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Hopes Slim for Democratic Change in Turkmenistan

(Prague, Czech Republic--February 15, 2007) Minor improvements in socioeconomic conditions may take place following the just-completed presidential elections in Turkmenistan, but it is not realistic to hope for any significant changes at the moment, according to two experts on Turkmen politics who spoke at a briefing this week at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague.

Elsa Vidal, the Paris-based head of the European and post-Soviet countries desk for Reporters Without Borders, called newly-elected Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov a "representative of the late President Niyazov's regime" who cannot be expected to take a "real democratic stand" unless he finds himself facing "big pressure from the international community". Berdymukhammedov, a former health minister under Niyazov, ran against five other candidates in the first multi-candidate presidential election ever held in Turkmenistan. Vidal noted that "Russia is very interested in Turkmenistan," because of its enormous natural gas reserves and is mainly seeking to ensure its stability, therefore "it won't be the country that will promote a real change in the regime".

RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merkhat Sharipzhan said that Niyazov managed to leave behind a country in which "military structures and [the] secret service" are in power. "In this situation, any attempt to introduce any democratic changes would mean end of their rule," Sharipzhan said.

Both Vidal and Sharipzhan agreed that some change will take place in Turkmenistan, but it will not be significant. Sharipzhan said that he expects the new leadership will try to establish contacts with neighboring countries with which Niyazov's Turkmenistan had no relations.

Vidal pointed out the climate of fear that marked Turkmenistan under Niyazov's rule, where even the most loyal of his ministers could end up in jail and where "no one would consider the risk of thinking freely". Sharipzhan said that, during Niyazov's 12-year reign in power, at least 131 ministers or deputy ministers "were sacked, jailed or expelled from the country... the fear is still there, people are afraid".

On the multiple candidacies allowed by the Turkmen government during this presidential election, Sharipzhan noted that, in his own native Kazakhstan, there is always more than one candidate running in presidential elections, "but Nazarbayev always wins," calling it "an attempt to show to the international community that 'we are democratic'". According to Sharipzhan, the Turkmen voters will vote for "the person the government wants them to vote for."

RFE/RL Turkmen Service director Oguljamal Yazliyeva noted that "all six presidential candidates were nominated by the only party that is allowed [in Turkmenistan] -- the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan -- and all of them were nominated and registered by the People's Council [Turkmenistan's legislature]... All of the candidates were required to hold public office and have resided in Turkmenistan for at least the last 15 years -- which made it impossible for the opposition and exile community to nominate their candidates for the presidency."

Vidal told briefing attendees that "a lot of lobbying needs to be done" in order to promote real change and democratization in Turkmenistan, adding "it cannot come only from nongovernmental organizations -- it has to be done at the inter-governmental level."

Archived audio of this briefing can be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats.