Two astonishing and conflicting changes in leadership rang in the millennium in the CIS. On New Year's Eve, the Russian Federation's Boris Yeltsin voluntarily resigned his democratically-elected presidency six months before his term was due to expire. At the opposite end of the Commonwealth, on December 28, Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurad Niyazov, accepted the proposal of his rubber-stamp parliament to grant him "unlimited authority" for an unlimited period. (The next scheduled presidential elections were to be in 2002). Niyazov accepted the unanimous proposal to a standing ovation from legislators. A speaker then proposed erecting a marble and gold statue of the president to commemorate the occasion.
Thus ends any pretense of electoral rights in Turkmenistan.
The development, while dramatic, does not significantly alter the stultifying political status quo in Turkmenistan. In a 1994 national referendum, 99.9 percent of the voters extended the President's term to 2002, obviating the need for the scheduled presidential election in 1997. Turkmenistan is a one-party state, so, barring any changes, President Niyazov would have run unopposed anyway. Individuals attempting to launch alternative political bodies are brutally repressed. The opposition leader in exile, Avdy Kuliev, was barred from returning to Turkmenistan until 1998. As soon as his plane landed, he was arrested on capital charges, released under international pressure, and immediately fled abroad again after receiving death threats. An opposition parliamentary contender, Ayli Meredov, was eliminated from running for any office for the next ten years because he was convicted of a crime on the basis of fabricated evidence.
[For additional information see the EurasiaNet Human Rights Review Story: Leading Dissident Detained in Turkmenistan Amidst Silence from US ]
There may be one redeeming feature of the decision to formally end the presidential process in Turkmenistan. It may give the international community the excuse to disengage from the folie a deux that has characterized much of relations between Turkmenistan and the West. With few exceptions, the potential profits to be made from gas exports have consistently outweighed human rights concerns in the formulation of Western policy towards Turkmenistan.
President Clinton invited President Niyazov for a personal meeting and photo opportunity in the White House in 1998. US assistance to Turkmenistan has risen every year for the past few years. The European Union suspended its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan, in part citing human rights violations, but in November undermined its protest. It signed an Interim Agreement that allows the trade-related provisions of the PCA to be implemented independent of the PCA itself, thereby removing any financial prohibitions.
The OSCE has been more forceful. Chairman-in-Office Knut Vollabaek condemned the decision to grant President Niyazov an unlimited term. And, in a rare move, the organization refused to observe or assess the December 12 parliamentary elections, citing the absence of even the most basic electoral guarantees. But it has so far refrained from closing its Center, or otherwise isolating Turkmenistan as a pariah state.
The international community has dedicated considerable resources to encouraging democratic institution-building and free elections in Turkmenistan. This is a worthy endeavor, as long as it is conditioned on measurable, sustained human rights reform. The folly of unconditional engagement is illustrated by the fate of Pirimkuli Tangrykuliev, a former Supreme Soviet deputy who had expressed interest in founding an alternative party and running for a seat in parliament. Foreign embassies met with him and supported his efforts. But, true to a well-established pattern, Dr. Tangrykuliev was detained in June on trumped-up charges. He is now serving an eight-year sentence in appalling conditions in a Turkmenistan prison, where dissidents before him have been tortured to death or were found hanging in their cells. Foreign governments should have been ready with sanctions the moment he was detained. Instead, they have proved impotent. Shamefully, the US, one of Dr. Tangrykuliev's primary backers, did not even call publicly for his release. It is irresponsible for the west to encourage such bravery if it is unwilling or unable to insist on that person's safety.
The international community must seize on the elimination of presidential elections during President Niyazov's lifetime to disengage from the farce. Misguidedly, "stability" remains the priority for bilateral relations with Turkmenistan. There is an urgent need to re-examine the cost of "stability" when it is based on the denial basic freedoms like free speech and the exercise of electoral rights. That form of "stability" based on the leadership's insecurity --- has long existed in Turkmenistan; now it has been made law.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow, covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly since 1987.