Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmenistan's Illusory Political Reforms

By Vyacheslav Mamedov
  • Vyacheslav Mamedov. (Photo: IWPR)
    Vyacheslav Mamedov. (Photo: IWPR)

Calls by Turkmenistan’s president for more elected institutions and even a multiparty political system must not be read as a sign of impending change.

Meeting members of the Turkmen parliament on January 20, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov urged them to speed up the passing of a new law on political parties, create a coordinated system for elected institutions, and do more to protect the rights and liberties of the country’s citizens.

Berdymuhammedov’s remarks sound like good intentions, but sadly, they are misleading.

Turkmenistan has only one party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, made up of officials and other allies of the president; Berdymuhammedov is also a member.

At a meeting of the Council of Elders last August, held in the Dashoguz region of northern Turkmenistan, the president promised that a new party representing farmers would be set up. In February 2010, he had pledged to allow political parties to come into existence, including opposition parties.

Nothing has changed at all since he made those remarks.

Foreign officials who took Berdymuhammedov’s promises on trust are left bemused.

In order for a multiparty system to operate, Turkmenistan would need to start respecting basic human rights and freedoms. That is not the case now – dissidents continue to suffer repression, freedom of movement is severely constrained, and free speech is notable by its absence.

Before attempts are made to build political pluralism, efforts must be made to revive the civil sector, which has been totally destroyed over 20 years of repression.

Leading figures who voiced objections were jailed, forced into exile, or intimidated so much that they withdrew from public life. The handful of activists who take heroic risks to work covertly are permanently at risk of arrest.

This environment means it would take at least seven years to reanimate some kind of civil society, which could then gradually generate to the multiparty system that Berdymuhammedov is talking.

The alternative is a multiparty structure manufactured by the regime, as in Kazakstan, which has one pro-presidential party and a number of other parties which exist only for decorative purposes.

Yet Berdymuhammedov understands perfectly well that the present regime cannot remain in a state of suspended animation, like that in North Korea. He is also aware that Turkmenistan has to move away from dealing solely with Russia and develop new relationships with other states.

Yet in its current form, the Turkmen regime is not going to be able to build serious relationships with democratic states. For example, the European Union has been engaging Turkmenistan in dialogue, and is prepared to make many compromises. But that can only go so far. As long as democratic institutions and human rights are absent, cooperation with the West will come to nothing. That includes energy-sector cooperation, the top issue on the agenda of the EU-Turkmenistan dialogue.

It is the need to be part of global processes and negotiations that compels Berdymuhammedov, the leader of an oil- and gas-rich state to show that his authoritarian regime is changing. But to achieve this, he is seeking to mislead the international community by seeming to favour a multiparty political system.

For its part, the West is likely to swallow this show of democracy, and make further concessions to Turkmenistan. That will mean that human rights activists and international rights groups will find it harder to persuade the international community not to give way to a regime that superficially looks like a democracy.

Vyacheslav Mamedov, leader of Civil Democratic Union of Turkmenistan based in the Netherlands

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

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