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Turkmen President Pushes Moderate Reforms, But Only So Far

One reform will see the end of the Halk Maslahaty.<br />
One reform will see the end of the Halk Maslahaty.<br />
Turkmenistan has a new constitution that gives citizens the right to form political parties and endorses their right to own private property. But if President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's latest initiative seems aimed at signaling the energy-rich country is on the road to reforms and opening to world markets, it also leaves many questions unanswered regarding his vision for the future.

John McCloud, senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), speaks with RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel about the significance of the new document.

RFE/RL: The new constitution was adopted by the 2,500-strong assembly of tribal elders and local officials, the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), on September 26 in Ashgabat. Not surprisingly, all present gave their unanimous approval to the president's proposed draft. That looks like business as usual in this autocratic country. How much do you see as new here?

John McCloud:
A number of significant changes are implicit in this document. For example, it had been floated that the president might get another term or a seven-year term and that hasn't appeared in this document.

Another key change is the abolition of the super-parliament, the Halk Maslahaty, which disappears altogether and its powers go to the standing parliament, the Majlis, its legislative powers that is, and other important powers such as the important task of appointing the National Security Council goes to the president.

He also get the right to directly appoint regional governors who were theoretically appointed by their respective local councils before; it's a formal strengthening of the presidential power.

Certainly one thing that catches one's eye in the new constitution is its giving the green light for citizens to form political parties. Given Turkmenistan's past years of absolute rule under Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, one might be skeptical about this apparent step toward political pluralism. How do you view it?

McCloud: It appears to be that that is a novelty and the plural is significant because at the moment there is only the one state party, which is quite moribund. So, yes, that is a hopeful sign but how that will be made to happen in a top-down system is another question, whether the authorities themselves will set up parties to represent theoretically different interest groups like business, farmers, and so on, as is the case in Uzbekistan, which has multiple parties which theoretically represent these different social groups but are in no way opposition [parties].

Economic Reform Paramount

RFE/RL: Another thing the new constitution endorses is the right to private property. That is not something unique to this latest constitution, it has appeared in previous ones, but now Berdymukhammedov is restating it. Is that significant?

McCloud: The actual rights of the individual and also organizations to own private property are pretty much where they were before. Of course the change, I guess, will be in how it's enacted in legislation and in actual actions by the authorities. In his speech about this, Berdymukhammedov spent much of this time actually discussing ways of improving the economy through investments and so on, so an economic upturn is an important part of his agenda.

RFE/RL: Since President Berdymukhammedov came to power upon the death of Niyazov, there has been much speculation that he wants to fully reverse his predecessor's policy of isolation and build a more successful economy. How much of a reformer is he, in fact?
President Berdymukhammedov may only be able to push reform so far.

McCloud: There certainly have been signs along the way that the president is actually determined to make some kind of perestroika happen, primarily along the economic front and principally by abolishing the crazier policies of his predecessor. Even the abolition of the rubber-stamp giant parliament, the Halk Maslahaty, is a positive step in that it streamlines the whole thing and makes the system of government more manageable and in a sense more accountable.

But, I guess the problem is that if one is an optimist and assumes he does want to reform the country, then he is not alone and there will obviously be some friction and resistance from other forces in the country. There was this recent shoot-out in Ashgabat and some observers felt this reflected turbulence in the state system between different actors, perhaps indirectly through criminal groups.

If one views him as a modest reformer, he can't necessarily do all he wants to do. And obviously the other factor is he is coming from a particular place, he derives his own legitimacy from his predecessor and ultimately from the Soviet-style system that was built and has proved pretty durable.

Is it possible to know what kind of future for Turkmenistan Berdymukhammedov envisions?

McCloud: Fundamentally, he wants a post-Soviet-style state but one that is effective and has decent relations with its neighbors and those two things would mark a significant change from his predecessor's rule, when the economic system was actually closed and managed from the top down, money was spent unwisely, and revenues were hidden away in bank accounts abroad -- that is something the new president has actually addressed -- and political and diplomatic relationships with many neighbors were difficult.

So there is change in those areas, but in terms of political rights, I think there is going to be some way before this president either sees a need or is in a position to make change happen.

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