Turkmenistan is But a Stage
Opposition leaders were swift in reacting to the absence of leadership in Turkmenistan and one of the earliest comments was from the chairman of the Watan opposition group and former deputy Prime Minister Khudaiberdy Orazov. He placed the emphasis on consultation, which may indicate that contingency plans among the notoriously fractious and scattered opposition have never been properly formulated. Watan’s own website itself functions as little more than a clearing house for information appearing in other media, although it performs a valuable function in gathering the amount of information that it does. The hours after Saparmurat Nityazov’s death initiated a flurry of postings from Russian and Western press on that site, but not much by way of a blueprint for how the exiled political community intends to seize this historic opportunity.
One concrete attempt at reaching the country, however, has already ended in failure, as Ukrainian web site Korrespondent.ru reported. Batyr Muhammedshin, who describes himself as a representative of the united Turkmen opposition and the shadow Mister of Justice explained how a plane chartered specially for the operation was turned back from Ashgabat:
“The most important issue is the return of the opposition,” he said, noting that the Turkmen authorities had forbidden him from doing this. Many leaders of the opposition live in Western Europe and Scandinavia.
“The new government has closed the border,” Muhammedshin said, adding that the civil aviation service in Ashgabat refused authorisation for the arrival of a chartered plane, flying from Sweden to Turkmenistan via Moscow, filled with opposition activists.
“The airline organising the chartered flight held talks with the aviation service in Ashgabat. But they were told a ban had been imposed on all flights and that any incoming planes would be shot down,” Muhammedshin said.
He also said that opposition leaders are expecting to hold a meeting in a European city and that they are counting on the support of the international community.
“The alternative to our return to Turkmenistan is the continuation of course undertaken by Niyazov,” he said. He also added that he did not genuinely believe that Niyazov was actually dead.
Precisely what kind of legitimate support the international community will be able to give is not so clear. Previous opposition congresses have been lent international support, but have resulted in very little constructive and collaborative results. Leaving aside the vanities of all the varying jostling figures, there are certain issues that have inevitably served to hamstring any galvanised opposition.
The greatest complicating question for the opposition is that many of them are invariably tainted by their erstwhile association with Niyazov’s regime. The best-known historical focal point of the opposition, Boris Shikhmuradov, whose was jailed in 2003 for an alleged assassination conspiracy against Niyazov, vigorously but unconvincingly claimed to have had no part in the regime’s excesses, in spite of his vicinity to the president for many years. Notably, the spurned establishment figure turning against his former allies has become something of a constant in the former Soviet space, and may have something to do with the compromised quality of some of the colour revolutions to have taken place. Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia have all produced anti-system political personalities that have emerged from the establishment itself. While in those countries, these politicians have tried and continue to try to overcome this apparent handicap, Turkmen opposition figures are obviously limited by the absolute embargo that is placed on their ability to appeal to the population directly; this being the second stumbling block for any prospective opposition.
Not only do the wider population not have any concrete understanding of who the alternatives to the Niyazov nomenklatura might be, but perhaps more worryingly, these individuals themselves have lost any real fundamental grasp of the issues that could serve to lead the country out of its current blind alley. The occasional article in the Western press is about as much as concession the opposition seem prepared to offer to matters of popular welfare. Meanwhile, the plight of powerlessness is discussed in the setting of parallel parliaments and shadow governments, where the finer points of a national constitution that has never meant very much to anybody is discussed. It is a profound irony that Turkmenistan should nominally hold its founding charter with such reverence as to have a national holiday in its honour (notably, more readily celebrated by the population as a day dedicated to their national poet, Magtymguly), and yet very first thing that is done on the occasion of the single most important event in Turkmenistan’s post-independence history is to flout it in the most flagrant manner by ignoring its provisions for succession. The point being that a self-appointed body based in Europe to discuss a largely meaningless document seems like a strange way to organise an alternative to arbitrary despotism.
Those who have displayed the startling bravery of staying and resisting in their own small way have paid a tragic price, however, and it is in this area that the international community’s efforts should most immediately be made visible. One useful example is the call from Reporters Without borders for the release of journalists under arrest:
“We demand the release of all jailed journalists and human right workers, currently held in Turkmen prisons in unbearable conditions,” a Reporters Without Frontiers representative said. “Many have been imprisoned simply for cooperating with international media.”
This would come too late for Olguspar Muradova, who died in detention in September this year, but there may still be hope for Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurd Hadjiev, who have not been seen or heard from for numerous months. As the journalists’ organisation also notes, not a single one of the 10,000 prisoners released in the amnesty on Oct. 16 was a journalist.
At the same time, some strands of the opposition have urged caution before charging into the country with plans for regime change. Another former prime minister and minister for oil and gas Nazar Suyunov has spoken out against any hastened return to Turkmenistan of exiled individuals, warning that this could create a climate of crisis.
“If the opposition suddenly turn up there, it could all turn out very messy,” he said.
Instead, the opposition should await the announcement of elections, at which point they can return and participate in a proper electoral process, Suzunov argued.
Interim president Kurbanguly Berdymukhammedov raised this very issue on Friday, saying that a date would be called at the next Khalk Maslahaty meeting, to be held two days after Niyazov’s funeral, on Dec. 26. Prospective candidates for the presidency will be named on that day, Berdymukhammedov said, Interfax reported Friday.
