Thursday, 18 March 2010

BERDIMUKHAMMEDOV CALLS FOR MAJOR REFORMS IN TURKMENISTAN

Published in Field Reports

By Chemen Durdiyeva (3/18/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Speaking at the extended Cabinet meeting on February 18, President Gurbanguly Bedimuhammedov announced that Turkmenistan should register new political parties that would compete with the sole existing Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. At another meeting with the State Security Council on March 1, the president also declared his plans to liberalize Turkmenistan’s major legislation on criminal law.

After its last amendment in 2008, article 30 of Turkmenistan’s constitution guarantees the rights for Turkmen citizens to form political parties and public associations.

Speaking at the extended Cabinet meeting on February 18, President Gurbanguly Bedimuhammedov announced that Turkmenistan should register new political parties that would compete with the sole existing Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. At another meeting with the State Security Council on March 1, the president also declared his plans to liberalize Turkmenistan’s major legislation on criminal law.

After its last amendment in 2008, article 30 of Turkmenistan’s constitution guarantees the rights for Turkmen citizens to form political parties and public associations. The former Communist Party, which was renamed the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan following the country’s independence in 1991, was the only functioning political party under late president Niyazov’s chairmanship. The major banned opposition parties such as the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, the United Turkmen Opposition and the Watan socio-political movement have been unable to push for any change, acting underground in exile mainly from Russia and Europe.

“We could register a new political party this year within the framework of the constitution if someone comes up with the initiative to do so … this could be either an agrarian party or a party of any other direction” said Berdimuhammedov at a televised speech. He further stressed that the new parties should be able to share the goals of the ruling Democratic Party and this way the country “will continue to develop in a democratic way”. Nurberdy Nurmammedov, leader of the unregistered Turkmen opposition group Agzybirlik and the only opposition leader still living in Turkmenistan, welcomed the news as a step forward in an interview for RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service. At the same time, Nurmammedov spoke of the lack of a clear legal basis for the creation and registration of political parties with the Justice Ministry of Turkmenistan.

Although officially allowing the creation of opposition parties might sound as a step forward, any optimistic view of possible reforms should not disregard the fact that former president Niyazov used to make similar public announcements in response to international criticism of his totalitarian rule. However, real political reforms never took place. Whether such a sensational announcement actually means giving up the single party system, and if any current government officials or public figures will dare to criticize government policies by creating an opposition party remains unclear and unlikely. Unless real legal reforms to guarantee the safety of any possible opposition party are made, such announcements are unlikely to bring any qualitative changes into the existing single party system. Some local analysts view the president’s call as a move to create a positive reformist image amidst the constant criticism of Western human rights groups that have been trying to attract attention to human rights issues in the midst of Turkmenistan’s lucrative business deals with foreign companies. The Freedom House report of 2009 included Turkmenistan as one of the world’s worst human rights violators whereas Reporters without Borders ranked it alongside North Korea in terms of its press freedom index.

Another ‘surprise appeal’ made by President Berdimuhammedov was the call for the liberalization of the country’s criminal code and making it more compatible with international standards. The president told the parliament to draft a new criminal code that will reduce the maximum criminal penalty from 25 years in prison to 15 years. He also mentioned that convicts of minor crimes should be allowed to pay monetary fines instead of going to jail. One month prior to the president’s call for reform of the criminal code, the Netherlands-based Turkmenistan's Independent Lawyers Association (TILA) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights released a joint report, stating that Turkmenistan has extremely high rates of incarceration and highly criticized the government for miserable conditions in the country’s jails and other penitentiary facilities such as correctional colonies and SIZOs (pre-trial detention facilities). According to the report, the total imprisonment capacity in the existing colonies and prisons is 8,100 inmates (excluding BLHK – the penal battalion for convicted military personnel) but the number of inmates was 26,720 prior to the annual amnesty announced in December 2009.  Timur Misrikhanov, the head of the Association of Independent Lawyers of Turkmenistan, says the government needs to completely overhaul the legal profession in addition to the criminal code and also grant the defense lawyers the right to protect the individuals in custody.

Unlike neighboring Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan has never experienced a multi-party system, since all opposition parties were outlawed by the previous administration. If the president’s announcements are implemented, this will be a major political breakthrough. On the other hand, such an optimistic view remains unrealistic as long as the country’s legal system remains heavily based on the Soviet system.
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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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