President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's administration has gone on a public relations offensive to soften the country's despotic image. At the same time, Berdymukhammedov is conducting a secretive purge, indicating that the president is more concerned with consolidating power than genuine liberalization.
The most prominent development in the nascent PR campaign was the August 9 pardons of 11 individuals, who were convicted in connection with the 2002 assassination attempt against former leader, Saparmurat Niyazov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The most prominent prisoner to gain freedom was Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who served as the country's chief mufti from 1996-2003. While Ibadullah's received 22-year jail term in 2004 for alleged treason, experts in Central Asia believe the real motive for his imprisonment was his resistance to Niyazov's efforts to make the Ruhnama, the lifestyle guide that the president supposedly penned, required reading in the country's mosques. Meanwhile, the main figures in the assassination attempt, including former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov and former ambassador to OSCE Batyr Berdyev, remain behind bars.
Berdymukhammedov announced the pardons during a cabinet meeting that was broadcast on state television. He indicated that mass pardons of prisoners would become a regular feature of his administration. State television also broadcast comments made by the beneficiaries of early release. "In the remaining part of my life, I will work and serve our people, our country and our president," said a clearly grateful Ibadullah on August 13.
The manner in which the pardons played out suggests that Berdymukhammedov wants to influence both domestic and external opinion, striving to convince erstwhile critics that his administration is drawing a clear line between itself and the despotic practices of Niyazov, who died in late 2006. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A source with detailed knowledge about the functioning of the Turkmen government said that Berdymukhammedov has assembled a team of experts that is responsible for crafting the PR campaign. "A wide range of specialists are conducting in-depth analysis
Aisha Berdyeva is a pseudonym for a Central Asia-based reporter who specializes in political and economic developments.