Monday, July 18, 2011

Change in Turkmenistan?

Is Turkmen society on the brink of major changes? After the 2006 death of "Turkmenbashi" Saparmurat Niyazov, new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammadov abolished many aspects of his predecessor's bizarre cult of rulership, but little seemed to change in the basic structures of power. In recent days, however, I've seen three articles which suggest major change might be in the works, albeit surely from a totalitarian cult state to just a normal dictatorship.

One of these I mentioned yesterday, and that is the invitation to opposition leaders to return home and stand for office:
"Berdimuhamedov expressed his willingness to cooperate with the opposition and allow them to participate in the presidential elections in February next year. 'We are ready for a dialogue with groups that identify themselves as ‘opposition.’ If any of them wish to participate in the upcoming presidential election, they can be sure to return to Turkmenistan. I guarantee that for them, as for the citizens of our country, equal opportunities will be created to participate in the elections,' Berdimuhamedov said during his meeting with government officials (, July 9).

"Most Turkmenistan nationals interviewed by the Jamestown Foundation were skeptical about the president’s latest statement. Nevertheless, it has invigorated Turkmen opposition leaders currently living in exile in Europe. 'If this statement from Berdimuhamedov is genuine and he will fight for it to be implemented, it is hard to overestimate the statement’s importance,' according to the leaders of 'Vatan' opposition party Khudaiberdi Orazov and Republican Party of Turkmenistan 'Abroad' Nurmukhammet Khanamov (, July 11)."

RFE-RL is reporting that key leaders do plan to return if they receive an OSCE safe passage guarantee. RFE-RL also reports on an outbreak of citizen journalism covering the Abadan explosions:
"Privately owned media do not exist in the country. TV and radio are tightly controlled by the state, which also closely monitors citizens' contacts with the outside world. Even a disaster like this would normally go unreported.

"But this time, events took a different turn. One of the factors was the unprecedented activism of citizen journalists who reported the event to the outside world even as it was still unfolding -- in some cases risking their lives in the process. It's the first time in the history of Turkmenistan that anything like this has happened...

"But the reporting really got going with two pictures of the damaged buildings (posted later the same day) on the Turkmen version of the online social chat site

"People: I just escaped from that place when the explosions started," wrote Jeronimo87, an apparent eyewitness to the explosion, in a comment posted on

"The post continued, 'God keep us under his protection from what just happened. An artillery shell fell next to me. I barely escaped even with a car.'

"Another user, aylale, wrote: 'One of the [shells] fell on my relatives' home. Thank God that they were able to escape in time.'

"Other bloggers described families who'd lost their homes sitting by the side of the road.

"There were dozens of other comments posted on the website describing the event, and they've attracted dozens of responses."

Finally the government is moving to privatize housing, with Parliament taking up the legislation in June. All of these developments are huge in a country that only five years ago was run by a lunatic's whim with no dissent of any kind tolerated.

UPDATE: See Joshua Foust on the flowering on on-line networking in Turkmenistan.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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