WASHINGTON -- Can an authoritarian country that still bears the strong imprint of its Soviet past and has just one political party, no independent media, and prisons full of political opponents hold free and fair elections?
The collective answer from a panel of experts who testified November 19 before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe was "no."
The country in question is Turkmenistan, the elections will take place on December 14, and the experts were assembled by the Helsinki Commission, which wanted to know if a new constitution and election law adopted a few months ago means that the famously closed country is, in fact, beginning to open up.
"We harbor no illusions that Turkmenistan's parliamentary elections on December 14 will fully meet international standards," said George Krol, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs. "Real political pluralism does not exist in Turkmenistan. There are no checks and balances, independent critical media is absent, and on the human rights front, the justice system, prison conditions, harassments, detentions, restrictions on free speech and travel abroad remain very significant problems."
Despite this, Krol told the commission, Turkmenistan is in a "potentially significant phase" in its history.
He noted promising signs that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is serious about bringing his country out of its slumber, citing the easing of internal travel restrictions, the creation of an Institute on Democracy and Human Rights, the release of some political prisoners, and Berdymukhammedov's efforts to restore diplomatic relations that were allowed to wither away under his predecessor, the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov.
These are "hopeful signs" the country is moving away from its past, Krol said, but the country still has a long way to go before it can be said to meet international standards of democracy and human rights.
"On the whole, President Berdymukhammedov seems to be taking a cautious, step-by-step approach to rebuilding his country's society and economy," Krol said. "He's not moved as fast as many would like on political and economic reform, with respect to human rights, but the steps he has initiated -- including this revised constitution, new election laws, and his opening up of the country to greater interaction with the outside world, we hope, are the first of many more steps he will take along the road to systemic reform."
Krol said the United States sees these changes as opportunities, and is content to allow the pace of change to take place at the government's own speed.
"Opportunities to engage and encourage the Turkmen authorities, and the Turkmen people -- who frankly have little or no experience, let alone understanding, of democracy -- and its processes," Krol said. "We recognize we're dealing with a political culture that will take time to evolve."
Eric McGlinchey, of George Mason University, used stronger language to describe the situation.
He said the upcoming elections will be a "sham" and questioned whether reforms that have been adopted are real or cosmetic.
He noted that Internet cafes are being closed, political prisoners still languish in jail, elections are run by the president, and -- similar to Niyazov -- a "creeping cult of personality" is developing around Berdymukhammedov.
And yet, McGlinchey argued, the United States should encourage the president -- a "facade democrat" -- to continue making whatever small changes he sees fit to make, in the hope that he will miscalculate their effect and "open up space" for real reforms.
"If we could encourage Berdymukhammedov along in this direction, not being overly shrill, for example, in December when these elections don't meet our [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] expectations, but perhaps congratulating them on making some incremental reform, I think we may be pushing the country and the society in the right direction," McGlinchey said.
Another expert witness cautioned against this, however. Cathy Fitzpatrick, of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, said the incremental changes that have occurred in Turkmenistan -- namely in the areas of health and education -- have merely undone some of the damage from the past, not moved the country forward.
"Rather than over-celebrating such improvements, we need to be very clear that they're not institutionalized," she said.
The elections will be "neither free nor fair," she added.
'Misreading' Of New Law
The changes that caught the attention of the Western media, she said, included the idea that there might be multiple political parties represented in the elections. She called that a "misreading" of the new law. The country's constitution is not self-enacting, she pointed out, which means that for every activity, a separate law must exist that expressly permits it. Political parties are allowed, in theory, but no laws exist on how they will be formed, registered, or funded, or how they can advertise, choose candidates, etc.
Fitzpatrick also criticized a new provision that allows people to nominate independent candidates for election. Ten people must agree on a candidate, and then 200 people must show up at a meeting to formalize the choice -- and every one of those persons must give the authorities all their identifying information.
"So that opens them up to harassment by the authorities," she said. "And sure enough, in two instances that we know about -- in Dashoguz was one -- a group of school principals got together to try to make good on these promises in the constitution, but then eight of the 10 got visits from the Ministry of National Security discouraging them from going forward, so their effort was invalidated."
She told the commission that the United States must be very clear in saying that the December elections are not democratic and "not over praise" them.
The West should take Berdymukhammedov at his word, she said, but remain critical and engaged.
Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.