Are reforms back on the shelf?
Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov is making a trip to the United States this week which includes a speech at the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly and meetings with top US officials. It will be difficult for him to present himself as the hoped for reformer who is willing to take Turkmenistan out of present isolationist course.
Nevertheless, Berdimuhammedov held talks on Monday in New York with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Apparently, both sides want to do more to seize opportunities to build closer ties.
Two years and nine months ago when the current Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov came to power many saw in him the would-be reformer much longed for after 20 years of harsh dictatorship under his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov who was referred to by respectful and fearful Turkmens alike as Turkmenbashy (Head of the Turkmens). Among those hopes were that Turkmenistan’s dismal human rights record would improve. To be true to these hopes, Berdimuhammedov has introduced some reforms to the educational and health spheres which were demolished under Niyazov and he has set the stage for closer relations with the outside world and most notably, the West. While he was taking these steps he even seemed to disapprove Niyazov’s ridiculous personality cult which became Turkmenistan’s image maker in the world .
But what were these good hopes based on? On an open commitment by the new Turkmen government to democracy, civic society and human rights? Or Just based on the good-will of the hard-working averageTurkmen who is never tired of hoping for better times to come? Or pipe dreams by Western governments and energy giants who hope that a change in leadership would promptly translate into lucrative gas and oil deals ? Some even signaled a readiness to put human rights on a back row while a few skeptics remained who doubted Berdimuhammedov’s seriousness on reforms and were expecting him to make a turn as soon as he had fostered his position in power. Recent events show the latter may not be wrong.
Recently, without any official explanation, and a group of students have been denied permission from leaving Turkmenistan to resume their studies after the summer vacation at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA). The Bishkek-based university, among the most prestigious in Central Asia, is not been recognized by Turkmenistan according to RFE/RL quoting a US Embassy spokesman in Ashgabat. The incident has been handled just in the style of Niyazov who had severely restricted foreign travel, visits by foreigners and study abroad . If Berdimuhammedov is afraid of bunch of students breathing the wind of freedom abroad, the argument goes, he would not be able to take bold steps in allowing Turkmenistan’s citizens more civil rights. The US Embassy has held talks in the hope to persuade the Turkmen government not to send back the students to Bishkek and solve the issue ahead of his trip to the United States. On September 1 when Turkmenistan was officially celebrating the newly declared “Day of Learning and Students”, the students who had remained for the summer vacation in Bishkek were writing petition for withdrawal and claiming back their documents.
Last week a new school in a Turkmen village was named after the president’s living father Myalikguly. Just in line with Niyazov’s personality cult style who wanted to portray his deceased father as a popular hero figure, a book has been published showing Berdimuhammedov’s grandfather as a war hero. Just as the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Berdimuhammedov enjoys being referred to by his subjects as “honored leader”. School exams based on Ruhnama, Niyazov’s brain washing spiritual book about Turkmen history and culture is still used in all Turkmen schools across the country.
“After all, Niyazov has left the legacy of what can be called the ‘perfect dictatorship’ to be readily used by his followers. In two years Berdimuhammedov has reached the point what Niyazow had come in 15 years”, said a former Turkmen school teacher who did not want to disclose his identity.
Berdimuhammedov does not hide his admiration of the model of the Chinese one-party rule , a country with a liberal economy but politically tightly controlled.
Having strengtened his position in power , he might now think that he has even more reason to deserve titles of honors and various prizes that have decorated Niyazov previously. In contrast to Niyazov, people are ready to go at great lengths to please him because the hope of reforms are attached to him.