The death of President-for-life Saparmurad Niyazov on 21 December 2006 raised hope for the liberalisation of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. But a year later, his successor had given only contradictory signals and the opening-up of the country, if it happens at all, will clearly take a long time.
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Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, vice-premier under Niyazov and acting head of state since his death, was elected president on 11 February 2007 with more than 89% of the vote in the country’s first nominally multi-candidate election.
He said during the campaign that he favoured more freedom of expression. A few very small steps were taken that did not amount to any real increase. Cybercafés were allowed to open in February and the country reportedly now has five, including at least two in the capital. This was seen as encouraging since Internet access in Turkmenistan is one of the most tightly controlled in the world, with only 1% of the population able to get online.
Internet users were also given a chance to leave comments on one of the official news websites, www.turkmenistan.gov.tm. This came soon after the 9 October visit of Javier Solana, the European Union’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Pierre Morel, its special representative for Central Asia.
Portraits of the late Niyazov disappeared from the corner of TV screens during news broadcasts. The amnestying in August of 11 political prisoners, including two allegedly involved in a failed bid to kill Niyazov in 2002, was not followed, as had been hoped, by a large-scale release of the estimated several thousand political prisoners in the country.
An uncertain future
Berdymukhamedov’s policies are contradictory and pragmatic. He said he wanted to continue in Niyazov’s path but would introduce reforms. He visited the United States and Europe in the autumn in a strong position thanks to the country’s huge oil and natural gas reserves, and thus was able to dismiss questions about human rights when he addressed students at Columbia University in New York.
Government reshuffles suggested he had substantial power. He dismissed the interior and national security ministers and the head of the presidential guard, which is a paramilitary body independent of the MNB secret police and the interior ministry. The new regime’s direction will probably depend on what international allies Berdymukhamedov can find. An economic opening-up will help ease the country’s isolation and its dependence on Russia. Then the international community could press for more democracy.
The president has not responded to repeated appeals to set up a commission of enquiry into the prison death of Radio Free Europe journalist Ogulsapar Muradova in September 2006. There is also no news of Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev, who were sentenced to seven years in prison in August 2006 for helping to make a documentary about the country for the French TV station France 2.