Turkmenistan after Niyazov
12 Feb 2007
Turkmenistan has a new president, but the international community should condition ties on real reform, not promises.
Turkmenistan after Niyazov,* the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the legacy of the late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, and the situation in the country following the rigged election on 11 February of Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov as his successor. The international community must make it clear that an end to Turkmenistan’s isolation and serious trade and aid relationships require its new government to take the first steps to reverse Niyazov’s most egregious policies and improve human rights.
“It is uncertain whether promised reforms are anything more than election demagoguery”, says Michael Hall, Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director. “The new leadership does seem to recognise the self-destructive path Niyazov’s policies put the country on, but beginning the post-Niyazov era with a blatantly falsified election is not an encouraging sign”.
International commentary often made light of Niyazov's bizarre personality cult, but behind the gold and marble monuments was a grim reality. His two decades in power bequeathed ruined education and public health sectors, a record of human rights abuses, thousands of political prisoners and an economy under strain despite rich energy exports.
The country is calm, but it is hard to say for how long. How Berdimuhammedov came to power – by subverting constitutional procedures for presidential succession – may work against him and his allies, providing grounds for challengers to question their legitimacy. Delays or failure to implement campaign pledges on education, health-care and salaries could lead to unrest.
While significant steps towards democratisation are unlikely any time soon, the international community should continue to urge movement in this direction. Steps the new government could easily and quickly take without risking its hold on power include: giving the Red Cross access to detention places; abrogating the decree invalidating foreign academic degrees; reviewing Niyazov-era political convictions; ending restrictions on travel abroad; and facilitating a full, independent and public accounting of the recent death in custody of a human rights activist, Ogulsapar Muradova, and the current whereabouts of her colleagues.
Much more must be done to overcome the extensive damage Niyazov did to his country, but the international community should be prepared to offer improved relations and new assistance if the government begins to demonstrate by such actions good will and genuine intent. In the meantime, the international community should keep pressure on for a political prisoner amnesty, should track down and freeze Niyazov’s overseas assets, releasing them to the government only for implementation of reforms, and should maintain and where possible expand existing aid programs to improve educational opportunities for Turkmen citizens.
“Of course, improved relations are desirable, but Turkmenistan's new leadership should take the initiative by improving human rights and human security for its citizens before there is talk of renewed ‘engagement’”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director.