player, but Turkmenistan may also reach out to the West.  By IWPR staff in 

KYRGYZ PARTIES MUST MERGE OR FAIL  Political parties have more of a chance of 
winning power than ever before, but they are in no shape to fight elections at 
the moment.  By Aziza Turdueva in Bishkek


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Moscow will remain the key player, but Turkmenistan may also reach out to the 

By IWPR staff in London

As the February 11 presidential election in Turkmenistan draws close, there is 
little doubt who will win, but considerable uncertainty about what will happen 
next. Will Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov really live up to his pledges to reform 
education, health and pensions and give his people greater opportunities to 
travel and access information, or will he revert to the tough style of the man 
he replaces, the late Saparmurat Niazov?

On the foreign policy front, most observers agree Russia will remain 
Turkmenistan’s key partner, not least because it buys most of the country’s 
natural gas. But Turkmenistan’s proximity to Iran is likely to give it some 
role to play - albeit unwillingly - in the confrontation between Washington and 

At a London briefing held by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 
January 19 to mark the launch of a new report, Turkmenistan: What Chance of a 
Thaw? [http://www.iwpr.net/?p=rca&s=f&o=328880&apc_state=henprca], there was 
consensus among the invited speakers that Russia remains a major player, but 
opinion differed on whether this is the only relationship that really matters 
to Turkmenistan.  

Shohrat Kadyrov, an expert on Turkmen politics living in Norway, is sceptical 
that a transition he describes as a “palace revolution” will make the country 
more independent of Moscow, or that the relationship will help Turkmenistan 
become a better place. 

In fact, he said, Berdymuhammedov might turn out to be worse than Niazov in 
some respects. Niazov was initially brought to power in the late Soviet period 
by reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but even then he did “almost nothing for 

Niazov was at least “relatively independent” of Putin, said Kadyrov. 
Berdymuhammedov, on the other hand, is likely to have the backing of President 
Vladimir Putin, who has fewer democratic leanings and is also tending towards 
the “re-colonialisation” of former Soviet republics. 

Arkady Dubnov, a Russian journalist and Central Asia-watcher who writes for the 
Moscow paper Vremya Novostey, said Turkmen foreign policy was likely to 
continue to revolve around gas exports. 

One fact of life for the new leadership, he said, was that “until 
Berdymuhammedov has access to Niazov’s treasury, the accounts of which are 
probably frozen… the gas income from Russia will remain extraordinarily 

“Turkmenistan now depends much more on Russia [than the other way round] when 
it comes to gas, just as Russia depends more on Europe. We live in times when 
the seller of energy resources is more dependent on the buyer than vice versa,” 
said Dubnov.

In the short term, Moscow is likely to try to re-engage with Turkmenistan by 
encouraging it to join former Soviet groupings from which Niazov distanced 
himself, for instance the Eurasian Economic Community. 

Dubnov expects Berdymuhammedov to make positive noises in response to these 
advances - but he says this does not make a rapprochement inevitable. “The more 
Berdymuhammedov consolidates his power, the less he will listen to Moscow,” he 

Instead of relying solely on Moscow, a Berdymuhammedov administration may reach 
out to the West as it seeks acceptance and legitimacy.

Dubnov said the government’s unexpected decision to invite the OSCE to monitor 
the presidential election was significant. “I see this as a sign that not all 
policy-making in the new Turkmenistan will be in accordance with what Moscow 
wants,” he said.

Niazov’s successors are likely to be just as keen to diversify the country’s 
gas export routes as he was. Although the western-sponsored plan to lay a gas 
pipeline under the Caspian Sea has seemed an unlikely prospect until now, 
Dubnov believes the United States could now start pushing for it to happen.

He said the way was open for Turkmenistan to take a new approach to the 
disputed status of the Caspian and its oil and gas resources. In the past, 
personal animosity between Niazov and the late president Heidar Aliev of 
Azerbaijan obstructed a solution to their bilateral dispute over certain oil 
and gas fields. With both men now gone, their successors can at least begin 
discussing possible solutions. 

Niazov also found it difficult to get on with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of 
Iran, in contrast to his cordial relationship with the former president Hashemi 
Akbar Rafsanjani. 

“Now that Niazov has gone, Tehran very much wants to make up for lost time with 
the new leadership, and there will be a flurry of [Iranian] activity on the 
Turkmenistan front,” said Dubnov. 

