WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 482, February 9, 2007
TURKMENISTAN NEEDS TO CHOOSE ITS FRIENDS CAREFULLY Moscow will remain the key
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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TURKMENISTAN NEEDS TO CHOOSE ITS FRIENDS CAREFULLY
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
Turkmenistans key partner, not least because it buys most of the countrys
natural gas. But Turkmenistans 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
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 Niazovs treasury, the accounts of which are
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,
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 governments 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.
Niazovs successors are likely to be just as keen to diversify the countrys
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
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.
Ashgabats 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
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
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 theres 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
.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
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
Radical changes to the way elections work in Kyrgyzstan have opened up
opportunities for the countrys 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
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
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 IWPRs 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 Kyrgyzstans 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
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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