ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmenistan's leader, accused by the West of trampling people's basic rights, today said he was open to the creation of an opposition party as part of moves towards democracy in the former Soviet republic.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, in power for three years, chairs the only political party in Turkmenistan and allows no public criticism or opposition to his rule.
A new party would not be expected to be a real opposition force, in a country where no public figure would risk his career by criticizing state policies, though rights groups would be expected to welcome it as a step forward.
"We could register a new political party this year within the framework of the constitution if someone comes up with the initiative to do so," Berdymukhammedov told a government meeting.
"Creating opposition parties would be an important event in the social and political life of the country," he added. "Our society will continue to develop in a democratic way."
Berdymukhammedov came to power after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled the Caspian nation through a mixture of Stalinist repression, personality cult and eccentric decrees such as a long-standing ban on gold teeth.
The new leader promised to open up the country and mend its image abroad, promoting foreign investment and reform.
Critics say he has made progress in economic reform but has failed to introduce political freedom.
Central Asia's biggest gas producer, Turkmenistan is trying to break away from Russia's orbit and forge closer relations with Europe, a potentially huge gas consumer.
Berdymukhammedov has pursued an increasingly independent foreign and trade policy, building new pipelines to China and Iran and allowing Western companies to explore possibilities in its strategic sectors.
But Turkmenistan is still ranked alongside North Korea in the 2009 press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders.
U.S.-based Freedom House included Turkmenistan in its 2009 list of the world's worst human rights violators.