Safely ensconced in power, Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is now striving to make the Central Asian state's authoritarian system more efficient. To do that, Berdymukhamedov is giving the Turkmen Constitution a makeover.
Following a session of the State Commission for Constitutional Reforms on July 21, Berdymukhamedov signaled a desire to mimic China's controlled capitalism model. According to a report distributed by the state TDH news agency, Berdymukhamedov indicated the revised Constitution would "guarantee a balanced transition to the market economy against the background of equal legal existence of different forms of ownership, and the development of various forms of entrepreneurship." He also said that all Turkmen citizens would enjoy "economic freedom."
Under the working draft of the new Constitution, Berdymukhamedov would do away with one of the more cumbersome components of the cult of personality built by his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The 2,500-member Halk Maslahaty, or People's Council, which is currently the supreme legislative body in the land, would be abolished and its powers dispersed between the president and a newly enlarged national parliament. Berdymukhamedov suggested that the overhaul of the legislature would make "more efficient use of the capacity for democratization of society and the state."
"Reforming the constitutional basis of society and state is a true necessity triggered by the objective conditions of the era of new renaissance," he added.
Under Niyazov the Halk Maslahaty was a useful rubber stamp and convenient buffer between the president, parliament and reality. It was also a show-stopping, televised event deliberately reminiscent of Turkmen traditional tribal meetings. The legislative body had the power to decide upon constitutional amendments, referendums, treaties and domestic policies.
"The Halk Maslahaty was set up under Niyazov as a rubber-stamp Soviet-style parliament and hand-selected by him, and that's why Berdymukhamedov had to abolish it," said Catherine Fitzpatrick, an analyst with the Turkmenistan Project. [Editor's Note: EurasiaNet and the Turkmenistan Project both operate under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Institute].
"I also think he had another objective reason: 2,500 of anything is just too huge, no modern country has anything of the sort, and it's expensive to run and pointless," Fitzpatrick added. "So [Berdymukhamedov] could easily hold up that practical solution as well." The new parliament, or Mejlis, is set to have a more manageable 125 members.
While Berdymukhamedov may be interested in liberalizing the economy, the same cannot be said for his views on politics. The new-look constitution seems intent on doing away with a 2005 amendment that devolved the power to appoint Hakims (governors) and other local officials to the regions. That privilege will be restored to the president.
"The draft Constitution clearly differentiated representative and executive authorities, restored the status of governors of regions and heads of district administrations and mayors of towns as the representatives of the president of Turkmenistan, made their appointment and dismissal the prerogative of the head of state," explained the national broadcaster Altyn Asyr.
Berdymukhamedov is tossing a few bones to civil society activists. For example, the constitutional changes will bar judges and prosecutors from membership in political parties and some public associations. But overall, there's little in the draft constitution that can bring smiles to the faces of democratization advocates. The draft is widely expected to be finalized and implemented in the early fall.
Constitutional changes were first mooted in May and subject to much fanfare in state-controlled media. "Wide, open and business-like; this is how the members of the Turkmen parliamentary working group describe the nationwide campaign for the discussion of the country's constitution," gushed a commentary published in the official Neutralny Turkmenistan newspaper.
With Turkmenistan's sitting atop a vast reservoir of natural gas, there is little reason for Berdymukhamedov to take any political chances. Not just streams, but mighty rivers of cash, generated by energy exports, seem set to flow into the country for the foreseeable future. GDP increased by 21 percent during the first half of 2008. Berdymukhamedov seems intent on sharing just enough of the state's energy wealth -- through pledges to boost pensions, subsidies and restore some forms of entertainment, such as the opera -- to contain popular discontent and keep his authoritarian system running smoothly.
Deirdre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.