After the European Union decided to move to a more cooperative approach with Turkmenistan when extending its interim trade agreement last year, and after the U.S. decided to increase cooperation with the annual bilateral consultations (ABCs), the multilateral organizations deepened their already-soft approach.
The United Nations has a number of active programs in Turkmenistan but refrains from direct criticism on problems like the lack of reporting on HIV/AIDS cases. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is now helping the Central Election Commission of Turkmenistan conduct programs in Ashgabat and provincial cities to educate people about election rights. This enables the official press to crow about Ashgabat’s seeming compliance with international electoral standards regarding universal suffrage, transparency, and campaigning (still known by the Soviet-era term "agitation" in Turkmenistan) – and cite foreign visitors as praising Turkmen democracy.
Yet there remains the glaring fact of the absence of any alternative parties. While President Berdymukhamedov appeared to toy with the idea of starting another party for farmers -- one that would have necessarily been as controlled as the ill-named Democratic Party -- he hasn't given the green light yet for the agrarians for local elections. So the rather peremptory nominations process now underway involves only pre-cleared nominations from the one party, and the officially-recognized Galkynysh (Renewal) movement and other state-approved conveyor belts for policy. In past years, those who took the local nomination process at face value, and tried to collect signatures or convene a meeting have suffered reprisals. The system is not intended to admit any alternatives to the existing state-run status quo -- despite the claim in the official media of compliance with an international concept of a "wide alternative base."
OSCE convened a week-long series of lectures on international human rights law, attended by 35 students of the prestigious Foreign Ministry's Institute of International Relations. Although the students are learning about international monitoring and the role of non-governmental organizations, we aren't likely to see any of them step out of line and form their own contrary NGO monitoring the falsehood of an election without authentic competing parties.
While it could be argued that this sort of internationally-sponsored training will come in handy some day when Turkmenistan is ready to liberalize its system, there's still the open question as to whether the international community in fact assists in the retardation of that inevitable process by enabling officials and the state media to purvey falsehoods about "international standards." When international institutions also shower the autocratic president with awards for his “reforms,” it’s reasonable to ask how much they really encourage them.
Far from the seminar halls, the scene is less "international." Once again, the president has limited to a mere 188 people – the number who can fit on a plane – those entitled to make the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Both Forum 18 News Service and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights have also written recently about the sentencing of Ilmurad Nurliev, the protestant pastor unlawfully convicted in an unfair trial and sentenced to four years in prison on charges of alleged fraud -- charges based on testimony from former prisoners under the state's control.
If any glimmer of hope came from this bad-faith case, it is that not a single church member came forward to testify against their pastor falsely. That may be hard to see as any kind of basis for eventual democracy in Turkmenistan, but it's actually a very important form of civic courage that can become near-impossible in this country of horrible pressures on people who step out of line -- often by threatening and persecuting their relatives.
In Dashoguz, during the state-orchestrated Turkmen-Uzbek friendship festivals when Uzbek President Islam Karimov visited Turkmenistan, parents finally rebelled, weary of having to turn out with their children in the dark and cold hours before dawn and spend the day – without food or toilets -- rehearsing to appear as a cheering crowd when the president goes by. According to the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, they simply didn't let their children get on the bus ferrying students from rural areas to the city. Those that did send their children under pressure then did something else -- they refused to send them to school the next day, after they returned home tired, hungry and cold after midnight. The question is whether they will be able to resist the next round of pressure -- the sort of civic act that would have to precede much braver gestures like not voting, or mounting alternative candidates, in one-party elections. Even under past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, however, people found ways to display their dissatisfaction: when forced to turn out for one of the incessant tree-planting sessions to glorify the state, they planted them upside down.
These sorts of small acts of nascent civil society, while encouraging, are not likely to undermine the authoritarian regime any time soon -- especially with laws "in compliance with international standards." Dovlet Hojamedov, writing for the Transmission blog of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reports that during the celebration of Turkmenistan's 19th anniversary of independence, Myrat Garryev, named chair of the Central Election Commission, called on President Berdymukhamedov to remain president forever. The 80-year-old official was known as one of the key people behind the cult of personality built around Niyazov, says Hojamedov.
President Berdymukhamedov is spending $2 billion out of the state treasury on the construction of an ostentatious Olympic Village, according to a turkmenistan.ru report. Turkmenistan is not likely to host the international Olympics any time soon, but it is reportedly slated to hold the Asian Olympics in 2017. The Turkish company Polimeks will build a substantial part of the facility, Hurriyet reported. Polimeks also declared that it has built a total of $5 billion in various hospitals, museums, public buildings and monuments since 1995.
In Turkmenistan, the national budget is not transparent and the legislature does not control it. That leaves a lot of room for corruption -- which we can surmise exists from certain presidential dismissals. Recently, the Turkmen leader made one of his eye-in-the-sky helicopter tours of the capital to inspect construction projects. Afterward, according to turkmenistan.ru, he reprimanded Vice Premier Tuvakmamed Japarov for poor supervision of projects, and dismissed A. Durdymmammedov, the city prosecutor of Ashgabat, for "lax oversight" of construction. Guvanchmyrat Geklenov, chair of the Central Bank was also scolded for bad management, and A. Orazov was dismissed for "serious shortcomings." We have no idea what any of this was about, but we know that the president personally commands all of the projects, large and small.
The French company Bouygues was recently summoned for a presidential review of their designs, and the Turkmen leader had suggestions for how the French could combine classic and Turkmen cultural values. President Berdymukhamedov was "thoroughly acquainted with the different variations of interior, interior and exterior trim of the facilities," TDH, the official state news agency of Turkmenistan, assured us.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write [email protected]