Turkmenistan: Opposition Unlikely to be Allowed in Presidential Elections
Remember how President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov surprised everyone last summer by seeming to invite the opposition to take part in next year's presidential elections? His alleged invitation came right in the middle of the Turkmen leadership's struggle to cope with the aftermath of the explosion of a munitions depot in Abadan. People protested the lack of news from the government and the apparently high casualties that officials seemed determined to cover up.
The sudden announcement that exiled opposition leaders might be welcome in the heavily-controlled elections seemed at the time as a kind of distraction from the government's inability or unwillingness to respond to the needs of civil society in the post-explosion crisis. It was as if Berdymukhamedov sensed that he could suffer a huge blow to his prestige from the anger erupting over the government's mishandling of the disaster, and offered a sop to far-away political dissidents whom he never really intended to accommodate. In August, when the elections were announced, nothing was said about any permission for exiles to return.
Well, now as the February 2012 elections draw closer, it turns out that the old adage applies; "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
Nothing more has been heard of the offer to the opposition -- which was never really validated -- and now Nurmukhammed Hanamov, in an interview with the independent émigré site Chronicles of Turkmenistan (chrono-tm.org), says in fact the opposition won't be allowed to take part in the elections. Hanamov is chairman of the opposition Republican Party of Turkmenistan which is forced to operate in exile.
Hanamov, who is now based in Austria, where he has received political asylum, says that right after Berdymukhamedov's supposed invitation on July 8, he and his colleagues asked officials at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to inquire about how serious the president's announcement was. They asked what kind of conditions there would be for exiled political leaders to return home safely and campaign, as OSCE will likely monitor the elections in some fashion (depending on conditions).
As it was taking awhile to get a response, in mid-November, Hanamov approached the Lithuanian Embassy in Vienna (Vilnius currently holds the chair of OSCE), and also Lamberto Zannier, the Secretary General of OSCE, who traveled to Turkmenistan earlier this month to attend the Oil and Gas Turkmenistan conference. Eventually Hanamov learned that a meeting had taken place in Vienna between OSCE and Turkmen officials, where Turkmenistan vehemently protested against the fact that despite Ashgabat's furious objections, OSCE had been allowing Turkmen dissidents to participate in meetings such as the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (although Ashgabat successfully pressured the then-Kazakh chair-in-office of OSCE to keep Turkmen exiles out of the OSCE summit). That seemed to indicate that there was no possibility at all for participation in elections, if even international meetings were off-limits.
During his meeting with Berdymukhamedov, Lamberto Zannier reportedly privately raised the issue of the exile politicians' participation in elections (it's not in the OSCE press release), and what practical steps might be taken toward that end. But Hanamov said Zannier's assistant later told him that Berdymukhamedov simply ignored the question and it went unanswered.
Hanamov has also tried going directly to Amb. Yzgeldy Mamedov, now the Turkmen envoy to Austria, but Mamedov told him he had no instructions about émigré and the elections and Hanamov should appeal to the Foreign Ministry. Hanamov waited through the summer holidays but then still had no answer and intends to renew his inquiry.
So as chrono-tm.org put it drily, "Understood. They are not expecting the opposition in Ashgabat."
Could Berdymukhamedov have meant some *other* more tame opposition within Turkmenistan? If so, since February 2010, when he talked up the idea, albeit vaguely, he hasn't spoken even about any more docile form of alternative candidates.
Despite a pledge to permit a second state-controlled agricultural party, no law on parties was passed and no new party permitted for the parliamentary elections -- and nothing at all has been said about the presidential elections. When the date was announced, there was no reference to exiles or alternative parties. French and German ministers have raised the need for more pluralism directly with the Turkmen tyrant, but he has ignored them, too, and the state media hasn't covered their inquiries.
With the OSCE and the European Union preoccupied mainly with energy security and regional engagement with Afghanistan, the issue of how democratic the next Turkmen presidential elections will be is evidently a low priority. Clearly, Berdymukhamedov feels no pressure to make good on his past public pledges.