov takes part in a congress in Dashoguz.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov takes part in a congress in Dashoguz.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov isn't forgetting his promises. Speaking to a group of elders in the northern Dashoguz Province earlier this month, the Turkmen president rekindled an idea he first floated earlier this year -- the creation of a multiparty political system in Turkmenistan.

Doing so would mean leaving an elite but democratically repugnant club: Turkmenistan currently stands with China, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, North Korea, Syria, and Vietnam as the only states in the world with single-party rule.

Technically, there is nothing constitutionally or otherwise that would prohibit the creation of alternative political parties in the oil-rich Central Asian state.

But Saparmurat Niyazov, the authoritarian leader who led the country through its formative years as an independent state, made it a point to suppress all political opposition in the country, along with independent media and nongovernmental organizations.

With "Turkmenbashi" out of the picture owing to his death in 2006, Berdymukhammedov has made it a point to dismantle his predecessor's legacy.

Berdymukhammedov assured the elders of Dashoguz that he has already taken steps that would pave the way for a pluralist government, having asked the parliament to draft a law on political parties.

So, it appears the country will soon have a second political party for the first time since independence in 1991. But Berdymukhammedov's suggestion that his new opposition should be an agrarian party is telling, and highlights the low expectations among Turkmenistan-watchers.

What are the odds that this new Turkmen political party will have something new and different to say? Will this be just a facade for claiming pluralism in Turkmenistan or is there any possibility the Turkmen president will use the new party to spearhead some small changes to the country?

The best bet is that Turkmenistan will follow the Uzbek model. Turkmenistan's northeastern neighbor has four registered political parties -- all pro-presidential and so similar that even Uzbek President Islam Karimov has said he often can't tell them apart.

But if Berdymukhammedov really wants to break from the authoritarian mold, he has ample opportunity. One thing that would provide a clear signal that real change is afoot would be releasing Agzybirlik leader Nurberdy Nurmammedov from house arrest, and allowing him to register his party, finally.

We'll wait and see what happens.

-- Farangis Najibullah and Bruce Pannier