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Turkmenistan: New Policies But Little Sign of Change

By IWPR staff in Central Asia (RCA No. 554, 31-Oct-08)

The authorities in Turkmenistan have launched a determined effort to cast off the country's old image as a closed, repressive state and rebrand it as a modern democracy. The trouble is, say analysts, that too little has changed under the surface to make this effort convincing.

President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, elected in February 2007 following the death of Saparmurat Niazov, began talking about the need for a new ideological direction at the start of 2008. This, he said, was a different historical era called "Taze Galkynysh" – New Revival, and the central slogan was "The state is for the people".

The announcement was the first major sign that the Berdymuhammedov administration planned to move away from the old regime's institutional ideology, which revolved around the Ruhnama, a set of writings penned by Niazov which covered everything from Turkmen history to moral precepts, and which was required reading in the schools and the workplace. (See Turkmen "Sacred Text" Heads for Oblivion, RCA No. 529, 31-Jan-08.)

Since January, the new political line has become a campaign issue, cited in all major speeches and at government meetings. In case anyone was not listening, the president instructed officials in August to improve the flow of public information so that people would get an "objective" picture of the changes under way in Turkmenistan. (See Turkmenistan Launches Image Campaign, 02-Sep-08.)

Berdymuhammedov elaborated on the content of the new ideology at a September 29 meeting in the Balkan region in the west of the country. He listed a set of aspirational aims for the Turkmen state – to become a democratic secular society governed by the rule of law, its citizens enjoying civil rights and liberties and taking part in a free market economy.

"All this will make it possible to create the preconditions needed for the country to achieve steady forward progress," Berdymuhammedov told the meeting.

It is far from certain whether the authorities are serious about building anything resembling a democracy – after all, that might involve them being voted out of power. However, most commentators believe Berdymuhammedov is determined to draw a line under Niazov's somewhat erratic rule.

"Within the state structure of the new Turkmenistan there's a sense that the old ideology is being squeezed out," said a journalist who works on one of the state newspapers. "That ideology drove everyone so crazy – including people in the president's immediate entourage – that its eradication has met with some satisfaction in society."

Among commentators in Turkmenistan interviewed by IWPR, opinion on what the new ideology might bring ranges from mild to extreme pessimism.

An activist with a non-government group specialising in youth issues said it was clear the Berdymuhammedov administration was applying a new set of principles, for example by opening up greater access to the internet and by banning the use of child labour to gather cotton. This, he said, was clear progress in a country that had gone through years of isolation from the outside world.

At the same time, he warned that broader changes might take many years to come to fruition.

"The results of the new ideology will become evident only in ten year's time, particularly in the spheres of cultural, spiritual and moral values," he said.

Other commentators focused on the present rather than the future, and said Berdymuhammedov's time in office had been long on slogans and short on action.

While the Turkmen leader has instituted changes in areas such as education, healthcare and social policy – reversing some of the drastic cutbacks imposed by his predecessor – he has yet to live up to the pledges he has made to build a more open, democratic society.

Commentators were also concerned that the period since Niazov's death has seen the continuation of the same kind of abuses that characterised his rule, such as the arbitrary imprisonment of dissenters.

A businessman in the capital Ashgabat said that despite the talk of a free market, the authorities continued to hamper independent enterprise, which they perceived as a form of competition.

"Right now Ashgabat is suffering periodic shortages of certain foodstuffs, for instance eggs," he said, by way of example. "So where have they got to? Well, it turns out that one reason is that a big poultry farm has closed down after its owner got arrested. That's how it is everywhere."

According to critics of Berdymuhammedov's record, it is the nature of the regime itself – hierarchical, inflexible and oppressive – that makes change impossible. Turkmen citizens enjoy none of the freedoms they would in a democracy; the security services continue to exercise surveillance over them; the state continues to lock up anyone who might oppose it; there are no independent media and foreign reporters are barred from the country.

A lawyer working with one of the few non-government organisations that still exist on the margins said there was little evidence that Turkmenistan was evolving into the humane and just society described in the new state ideology.

"If that's the case, why doesn't he [Berdymuhammedov] release the people who ought not to be in prison, instead of pardoning thieves, murderers, rapists and drug addicts who get long sentences but are let out under an amnesty a month later?"

Another commentator highlighted the gulf between words and actions. The president has said the December 14 parliamentary election offers the nation an opportunity to elect true representatives to office. Yet the man in charge, Central Electoral Commission chairman Murad Karryev, made it clear in a recent televised speech that only people "devoted to the president" would be allowed to participate in running the election,

"After statements like that... it isn't hard to guess what kind of ideology the authorities are pushing," said a local NGO activist.

Some analysts say the new ideology is not primarily for domestic consumption; instead, the aim is to improve Turkmenistan's image in the international community and demonstrate that it is a respectable country to do business with, rather than the bizarrely despotic state that Niazov presided over.

According to a Turkmen student currently studying in the Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek, the president is aware of the need to present a more open face to the outside world.

"He realises that it's difficult to compete in the marketplace if everything is closed," he said. "If you have large [energy] resources, you need a liberal system and to open up your economic frontiers to pursue major projects."

The Turkmen authorities have made it clear they will talk to anyone who is interested in developing their energy industry and buying their gas. That includes western and Chinese investors as well as traditional partner Russia.

By any estimates, Turkmenistan possesses huge reserves of natural gas. Until recently, international estimates suggested that the country had total confirmed reserves of 2.86 trillion cubic metres of gas. However, on October 13, the British company Gaffney, Cline & Associates announced that an audit of two fields in eastern Turkmenistan indicated that just one of them, South Yolotan-Osman, contained between four and 14 trillion cu m – placing it among the top five world fields – while the other, Yashlar, might have up to 1.5 trillion cu m.

The head of the state exploration firm Turkmengeologia, Odek Odekov, added that the two fields accounted for only a quarter of Turkmenistan's actual reserves.

Within Turkmenistan, questions remain about whether Berdymuhammedov is committed to deliver even gradual reforms.

A journalist from the northern province of Dashoguz said all the talk of a fresh start reminded him of the early years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, when Niazov embarked on a nation-building project for the newly independent Turkmen state.

As part of this process, the Communist Party of Soviet Turkmenistan underwent a rapid transformation.

"They took it and renamed it the Democratic Party. Communists instantaneously became democrats. But the essence remained the same," he said. "It's quite possible the same will happen with this ideology."

A local journalist added a similar note of caution, "Just as he half-opens the door, he [Berdymuhammedov] has put his foot against it. After all, for him as a protǸgǸ of the old regime, adopting new ideological principles are like trying on someone else's clothes."

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.)

Source: IWPR