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Turkmenistan: Niazov Charm Offensive

Promotion of foreign minister Rashid Meredov to deputy premier seen as part of government effort to reposition itself internationally.
By Ovez Bairamov

Niggled by the negative international press his regime has received of late, President Saparmurat Niazov is launching a charm offensive.


Turkmenistan's human rights record has been under renewed scrutiny since an alleged assassination attempt against the president on November 25 formed the pretext for a new wave of repression.


A recent OSCE report commented that "large-scale violations of all the principles of due process of law" had followed the attack. Last week, the co-chairman of the Dashouz Ecological Club, Farid Tukhbatullin, received a three-year prison sentence after a four hour trial which observers were prevented from attending. The charges against him related to his attendance of an international conference on human rights and democracy in Turkmenistan, shortly before the November attack.


Traditionally, Turkmenbashi, as Niazov likes to be known, is kept in a state of blissful ignorance by his inner circle, who ensure that no unpalatable news reaches him, domestic or international. However, a highly-placed Ashgabat official told IWPR that the volume of negative articles on Turkmenistan in the US and European press, including a number of direct attacks on Niazov himself, have become impossible to ignore. The absence of any western diplomats at celebrations for Day of the Flag, which is also Turkmenbashi's birthday, offered a recent indication of cooling relations.


Observers say that the decision to promote foreign minister Rashid Meredov to deputy premier last month forms part of the government's effort to reposition itself internationally.


Meredov will supervise a new state registration office, which has been created to control the implementation of visas for foreigners, to supervise the temporary residence of visitors and issue exit visas, which Turkmen citizens will need to leave the country. "The president cannot keep track of everything on his own," Turkmenbashi told a cabinet meeting on February 21. "We need someone to be responsible for this sphere, to make sure these issues are decided at the right time."


Sources in government circles say that Meredov will be allocated dedicated funds to conduct public relations work. The funds will be used to try and place positive articles about Turkmenistan in the foreign media, “favourable” websites will be created and other propaganda exercises will be carried out abroad. The government will also pay for sympathetic foreign politicians to visit the country.


Meredov certainly has a tough challenge ahead of him, but he is regarded as an able politician and is also well thought of by the president. A lawyer by training, he was head of the president's legal office and chairman on legal issues for the Mejlis (parliament) for two years, before becoming deputy director of the Turkmen national institute for democracy and human rights under Niazov.


Meredov became foreign minister in 2001 and will continue in that role, although like much in Turkmenistan, the ministry's power is largely symbolic. As a diplomat from one of the western embassies in Ashgabat told IWPR, "All our memos get re-sent from the ministry to the foreign affairs department within the president's office, where they answer our enquiries. This level of red tape means that no issues are ever resolved within sensible time frames."


Real power resides within the president's circle, which expends a lot of energy on power-broking between the main clan groups and preparing for the power struggle which will ensue in the post Niazov era. After 11 years of independence, such ongoing jockeying for power has prevented Turkmenistan, which combines a small population with a wealth of natural resources, from becoming economically independent.


Observers predict that continued pressure from the West could cause tensions between the country’s dominant clans to boil over, and possibly cut short Niazov's term in power. Whether this would improve the situation on the ground or develop into an all-out clan war is an open question.


Ovez Bairamov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Turkmenistan.


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