Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Teetering Turkmenistan?

From my Reuters AlertNet blog, 31 January 2007.

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IWPR just published a good overview report on Turkmenistan as the country faces a presidential election and an uncertain future without the megalomaniacal Saparmurad Niazov, aka Turkmenbashi, at the helm. The death of "the father of all Turkmen" in December not only came as a shock to the Central Asian nation, it also left a gap for those in the international media and NGO world who follow the region.

Though Niazov's reign was unquestionably brutal, the absurd elements of his rule -- the gold statues; the calendars with months renamed after himself and his mother; the obligatory questions about his ludicrous book, the Ruhnama, on the exam for a driver's license -- at least provided freaky factoids to draw the outside world into the story. Without the lunacy, it's going to be a lot harder to sell Turkmenistan to editors. More than one human rights activist and journalist has commented to me in recent weeks, "In a strange way, we're going to miss him."

This new article brings you up to speed on recent developments in the country and plots some future scenarios. The quotes from the ground are priceless. As an example of how afraid people are to speak out in support of any of any presidential candidate other than the acting president:
One bank employee told the following story, "I was asked to speak in support of one candidate, deputy oil and gas minister Nuriev, and my speech was published in a newspaper. Next day I was summoned by my manager and told to write a letter of resignation. Turns out I should have supported the acting president."
And, of course, the effect of this on the media is clear:
As a result of such intimidation, newspapers are struggling with their strict instructions to respect a new-found political pluralism. "Our editorial office is under an obligation to carry three comments from the public for each of the candidates every week," said a journalist. "We have been doing our very best, but no one wants to speak in support of the others."
The report also contains numerous quotes for regional analysts, summarising:
None of the analysts interviewed by IWPR believed things could get worse than they were under Niazov.
But I’m always wary of anyone who says things cannot get worse...

There is probably only one safe bet at this point: when acting president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov wins the rigged election on 11 February, he will almost certainly have the longest name of any head of state.

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