Presidential Elections in Turkmenistan

Opposition Left Out in the Cold

Turkmenistan will elect a new president this coming Sunday. For the first time, citizens have the chance to choose between several candidates. But the victor is already a foregone conclusion – the old, new President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov. Gesine Dornblüth reports

Gurbanguly Berdymuchammedow (photo: AP)
L'état c'est moi - Turkmen Interim President Gurbanguly Berdymuchammedow

​​The chances of democracy making headway in Turkmenistan following the death of the former head of state, Saparmurat Niyasov, are slim.

This past December, the colorful Turkmen leader, who liked to call himself "Turkmenbashi", meaning "Leader of all Turkmen," died unexpectedly. He had ruled as dictator over the Central Asian republic, which has quite large reserves of natural gas, for more than 15 years.

Opposition powerless

Berdimuhammedov had long been in Niyasov's inner circle. The 49-year-old has announced that he will continue on the course set by the deceased leader, and he is in fact already filling in as president in the interim. The opposition doesn't stand a chance in the elections: their candidates are not eligible to run. Most of those in the opposition have been in exile for years anyway.

Opposition politician Nurmuhammed Hanamov was Minister of Economic Planning and later ambassador to Israel and Turkey under the dictator Niyasov. In 2002 he fled Turkmenistan for Austria. From there he leads the "Republican Party of Turkmenistan" – and observes from afar the political goings-on in his homeland.

Two years ago, he lost his two sons in a Moscow car accident evidently staged by the Secret Service. Hanamov speaks of a junta that is currently holding the reins of power in Turkmenistan.

Political insider networks led by the Redzhepov clan

"Interim President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov is the candidate with the best chance of winning the elections," reports Hanamov.

But he is only the tip of the iceberg. Behind him stands the chief of the presidential guard, Akmurat Redzhepov, who has a much further reach than his title would indicate. Redzhepov was deployed by Niyasov to control all the centers of power: the Ministries of Defense, Security and the Interior are under his charge. They are filled with Redzhepov's people. And they prevent any freedom of opinion these days. "Whoever demands free elections is pursued and stuck in prison," says Hanamov.

And Redzhepov's people get rid of anyone who stands in the way of the regime, of late for example the Parliamentary President. According to the constitution, he would have taken over as interim leader after Niyasov's death. But he was arrested instead, under mysterious circumstances.

Vice Premier Berdimuhammedov, who was enthroned in his place, has announced that he will carry on Niyasov's course, but on the other hand he has also promised some reforms. Up until now, Turkmenistan has been almost completely isolated.

Fundamental needs of the population ignored

Berdimuhammedov now wants to allow students to study abroad, along with giving citizens unfettered access to the Internet. But exiled politician Chudaiberdy Orazov and others warn that these are nothing but empty words. Orazov has been living in Sweden for the last few years.

Honor guards stand by the coffin of late Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov during his funeral in Ashgabat, 24 December 2006 (photo: AP)
Last escort for the deceased Turkmen president. "Turkmenbashi" Saparmurat Niyasov died unexpectedly in December 2006

​​"Niyasov's policies will continue to prevail: there is lots of talk, but no action," says Orazov. "Turkmenistan is in a catastrophic situation. The leadership should think about how to fight these illnesses instead of pretending they don't exist. Or how to stop hunger in the country and the natural disasters in some regions."

Instead, they are proposing programs that have nothing to do with the actual needs of the population, according to Orazov. From his base in Sweden, Orazov leads the oppositional exile organization "Watan" (Homeland). He was nominated as presidential candidate by the exiled opposition on February 11.

However, Orazov was not granted eligibility by the central election committee, because in Turkmenistan candidates must have lived in the country for the last 15 years. Still, Orazov is not ready to stick his head in the sand. He hopes for support from Western governments and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Hard line against Turkmenistan essential

"If the international community were to take a hard line against Turkmenistan and demand that it change to a democratic course, then those in power would have to accept it and allow free elections," says Orazov.

To date, however, little criticism of the Turkmen leadership has been voiced abroad – including on the part of the German government, which has announced a new strategy for Central Asia as one of the goals for its EU Council presidency. Europe's reticence surprises the exiled Hanamov and his "Republican Party."

"Although the EU, and Germany as current Council President, have a great deal of power at their disposal, we are unfortunately not seeing any active reactions," Hanamov remarks. "All they are doing is watching and waiting to see what happens. But this is wrong. Because nothing is going to happen on its own. If the elections go as the present regime envisions, then it will only be more difficult to instigate change later on."

The risk of radical Islam

And another danger is growing as well, warns Hanamov: that of Islamic fundamentalism. Turkmenistan shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan. There are already religious fundamentalist cells in the country.

"At first, these cells were only found in two regions on the border of Uzbekistan; now they reach all the way to just before the capital of Ashgabat," reports Hanamov. "There are people who find their regime better than that of Niyasov. And they are joined by vast hordes of unemployed."

According to the estimates of international organizations, the unemployed already account for more than 60 percent of the population. These people are attracted by the considerable financial means at the disposal of the Arab extremists, more even than by their religious propaganda. They can easily wind up becoming financially dependent on religious institutions. If the regime remains on the same political track, Islamic extremism will continue to spread.

The exiled politicians know one thing for sure: the international community should take a stronger stance against the present leadership in Turkmenistan.

Gesine Dornblüth

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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