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Turkmenistan Now Less Isolated, But Still Repressive

New President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has come out from under the shadow of his predecessor.
It is two years since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was elected president of Turkmenistan to succeed Saparmurat Niyazov (aka Turkmenbashi), who died suddenly in December 2006. In order to get a better understanding of whether and how the situation in Turkmenistan has changed in terms of political and civic freedoms, the media, and changes within the government, a comparison is called for between Berdymukhammedov's first and second years in power.

There is little to be said about the first year. The country carried on living as though the deceased dictator were still alive. Niyazov's presence still pervaded all spheres of activity, the ministers he had appointed remained in power, and they had both wealth and influence. At that time few people, even experts on Turkmenistan, could say with any certainty whether Berdymukhammedov would change course, or continue along the path mapped out by his predecessor. Berdymukhammedov spent that entire first year strengthening his hold on power.

Over the past 12 months, however, there have been some changes, albeit very slight, in terms of political and civic freedoms, to the point that one can even say that Turkmenistan has entered a period of transition. The first reforms have taken off after an unforgivably long period of stagnation. True, they are sporadic and even a little chaotic, but one should not underestimate the fact that they are happening at all. One would hope that Berdymukhammedov will speed up that process.

Berdymukhammedov is gradually bringing Turkmenistan out of the political isolation imposed by his predecessor. It is clear that the country is opening up to the outside world: Turkmenistan has begun to cooperate more closely with international organizations, to participate in various projects, and to develop new ties, both bilateral and multi-lateral, with various countries. In short, it is becoming a significant player in Central Asia.

In December 2008, Turkmenistan adopted a new, amended constitution that abolished the People's Council, the highest representative and legislative body, and divided its powers between the president and the parliament. The parliament also acquired the right to schedule presidential elections. One can affirm very cautiously that these innovations constitute a basis for reforming the entire system of governance. Although all decisions remain the prerogative of just one man -- President Berdymukhammedov.

Berdymukhammedov is getting rid of Niyazov-era functionaries who seek to put a brake on the reform process. Only two members of Niyazov's cabinet still retain their posts: Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and a second deputy prime minister, Tachberdy Tagiyev, who is responsible for the oil and gas sector. They too are likely to lose their posts very soon.

Too Little, Too Slowly

Yet despite those changes, the situation remains far from ideal, and Berdymukhammedov still has a huge amount to do.

Satellite dishes are still a common sight in Ashgabat.
Turkmenistan remains one of the world's most repressive states, and the human rights situation is still catastrophic. Dissenters -- whether political opponents, independent journalists, or civic activists -- are still subjected to the harshest reprisals, together with members of their families. There has been no relaxation whatsoever of the restrictions on religious practice.

Turkmenistan is still a one-party system: the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the successor to the Communist Party, is the only party in the country, and like all other public organizations it is controlled by the state. It is still not possible to form and legally register a political party, or even a nongovernmental organization, even though the constitutional amendments included an article giving citizens the right to found political parties and public organizations whose activities do not violate other provisions of the constitution. One hopes that people will take the first steps towards founding such parties and organizations in the near future.

There are no independent media in Turkmenistan: all print media and television and radio channels are under strict state control. Censorship was legalized last year in a seeming reversal: when Berdymukhammedov first took office in 2007 he had launched what appeared to be cautious steps toward liberalization, lifting the ban Niyazov had imposed on opera and the national circus and stressing the need to raise the professional and artistic quality of cinema, television, radio, and literature. He also took steps to encourage members of the creative intelligentsia.

Few people watch local Turkmen television, as almost every household has a satellite dish. Even Niyazov did not dare to ban satellite dishes, but Berdymukhammedov ordered them to be removed, because they allegedly spoil the architectural beauty of the capital; not everyone complied with that edict, however. Instead, the authorities have made available a limited number of approved cable television channels.

There has been some progress in extending Internet access, with a handful of Internet cafes opening first in the capital, Ashgabat, and then in regional centers. In addition to government ministries, foreign embassies and international organizations and commercial companies, today some businessmen and private individuals have Internet access. But there is one huge drawback: access to opposition and human rights sites and those of many international news agencies was blocked until recently, and many people are still afraid of trying to access them.

Turkmenistan still has a "black list" of people not permitted to travel abroad. True, Berdymukhammedov has lifted the ban imposed by his predecessor on travel within the country, but that does not fundamentally change the overall picture.

One key point should not be ignored. Everyone knows how cruelly the late president-for-life dealt with his political opponents. The majority are still immured in prison, and it is not even known for certain whether they are still alive, or where they are incarcerated. Every resolution on Turkmenistan adopted by the UN or the European Parliament contains the demand for their cases to be reviewed in accordance with international legal norms, and for the International Red Cross to be granted free access to Turkmenistan's jails.

But Berdymukhammedov continues to ignore those demands, just as Niyazov did.

Chary Ishiniyazov is a former Turkmen diplomat now living in exile in the West. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL