Turkmenistan's rubberstamp parliament is about to lose its rubber stamp, again.
In his inauguration address on February 17, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said he would raise the status of the country's Council of Elders above that of parliament.
That means this group of "white beards," as they would be termed locally, all of them over 70 years old, are about to officially become the legislative branch of government.
This is the second time Turkmenistan's parliament has been demoted.
There was a body called the People's Assembly (Halk Maslahaty) that, like the Council of Elders, had existed since the early days of Turkmenistan's independence in late 1991. Under Turkmenistan's first post-independence president, Saparmurat Niyazov, the People's Assembly was a group that composed a cross-section of Turkmenistan's society -- state officials and employees, businessmen, famers, social organizations, and others.
The assembly proposed changes, ostensibly on behalf of the groups and people it represented: ideas like making Niyazov president for life, which it started proposing in 1995 and eventually achieved on December 28, 1999, when the People's Assembly finally "convinced" Niyazov that he should bow to the will of people and stay in power for the rest of his life.
In the wake of a reported assassination attempt on Niyazov in late November 2002, Niyazov turned to the People's Assembly, not parliament, to act.
Former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who had declared himself in opposition to Niyazov's government in November 2001 while serving as Turkmenistan's ambassador to China, was apprehended inside Turkmenistan shortly after the purported assassination attempt. He was identified as the alleged leader of the plot.
On December 30, 2002, Niyazov showed the People's Assembly a video of what some outside Turkmenistan believe was a coerced confession in which Shikhmuradov said, "I really wanted to kill the Turkmen president and undermine the constitutional system."
Not long after that, Niyazov asked the assembly to define "high treason" and punishments for such an offense (in the end, the assembly chose life imprisonment). At the end of an August 14-15, 2003, session of the People's Assembly in Turkmenbashi City, the assembly was named the country's highest legislative body and its membership -- which had ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 over the years -- was set at 2,507. Elections were conducted to fill those seats on April 6, 2003.
One of the new People's Assembly's first acts was to award Niyazov the "international" Makhtumkuly prize -- named in honor of Magtumguly Pyragy, a famous 18th-century Turkmen poet -- for his books Blessed Be The Turkmen People and Five Epochs Of The Spirituality Of The Turkmen People.
Hastily Approved Document
In its time, the People's Assembly not only made Niyazov president for life but, in its capacity as Turkmenistan's highest legislative body, it continually blocked half-hearted proposals, usually from Niyazov, to conduct a new presidential election.
The People's Assembly approved Niyazov's proposal to change the names of the days of the week and the months of the year. It also adopted regulations requiring state officials to have their ancestry checked back six generations to ensure they were suitable to serve in the government.
And, in late December 2006 after Niyazov's death, the People's Assembly hastily approved a document that stripped parliamentary speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev of his immunity so he could be arrested, clearing the way for Health Minister Berdymukhammedov to become acting president. At that same time, the People's Assembly voted to remove the constitutional prohibition against an acting president running for the presidency.
The People's Assembly was abolished when Berdymukhammedov introduced constitutional changes in September 2008, and its theoretical powers were redistributed to the parliament and the executive branch.
Filling The Void
The Council of Elders quickly filled the void, and it now appears to have followed the same path as the People's Assembly.
The council proposed the constitutional changes that were adopted in September, lifting the age limit (of 70) for a candidate to run for president and extending the presidential term from five to seven years. The council has also proposed ending state subsidies that gave the country's citizens allotments of electricity, gas, and water for free.
The Elders Council has also voted to give Berdymukhammedov awards, such as "Hero of Turkmenistan" in 2011 and called his rule "paradise on earth."
The council has not publicly floated the idea of naming Berdymukhammedov president for life, but such a proposal -- sometime in the future -- cannot be discounted.
Like so much of what happens in Turkmenistan, the reasons for subordinating parliament to the Council of Elders are unclear -- all the more, since Turkmenistan is going through difficult economic times and it is hard to see how a group of people who spent two-thirds of their lives in the Soviet Union can come up with a plan to extract Turkmenistan from its current crisis.
Members of the Council of Elders are selected, not elected. The qualifications for being on the council are a bit clearer. Qishloq Ovozi, working with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, heard from a former member of the council not so long ago, and his story is probably similar to many of the 600 elders (100 from each of the five provinces and 100 from the capital, Ashgabat).
Making the Council of Elders the highest legislative body in Turkmenistan is still only a proposal. But that proposal comes from President Berdymukhammedov, so the clock just might be ticking for parliament.