Halting Progress on Turkmen Reforms

In a series of wide-ranging interviews, IWPR has learned that people remain sceptical about their new president’s real intentions, although they are grateful pensions are being paid and schooling improved.

Halting Progress on Turkmen Reforms

In a series of wide-ranging interviews, IWPR has learned that people remain sceptical about their new president’s real intentions, although they are grateful pensions are being paid and schooling improved.

Thursday, 21 February, 2008
In a new report based on interviews conducted in Turkmenistan, people in the country say they are unsure whether President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov is genuine about pushing through the reforms he has pledged.

Asked whether they had observed the promised reforms having an impact, interviewees said they had seen changes in areas such as education, health, pension payments, freedom of movement within the country, but less progress on more sensitive areas relating to civil and political rights.

The president has shaken up the interior ministry and created a police complaints commission, but local observers and Turkmen analysts outside the country remain divided on whether these are genuine attempts to improve the way the law works.

Sources in the education system say the tenth year of schooling – abolished by the late Saparmurat Niazov - has been re-introduced this academic year, and new university students are embarking on five-year course instead of two.

Doctors and patients said either that they had not noticed any changes to healthcare policies and procedures, or that they were insignificant, although several acknowledged that a lot of new building work had got under way in the sector.

According to one radiologist, “The provision [of medical supplies] has got a lot better and more importantly, you don’t have to beg the management for it. They are now very concerned to ensure that patients shouldn’t complain to the health ministry.”

All observers agreed that Berdymuhammedov’s promises had been fulfilled when it came to reinstating pension entitlements abolished by his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov.

In July, the authorities abolished “internal visa” requirements for people travelling within the country.

“The rules are being relaxed, there are fewer checkpoints, fewer checks are carried out, and the military on duty there are more polite,” said a local journalist.

However, there are still blacklists of people who are restricted in their movements. These are drawn up by the security services and used by border officials to stop them leaving Turkmenistan.

“The lists continue to operate, although they are allowing some former officials to travel abroad,” said a commentator in Ashgabat.

While some new internet cafes have opened, access to the web remains controlled by the security services.

According to one journalist, “The internet is completely controlled; it’s forbidden to go to opposition, human rights and other sites that the authorities block. In the [foreign-funded] resource centres that sometimes have internet access, foreign sites won’t open.”

Despite suggestions from Berdymuhammedov that the domestic media are free from pressure, there has been no change at all here except a reduction in the adulatory airtime given over to the head of state.

The prospect of prison amnesties raised many hopes, but when 9,000 people were released in October, none of the known political prisoners were among them.

A police complaints commission established by Berdymuhammedov encouraged people to write in and report abuses they had suffered, but there is concern that it routinely passes letters to whichever office is accused of abuse.

Since coming to power, Berdymuhammedov has sacked two interior ministers and one minister for national security, amid criticism of their work that suggested he was serious about reforming the agencies that propped up his predecessor through intimidation and arbitrary detention.

Yet some analysts argue that these personnel changes merely reflect an attempt by Berdymuhammedov to surround himself with his own people – including relatives - rather than a determination to enshrine the rule of law.

“He is now making numerous appointments of people who are loyal to him and won’t let him down,” said an observer inside Turkmenistan.

The findings of IWPR’s survey were more conclusive in some areas than others. Evidence of curricular change in education, the payment of pensions, and more freedom to move around the country were all practical improvements. All this points to a pragmatic recognition of the need to ease people’s lives, even if it amounts to little more than reversing Niazov’s most damaging policies.

However, the spirit of Berdymuhammedov’s pledges to open the country to the outside world has not been honoured when it comes to access to the internet and other forms of media.

In style and substance, Berdymuhammedov’s methods remain uncomfortably similar to Niazov's – decreeing top-down change, carpeting officials for real or imagined wrongdoing, and making only limited attempts to enlist wide-ranging popular support.

To read the full report, please click here

This report was compiled by IWPR’s editorial team in Bishkek and London. Many of the interviews were conducted by Maksat Alekperov, a journalist from Turkmenistan working under a pseudonym. Interviewees in Turkmenistan were not named out of concern for their security.

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