Thursday 15 December 2011

Winds of change in Turkmenistan?

If Russia woke up from its lethargic political Putincracy for a series of unexpected protests this month, maybe this is a sign of good things to come in the political arena in Central Asia. And, indeed, some winds of change have recently been felt in the region. Can you guess in which country? Well, I couldn’t, until I saw the news. Turkmenistan.

The country is known for being the most isolated and averse to any sort of reform in the region. Especially political reform. Well, last July the president himself, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (above), announced that any Turkmen would be able to vie for the Presidency in the Elections set for February 12th, 2012 (read here an analysis about what’s at stake). Yes. He promised free and fair elections “according to the UN and OSCE electoral standards”. Ouch. Poor Saparmurat Niyazov. The good old Turkmenbashi, the former leader of all Turkmen who commanded a mammoth personality cult in the desert nation and died unexpectedly in 2006, certainly would be quite shocked with the possibility. Well, since president’s promise, nothing really happened (that we know of – Turkmenistan is still pretty closed to all eavesdropping). No legislation was passed to regulate political parties, for example. The only party in the country is still the official one, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Maybe the government forgot about its promises...

But then, this week, something odd happened. A former member of the Turkmen cabinet, the former Culture and Tourism minister Geldimurat Nurmuhammedov, came out and criticised the lack of democracy there. And he gave his name, AND allowed the press to publish his remarks AND identify him as the source – read more about this here. This is very, very uncommon in Turkmenistan. What does this mean? Does it mean there are some cracks in the ruling elite? Maybe. If the former minister said something like this so boldly, sure he received the blessing of the President himself. If this is the case, the problem is explaining why he did that. I am not sure, but would guess that his criticism might be an excuse for the government to announce reforms that might hurt some members of the elite, maybe in time for the elections.

On the other hand… maybe not. The guys is just a former minister, for God’s sake (for now – he might be a presidential candidate, who knows?). And, for the elites in Turkmenistan, the skies are still blue and the Karakum desert is still hot. The so-much-expected changes after the departure of the Turkmenbashi are yet to be seen. Actually, there was a talk that the personality cult would cease to exist. But read this: apparently, now the press in the country has nicknamed Berdymukhammedov arkadag (“protector” in Turkmen). His departed boss also had that nice nickname that was so precious and made him levitate over all regular humans. Oh, and by the way, one of the most talked about signs that Berdymuhammedov was serious about getting rid of the bizarre legacy of Niyazov was the decision of dismantling a golden statue of the Turkmenbashi in the capital, Ashgabat, after his death. The famous statue, which rotates to follow the movement of the Sun in the sky, is up in display again in the city… probably because tourists began to complain. After all, the statue was one of the most important landmarks of the country…

PS. Happy New Year! See you in 2012.

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