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Turkmenistan: What chance of a thaw?
Cautious optimism that Saparmurat Niazovís heirs will slowly begin moving forward towards reforms.
 
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
by Dadodjan Azimov
 
The results of next monthís election in Turkmenistan may be a foregone conclusion, but it is far from clear how the situation will develop thereafter. Some analysts and no doubt the countryís interim rulers believe the system created by the late president Saparmurad Niazov can be changed through a process of gradual evolution.

Others argue that stability is by no means assured, saying that in a country with a short history of statehood, there are centrifugal forces ó mainly in the shape of regional interest groups ó that could challenge Niazovís successors.

In Turkmenistan, the transition has got under way remarkably quickly, with acting president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov offering the electorate health and education reforms, plus more access to the outside world ó tantamount to an admission that the Great Leaderís policies were not, after all, without flaws and could be improved, even reversed.

For this report, IWPR has drawn on the expertise of a wide range of experts, including Turkmen analysts and activists now living abroad. We have also used our contacts inside the country to gauge opinion at this time of uncertainty.

Our interviews showed some consensus among the experts that things would begin changing, albeit slowly. Niazovís entourage in the government and security services rapidly took control of the transition and are counting on remaining in charge once the February 11 presidential election is out of the way and Berdymuhammedov installed as leader.

Insofar as they are able to direct the process and muster resources from gas and cotton sales abroad, they will spend money to improve welfare, health and education provision, while cutting short any attempt at creating a more pluralist political system. That will be facilitated by their ability to block access to vocal opponents outside the country, and continue clamping down on signs of dissent at home.

Reversing some of Niazovís social policy decisions or mitigating their effects will ensure public support for the new authorities, although the likelihood of popular protests is seen as remote in any case.

In the absence of political parties and other kinds of formal social organisation, it is possible that informal regional groupings led by local power-brokers will attempt to challenge the Ashgabat-based elite which is now in charge. There are indications that the authorities recognise the need to be more inclusive, but they may also resort to sheer intimidation to keep region interests at bay.

In terms of foreign relations, IWPRís interviewees suggested that Turkmenistan may make overtures to the West, which was strongly critical of Niazovís human rights record. But Russia will, if anything, be in a stronger position than ever to influence the country through its control of existing gas export pipelines.


FROM COMMUNISM TO TURKMENBASHI-ISM

Niazov became head of Soviet Turkmenistanís Communist Party branch in 1985, and in 1992, a year after the country became independent, he ran unopposed for election the following year and won 99.5 per cent of the vote, according to official figures. He crushed the nascent political opposition, so that his only vocal critics now are to be found in the diaspora, he created a subservient state media, and clamped down on non-government groups.

In place of Communism, Niazov shaped a Turkmen nationalist ideology centred on himself, assuming the title Turkmenbashi or ďleader of the TurkmenĒ.

The country earns substantial hard-currency revenues from its two major resources ó cotton and gas ó but much of this wealth has gone to fund white-elephant projects such as palaces, statues and other monuments to the presidentís power.

The economyís reliance on export commodities has tended to reinforce statist policies which have curbed the growth of enterprise, although there has been some success in attracting investment in textil


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