Turkmenistan: Change at glacial pace

Political life in the former Soviet state of Turkmenistan is such that one sometimes wonders if the country’s leaders are aware that the USSR no longer exists.

Freedom of the press is unheard of; freedom of worship is possible only for adherents of the two state-recognized faiths, Russian Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam; and state-sponsored discrimination against non-Turkmen peoples appears rampant.

The nation was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, a former Communist party official who looked a bit like Leonid Brezhnev but ruled more like Stalin, from its inception as an independent nation in 1991 until his death in 2006.

Niyazov’s policies included the banning of opera and the circus.

Needless to say, political dissent has never been tolerated very well in Turkmenistan.

However, in a sign that things may be ever-so-slowly changing, the first-ever opposition party was formed in the Central Asian nation earlier this month, Agence France-Presse reported.

“The formation of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan was approved unanimously by representatives of small and medium businesses and the business community at the founding congress,” the TDN state news agency said Tuesday.

Until the move, the only political party permitted in Turkmenistan was the ironically named Democratic Party, formerly the Turkmen branch of the Soviet Communist Party. It has been in power since the country’s founding.

But in January, the energy-rich nation enacted a law allowing new parties to be formed, according to the wire service.

Still, creating a political party is no easy task.

To be authorized, a party must have at least 1,000 members and its governing structure must be “located exclusively on Turkmenistan territory,” a clause that appears to exclude existing opposition movements, whose leaders all live in exile, Agence France-Presse noted.

“By the end of the year, another party is expected to be formed, the Agrarian Party of Turkmenistan,” a government source told AFP.

The Democratic Party is led by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who took over following the death of Niyazov.

Berdimuhamedow has embarked on cautious reform but critics, presumably from afar, say the state remains deeply authoritarian.

He was re-elected in February with 97 percent of the vote.

It was not immediately clear how he could have failed to garner all 100 percent of the vote if no other parties were allowed on the ballot.

(Above: The Ärtogrul Gazy Mosque in Ashgabat named after the father of Osman Ghazi, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Photo credit: Wikipedia.)


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