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Will Turkmen President's Surprise Appeal Produce 'Real' Opposition Parties?

Is Turkmenistan prepared for a party not led by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov?
Is Turkmenistan prepared for a party not led by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov?
On February 18, just as Turkmens prepared to mark today's major national anniversary, Flag Day, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov made a surprise announcement at a cabinet meeting.

The president said his government would "develop and improve on the principles of genuine democracy." He added that therefore "if there are any who wish to forward an initiative on creating some sort of new political party, then in accordance with the constitution of our country such a party could be registered this year. It could be party of agrarians or any other tendency."

Berdymukhammedov's statement came as something of a shock, since Turkmenistan has for all its 18 years of independence had only one party -- the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, founded and led by the country's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

The late Niyazov, who would have turned 70 today and whose anniversary Flag Day marks, created Turkmenistan's ruling and sole party from the Communist Party of the Turkmen Soviet Republic. During parliamentary elections, voters could only choose from candidates of that party or the few entrepreneurial groups that fielded candidates.

Legal Foundations

Berdymukhammedov didn't provide too many details about creating what he specifically said should be "opposition" parties. But his comments were welcomed by Nurberdy Nurmammedov, the only leader of a Turkmen opposition group still living in Turkmenistan

Nurmammedov is the head of the opposition Agzybirlik People's Movement, formed in 1989. He says that while he "welcomed Berdymukhammedov's statement, he cautions that this is only the first step in a longer process toward political pluralism.

"Currently in Turkmenistan there is no legal basis for creating political parties. In 1992 there was a law passed on social organizations, including political parties, but this law was not put into practice by the government," Nurmammedov says.

Nurberdy Nurmammedov says the laws need to be enforced for other parties to exist.
He notes that in 2003 another law was passed "on registering social organizations and political parties, but this law says that political and social organizations, religious groups and unions would be registered under a special law. To this day we haven't seen this special law."

Agzybirlik was registered as a social group in 1990 only to have its registration annulled three months later. Agzybirlik tried unsuccessfully to register itself as a political party after the Soviet Union collapsed and Turkmenistan became independent.

Nurmammedov says he will try again to register his party. "If the country would adopt a law on the creation and registration of political parties then the Agzybirlik People's Movement is ready to register with the Justice Ministry," he says.

'Real' Opposition Regional Rarity

But Nurmammedov warns that unless the proper conditions were in place to form opposition parties -- freedom of speech, freedom of the media, and generally more personal freedoms -- the parties that will be created will be "artificial." He points to so-called opposition parties in "some of our neighboring countries."

That may be what is coming in Turkmenistan. There are so-called opposition parties in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and especially in Uzbekistan that are actually pro-presidential parties created, seemingly, to pay lip service to the idea of alternative politics.

The Uzbek model is most relevant for Turkmenistan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov also turned the former Communist Party of Soviet days into the People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan. He, too, never allowed any genuine opposition political parties to register.

But Karimov did allow several parties to evolve from the People's Democratic Party, all pro-presidential. And in the case of the two most recently created parties (Fidokorlar and the Liberal Democratic Party) there was a generation shift toward younger people. The theory was that Karimov was creating a support base to keep him in power as his old allies from the Soviet era retired.

Berdymukhammedov became president after Niyazov's death in late 2006. He promised domestic reforms but has been slow in implementing them. He may see an opportunity to create his own "alternative" party as a support base, especially among the country's youth, and marginalize Niyazov-era cadres. This would help ensure the 52-year-old Berdymukhammedov stays in power for years to come.

Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report