Ashgabat’s diplomatic relationship with Tehran also depends on Russia and the 
US. Within the region, the key relationship is between Moscow and Tehran, with 
Ashgabat a lesser player. 

The challenge for Berdymuhammedov is to position his government in such a way 
that it avoids antagonising either the Americans or the Iranians, so that it 
“reduces the risk of being drawn into the confrontation between Iran and the 
United States”, said Dubnov. 

The US has a major interest in Turkmenistan as one of the closest staging posts 
to Iran. In particular, said Dubnov, the new Turkmen government will have to 
contend with American pressure to use a major military airbase at Mary in 
southern Turkmenistan.

Aside from external pressures, Berdymuhammedov and his allies still have to 
strengthen their own position to make themselves invulnerable to domestic 

Dadadjon Azimov, a Central Asian expert based in London, picked out key 
findings of the research and interviews he conducted to produce the IWPR 
report. The big question, he said, was whether the system left behind by Niazov 
was sustainable. 

Turkmen society as a whole seems apolitical, and regional powerbrokers rather 
than grassroots movements may be the most likely form of anti-regime 

Among the analysts he spoke to, “no one knew in what form and in what shape 
anti-regime mobilisation would take place, and how possible clans would 
challenge the regime”, he said. The reason, he said, was that “if there’s a 
revival of clans and a possible emergence of regional groupings against the 
regime, this is at the very initial stages”. 

Dubnov said it was important not to view Berdymuhammedov in isolation; in fact 
he is “only the tip of the iceberg” of a largely invisible political elite, 
among whom the key figure is Akmurad Rejepov, head of the Presidential Guards, 
a paramilitary security force. 

“There is no doubt it is Rejepov who is in control of Berdymuhammedov and his 
[election] promises. One cannot underestimate the figure of Rejepov,” said 

But at the same time, he believes it could be Berdymuhammedov and not Rejepov 
who is the long-term political survivor. 

“Berdymuhammedov could turn into a kind of Turkmen Brezhnev,” said Dubnov, 
referring to Soviet Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev who stayed in power 
from the Sixties to the early Eighties. “Initially Brezhnev seemed to be a weak 
transitional figure, but because he suited a lot of [different] groupings in 
the Kremlin….he hung on for so long that they learned how to manipulate him.”

Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL gave an update on what he and his colleagues are 
hearing from its contacts about the mood inside Turkmenistan. 

Despite the lingering “fear factor”, he said, people are gradually becoming 
emboldened to speak out and are really expecting some kind of change, in light 
of the reforms and improved public services that all the presidential 
candidates are promising. 

Two practical things that people agree on are that rampant drug abuse should be 
tackled and dissenters now held in prison should be amnestied. 

The seminar was held at the end of a project in which IWPR presented news and 
analysis out of Turkmenistan in online text and audio format, with possibly the 
first-ever podcasts made in the Turkmen language. Many of the stories were 
picked up and broadcast by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Turkmen Service to 
its audience inside Turkmenistan. The material was made available on a special 
page, [http://www.iwpr.net/?p=trk&s=p&o=-&apc_state=henprca]


Political parties have more of a chance of winning power than ever before, but 
they are in no shape to fight elections at the moment.

By Aziza Turdueva in Bishkek

Radical changes to the way elections work in Kyrgyzstan have opened up 
opportunities for the country’s political parties to win real political power, 
but the current fragmented constellation of political groupings is not up to 
the challenge, analysts say.

Kyrgyzstan officially has 96 parties which range from right to left and are 
generally aligned either with President Kurmanbek Bakiev or against him. But 
apart from a handful of leading players, few parties have much of a profile and 
prospective voters would have a hard time telling them apart.

The 75 members of the current parliament, elected prior to the March 2005 
uprising in which the then president Askar Akaev fled the country and the 
current rulers were swept to power, were elected by the first-past-the-post 
system in which candidates’ party allegiance played a lesser role. 

But the new constitution introduced following opposition protest rallies in 
November, and amended at the end of December, says that half of the now 90 
seats in the next parliament will be elected by proportional system, in which 
places will be awarded to those at the top of parties’ candidate lists.

