Slight Thaw in Turkmenistan?

The Central Asian republics remain political and economic laggards.  However, Turkmenistan appears to be taking the first small but necessary step toward political reform.

Some 300 delegates recently met to form the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan.  It will join the ruling Democratic Party, which replaced the Communist Party after the end of the Soviet Union.  Thus, there is likely to be more than one party on next year’s ballot.

Of course, the new party could not have been formed without the approval of President Gurbanbuly Berdymukhamedov, who is no softie when it comes to politics.  He was elected in 2007, but the ballot “did not meet international standards,” observed the State Department in its latest human rights report.  State pointed to three important human rights problems:  “arbitrary arrest, torture, and disregard for civil liberties.”  Human Rights Watch criticized the government’s “extraordinary levels of repression.”

Burma offers a possible model for Turkmenistan.  There the military granted itself an overwhelming parliamentary majority before stepping into the background.  Although political liberalization remains unfinished, significant progress has been made and hope is rising that the opposition party will be allowed to win the next election.

A reform program in Turkmenistan would most obviously benefit the Turkmen people.  They would gain control over their own government, as well as encourage increased international investment.  Despite significant energy production, the country remains poor.

Washington also has an interest in Turkmenistan’s stability.  Reform would help dampen extremist forces and encourage greater Western engagement.  For instance, in July Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake suggested that Turkmenistan could become a leader in regional economic development, but needed to address human rights issues.  Formally ending Turkmenistan’s role as a one party state could begin this process.

Central Asia’s potential is great.  But to take full advantage of that potential, countries like Turkmenistan are going to have to trust their people with freedom.

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