This may be an occasion for Berdymukhammedov to put forward the name of head of the presidential guard Akmurad Rejepov, or perhaps to make a symbolic pass at rejecting his own coronation by a pliant Khalk Maslahaty. It should be fascinating to see how this largely symbolic body of public representation performs its duties and what, if any, evidence of opposition will be on show there. For some background on this institutional body, what follows is a translation of an article by Adjar Krutov appearing on a Russian language site specialising in Central Asian affairs some weeks ago:
This institution is recognised under the law as the “highest permanent representative organ of the people’s rule, possessing the highest authority of power of the state and leadership”. Only at first glance it seems that this florid formulation merely hides an organ more commonly known elsewhere as a parliament. However, from a legal point of view the Khalk Maslahaty is not so much a parliament as a synthesis of two other historical phenomena.
First, Khalk Maslahaty, which is roughly equivalent to “national gathering”, is indeed reminiscent of pre-state and primitive pre-state tribe gatherings that distinguished the period of the development of society. Formally, the decisions of these meetings have the highest force and this is an undoubted merit of this type of institution. But everyone knows from history, interested people can learn to manipulate the masses and influence them into adopting pre-defined decisions.
Second, it is quite evident that there is much in common between the Turkmen variant of the Khalk Maslahaty and the Bolshevik Soviets of 1920s and 30s. The similarity lies, first and foremost, in the stipulation by Leninist theory that “workers’ corporations”, soviets, like the Khalk Maslahaty, are based on the opposing concepts about the separation of the systems of power. In both cases, what were nominally described as being in “the same bottle”, were artificially uninted in the region of two separate branches of governance – the legislative and the executive. To study the composition of the Khalk Maslahaty, it might even be possible to argue for a further incorporation of authorities that also takes in the judiciary. The Bolshevik soviets systems also embodied the notion that on a political level, there could be no recognition of pluralism – a fundamental requirement for a modern civilisation. In this monolithic format, political representation is permitted only in the context of the single political party and its auxiliary social organisations.
Finally, there is an explicit procedural similarity: The Khalk Maslahaty, as used to be the case with soviet congresses, is a very infrequent event and last a total of a few days. An obvious fact derives from all these specific features: neither of these organs have had the ability to adequately fulfil the function of representational power.
The adoption of a new law necessitates discussion, the confrontation of opposing ideas, and a prolonged and thoughtful consideration of the essentials of its constituent standards. And this is exactly what does not occur. In the Khalk Maslahaty, as at the soviet congresses, an enormous hall harmoniously applauds preconceived solutions. With the Bolsheviks, the solutions would be prepared in the depths of the communist party apparatus, while in Turkmenistan this function is performed by an apparatus headed by the president. That is to say, congresses and Khalk Maslahaty serve a purely ritual need; a decorative feature.
We will take it as given that it is to this end that the Turkmen Khalk Maslahaty was created, which is composed, in part, of the president, the Mejlis deputies, the chairman of the Supreme Court, members of the government, leaders of the local municipalities, and functionaries of social organisations. Altogether the body counts 2507 members.
A Russian perspective on the role that might be acquitted by the exiled opposition in this key moment has also been put forward by prominent political scientist Sergei Markov, who agrees that they will have a role to perform.
As Markov suggests, although many former state officials have left Turkmenistan, they left allies behind and can therefore still wield some influence.
“When the battle for power gets underway between the various elites groups, then the opposition will want to return to the country. Those groups that have started the struggle will be hoping for their support.
The danger is that as battle begins, various outside political forces could attempt to influence the course of events by supporting one or another group”
The bogeyman for many in Russia is the White House, which expressed its condolences for Niyazov’s death on Thursday and said in a statement that it hoped to consolidate and build on relations between the United States and Turkmenistan.
Once again, with the death of Niyazov and a new leaderhsip in place, the chimerical Trans-Caspian may start to be raised again, but more seriously. Such an arrangement is becoming ever more tempting to the West, which is seeking at all costs to alienate an growingly confident Russia. The pipeline would be the magic bullet that the West has been seeking in both its commercial interests and its geopolitical considerations. The prospect of affordable gas purchased at the expense of the Russians and the Chinese seems too tempting a prospect not to consider.
And the Europeans, for all the talk of value-based relationships, will not be backward in coming forward. Yet more rumours have it that the European Union’s special envoy to Central Asia Pierre Morel, formerly French ambassador to Turkmenistan, has paid a flying visit to Ashgabat since Niyazov’s death, a repeat on his earlier stay on Dec. 18. Likewise, Russian business daily RBK reported, a Gazprom official dropped in to ascertain who exactly was shaping up to be Niyazov’s successor.
Furthermore, much has been made of the German EU presidency and the prominence that Central Asia may adopt on the European foreign affairs agenda at that time. It was more commonly anticipated that Uzbekistan would be subject of the organisation’s rapprochement, although German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier did pay an official visit to Ashgabat earlier this year, but the new scenario means all bets are off.
The near abroad dimension also presents more curious scenarios. If Ashgabat were lured into the Western camp that would leave Iran surrounded on all sides by potential diplomatic antagonists. Iran’s own gas export policy could thrown to the four winds by any similar shift.
To the north, Uzbekistan panicked on hearing the news coming out of Turkmenistan. According to a number of media reports, Uzbekistan not only shut down its southern border, akin to similar reactions at the time of the Kyrgyz revolution, but it also imposed a news blackout on the death for several hours. Karimov soon decided to offer his condolences, but it is likely that he was more concerned that he now sticks out severely as the last remaining Soviet era leader to remain standing. Whatever, the outcome of Turkmen transition, good or bad, Karimov will certainly be disconcerted by yet more evidence that the sacred cow of leadership change is not alien to the region.