The winning party will also get more of a say in forming a government, although 
this was somewhat diluted by the December revisions which returned certain 
powers to the president.

Kyrgyzstan has tried proportional representation before, in a parliamentary 
election in 2000 in which a handful of seats were awarded to parties. But a 
constitutional amendment three years later brought the experiment to a close.

Even the best-known parties in Kyrgyzstan garner support less for their 
particular political stance than for the personalities who lead them. As is the 
case in Russia and other former Soviet states, few of the parties have made 
concerted efforts to build a strong nationwide organisation based on an active 
grassroots membership. 

Now, however, in anticipation of the strengthened role the constitution gives 
them, the parties are already busy setting up regional branches and recruiting 
new members. Given the importance of strong personalities at regional as well 
as national level, this recruitment drive is especially targeted at 
high-profile local politicians, businessmen and others capable of mobilising 
resources and support.

Many politicians conclude that local - often tribal - connections will remain 
an important facet of political party support since many people are 
disillusioned with ideology and uninterested in politics. In past elections, 
candidates have been able to win simply by offering cash handouts to anyone 
prepared to vote for them - a more immediate reward than the prospect that a 
particular political manifesto might eventually lead to economic growth and 
more jobs.

“The electorate here is not really interested in party programmes, but they are 
well informed about leaders and their views,” said Tairbek Sarpashev, deputy 
speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, who recently joined the Atameken Socialist 
Party. “Unfortunately, for the moment we have to take this into account.”

The prospect of gaining real political power at national level is nevertheless 
prompting parties to work harder on their public image and define a clearer 
vision of what they would like to do. 

“All the parties now have similar agendas,” Zainidin Kurmanov, a leading member 
of the Moya Strana party, told IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia agency. “It 
will be difficult for voters to differentiate between them. It is now up to 
each party to familiarise the electorate with its policies and explain how it 
differ from the rest.” 

Presenting a clearly-defined, unique image is a challenging task in such a 
crowded field. One of the reasons behind the sheer number of parties in this 
small country is that they are often the vehicles for one individual or a small 
group of backers, who provide the bulk of the funding in the absence of a 
broad, subscription-paying membership base.

“The lack of state support means that they are created with the financial aid 
of certain politicians and businessmen. So new parties keep on appearing,” said 
Kubatbek Baibolov, chairman of the Union of Democratic Forces party, an 
opposition-leaning group set up in late 2005. 

One logical solution to Kyrgyzstan’s fragmented politics is for parties to 
merge into larger groupings capable of fighting and winning elections - as long 
as they can persuade the big personalities who lead them to share power. 

Tamerlan Ibraimov, who heads the Bishkek-based Centre for Political and Legal 
Studies, believes the approach of a parliamentary election will sharpen minds 
and facilitate mergers. The next ballot is not due until 2010, although some 
have suggested an early election as a way of calming the ongoing political 
turbulence, since this would at least bring the structure of parliament into 
line with the constitution. 

“As a parliamentary election begins to loom, the question of whether parties 
unite will be decided not so much by ideology, but on the way the political 
situation develops,” said Ibraimov.

Parties aligned with the current administration will need to build alliances 
and consolidate into bigger blocs to ensure they win a majority in parliament. 
Most of the 30 or so parties which have emerged since March 2005 are Bakiev 
supporters. Given his strained relationship with the current legislature, 
Bakiev is likely to encourage his supporters to wrest control in the next 

But consolidation is in the interests of all parties, not just the pro-Bakiev 
groups. Political analyst Valentin Bogatyrev told IWPR that if the parties 
remain as fractured as they now are, an election could result in five or six 
being represented in parliament, with no clear winner. Under the constitution, 
the right to nominate a prime minister would then revert to Bakiev.

Opposition parties are therefore also working on bridge-building with other 
groups and with prominent individual politicians with a view to consolidation 
and growth. 

For example, the opposition Atameken party led by Omurbek Tekebaev has 
strengthened its ranks by recruiting members of parliament representing various 
regions of Kyrgyzstan. Apart from Sarpashev, they include parliamentary speaker 
Erkinbek Alymbekov from Issykkul region, two other members of parliament - 
Bolot Sherniazov from Talas and Karganbek Samakov from Naryn - and Omurbek 
Abdrakhmanov, a leading businessman in the Chui region.

Aziza Turdueva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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