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Turkmenistan: Rally Organizers Arrested; Complaints Commission Formed

Construction Boom in Ashgabat

Remember those 50 demonstrators in Ashgabat who were mad that their homes were being destroyed to make way for some new government buildings? Not surprisingly, police immediately dispersed them, and security agents launched an investigation to find the organizers.

According to chrono-tm.org, an independent web site run by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, four women whose names could not be obtained were accused of instigating the action and were arrested. The rest probably had lots of "conversations" with police.

What happened next didn't seem completely according to script. Suddenly, the parliament spoke up about work on a new housing code.. That seemed rather...fortuitous...but there was more.

At a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, the Turkmen leader heard a report from Akja Nurberdyeva, chair of the Mejlis or parliament, on the new housing law and urged the parliament to pick up the pace on it.

Then Vice Premier D. Orazov -- the very official in charge of all the construction projects -- reported that a new inter-agency commission had been established, authorized by the president, to consider petitions and complaints from residents whose homes were located at the construction sites of new buildings in Ashgabat and the provinces. Suddenly, according to the State News Agency of Turkmenistan, President Berdymukhamedov seemed to care:

Commenting on the report, the President said that large-scale construction had been launched throughout the country and numerous facilities of particular importance for the national economy and social sphere were put into operation. However, protection of the interests of citizens, residents in urban and rural areas must be insured while implementing construction projects, for the ultimate goal of ongoing reforms was to improve the welfare and quality of life of Turkmen citizens.

The president urged the officials involved to "work in compliance with modern requirements to enhance the rule of law" and "focus on the importance of considering thoroughly each petition, each case, to adopt an unbiased decision."

All well and good, but skeptics can be understood, given past empty promises and ineffective state agencies. In 2007, a commission to accept complaints on abuses by law-enforcement agencies met for a few times then ceased functioning. People writing in to complain about mistreatment by police or prosecutors found their appeals re-routed to the very officials they were complaining about -- and faced reprisals. When experts of the UN Committee Against Torture asked about these appeals -- how many, on which topics, with which cases solved -- they got no answers.

If the Turkmen president was really serious about hearing citizens' complaints and taking into account people's interests when their houses were bulldozed for the sake of grandiose state projects, he would not be arresting demonstrators, but actually heeding their appeals.

It's not only that Berdymukhamedov feels the heat of the Arab Spring at his back in making such a seemingly high-level response to even a small demonstration, quickly dispersed by police.

In fact, he's drawing on decades of Soviet and post-Soviet experience of effectively dissipating unrest by apparing to yield to some economic demands by citizens if they don't threaten the leaders' power, coopting some of the protesters, and harshly punishing those who won't go along, as an object lesson.

And then there's that classic complaints commission -- instead of permitting non-governmental organizations to exist or having free elections to parliament or passing humane laws, the government creates a body to hear petitions on a discretionary basis, one by one. That forces citizens first to risk reprisals by complaining, then to queue up and wait for an answer, then find themselves in a setting where a bribe may be expected -- all as a kind of simulation of real governance.

Instead of actually involving people in decision-making or duly compensating them, the government can point to the existence of a commission as having "done something."

So stay tuned to see what happens to the four women arrested -- and the rest of the protestors. Perhaps, like at least several hundred of the lucky employees of Turkmen Airlines, or Turkmenhimiya, the chemical concern, or the Food Association, they might move into new apartments, although they may have preferred their old ones.

Turkmenistan: Rally Organizers Arrested; Complaints Commission Formed

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