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Turkmenistan Streamlines Local Government

By News Briefing Central Asia

Although new legislation gives greater authority to local government in Turkmenistan, NBCentralAsia analysts say that in reality, power remains rigidly centralised and devolution is unlikely. 

The legislation, published in the state media in late May, gives provincial and district governors and town mayors the right to submit development plans complete with proposed budgets to central government, and to be part of subsequent discussions of these plans.

On paper, this is a radical departure from the current system where all decision-making is from the top down.

The law also loosens the hierarchy of power by forbidding local executives - governors and mayors – from intervening in the activities of the corresponding elected councils.

In the autumn of 2007, the year he came to power, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov started shaking up the administrative system by abolishing the Khalk Maslakhaty, a huge assembly which had more power than the country’s parliament. He also attempted to professionalise public administration by setting up a special academy.

However, critics say the reform has produced tangible results, and that the new law is unlikely to change things much.

The key problem is that the top-down autocratic system of rule remains basically unchanged. Officials have no real say in decision-making and the president directs the activities of government agencies. Within the system, officials are frequently reshuffled from post to post.

“Government officials have worked within a rigidly centralised system of public administration so they are used to taking instructions from above. It’s hard for them to adjust to new methods and systems,” said an economist with extensive experience of working in government.

Appointments to government positions are based above all on the candidate’s loyalty to the regime and connections.

“These are individuals who have been through a multi-phase examination for their loyalty and their genealogy,” said an observer in the north of the country. “Under [the late president Saparmurat] Niazov, candidates had provide information about seven generations of ancestors. Berdymuhammedov has retained these checks system, only now it only goes back three generations and includes close relatives.”

Officials must not have relatives with criminal convictions or opposition views, or who are independent journalists and dissidents, the observer explained.

This selection process rules out people with initiative.

“Local government officials have no initiative,” said the observer. “Even if they had, they’d be afraid to show it, as it could lead to their dismissal.”

In one rare exception to the rule, a local official came up with a development plan for his district to address unemployment problem, provide good-quality drinking water and build a sewage system.

“For a long time there was no response to my plan,” he said. “When I asked about it…, they let me know I should stay where I was. Who did I think I was, cleverer than them? They knew best how to deal with my district’s problems, and when to do so.”

A freelance journalist in Turkmenistan says local officials are unprepared to take the initiative and become responsible for solving their own problems, even if they now have that legal right.

“They operate according to the principle that every instruction has to be endorsed by the central authorities, and initiative is now encouraged,” he said.

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.