In late July, US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman led a delegation to Ashgabat for talks at the Turkmen Foreign Ministry about Afghanistan and regional security. The US Embassy had little to say about the meetings, other than that the delegation was traveling to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan as part of an ongoing dialogue with regional partners about Afghanistan.
The State News Agency of Turkmenistan said that Grossman expressed appreciation for President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's international peace initiatives and assistance to neighboring Afghanistan. For the first time, a US official mentioned as "illustrative" of such peace efforts "the readiness of Turkmenistan to provide its political space for conducting the inter-Afghan peace dialogue under the aegis of the United Nations."
For years, Turkmenistan has been offering to host peace talks among the warring parties of neighboring Afghanistan, citing the role Ashgabat played in bringing together the combatants in Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s. Turkmenistan also has spearheaded the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Indian pipeline which is supposed to bring jobs and prosperity to the war-torn region, but which is still stalled on the matter of the price India is willing to pay for Turkmen gas. Ashgabat has also offered to provide civil service training for Afghan officials.
While Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials have at times given a nod to the Turkmen offer to host a peace conference, they have been more vocally thankful for the assistance provided in the form of electricity and construction -- as has the US. Could the US seriously be taking Ashgabat up on its offer now? There are several factors in favor of such a plan -- the UN already has the Center for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia located in Ashgabat working quietly behind the scenes to negotiate conflicts such as the Central Asian water disputes. Now that a US envoy has finally been appointed to Turkmenistan -- Ambassador Robert Patterson -- the US has a seasoned diplomat to represent its interests (he previously served as Counselor for Somalia Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, is experienced in dealing with a country in armed conflict, and also speaks fluent Russian from past appointments in the former Soviet Union). With heavy presidential control over the constantly-reprimanded state media, it is hard to know just what exactly is going on -- diplomatic talks stay very quiet in Turkmenistan.
A recent flurry of diplomatic activity in Ashgabat may indicate a concerted effort to start peace talks or perhaps merely lay the groundwork for post-war reconstruction. After meeting with Grossman, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry hosted a meeting with Abu Humayumo Mohammad Muniruzzaman, Representative of the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for Afghanistan, the State News Agency of Turkmenistan reported. Muniruzzaman was briefed on Turkmenistan's peace initiative and also visited the ministries involved in oil, gas, water and rail transport -- Turkmenistan is also building a 150-kilometer railroad to Afghanistan.
At the same time, a Turkmen delegation led by First Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Khadzhiev headed to Kabul to meet with Afghanistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Jawed Ludin. According to a report from afghanistan.ru, the two parties discussed the railroad and power supply, although nothing was mentioned about possible peace talks.
The Turkmen government announced that presidential elections will be held February 12, 2012. Under a recently-passed law on presidential elections, candidates must be between the ages of 40-70, have resided in Turkmenistan for the last 15 years, have no past criminal convictions and gather 50,000 signatures from supporters. In the midst of the crisis following the explosion in Abadan, President Berdymukhamedov unexpectedly announced on television that opposition leaders abroad would be able to return and take part in the elections – an offer that did not appear in the printed version of his speech and which has not been elaborated since then. Émigrés are skeptical about the gesture, which may have been calculated to diffuse possible public unrest related to the cover-up of the Abadan explosion last month or head off any spread of the Arab Spring. In fact, most opposition members who fled Turkmenistan under the Niyazov regime following the 2002 attempted coup would not meet the 15-year residency requirement or the requirement to have a record free of convictions.
A law has not yet been passed to legalize alternative parties – and indeed, all political parties, as even the ill-named Democratic Party, converted from the Soviet-era Communist Party, was not established by law. Berdymukhamedov talked in February of this year about creating a second party, and urged that an agrarian party be formed, but nothing ever came of it.
In the February 2007 presidential elections in Turkmenistan after the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006, nominally alternative candidates were permitted to run, and their campaigns provided a modest opportunity for the public to articulate carefully-controlled concerns about the need for educational and agricultural reforms. Yet since then, Arkadag, the “Protector,” as Berdymukhamedov is now called by his acolytes, has already embarked on all the necessary reforms himself in his self-proclaimed “Era of New Revival.” It may not be in his interests to reveal any shortcomings. It will also be difficult -- without access to national television or any free press -- to gather the necessary 50,000 signatures. In the past, those who formed approved local initiative groups to campaign independently faced obstacles and even detention. Parliamentary elections came and went last year without the promised second party.
Despite these obstacles, according to a report from News Briefing Central Asia (NBCA) some opposition figures abroad have decided to take the president up on his offer, including Nurmukhammet Hanamov, the Vienna-based chairman of the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, and Khudaiberdy Orazov, deputy prime minister under past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who left Turkmenistan and heads up the Vatan opposition group abroad.
The prospects for their re-entry to Turkmenistan appear dim -- last fall, during review meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation's Review meetings in Warsaw and Vienna, the Turkmen delegation attempted to keep exiles from speaking at the meeting and then later appeared to have influenced Kazakhstan to deny them visas to attend the Astana summit.
In an interview with NBCA, Orazov cautioned that he would take the offer seriously only if it were backed by actual deeds -- including passage of the relevant laws, safe passage to Turkmenistan and publication of the reasons why the opposition under Niyazov wound up abroad. He and Hanamov were tried in absentia for their alleged involvement in a 2002 coup plot against Niyazov, and Turkmen security agents have tried to characterize them as "terrorists," but they have been granted political asylum abroad. Other exiles who have attempted to return home have been arrested. Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, arrested in June 2008 after he returned to Turkmenistan, was sentenced in a closed court trial in July 2008 to 11 years in prison. Annaniyazov had earlier received asylum in Norway in 2002 after serving five years in a Turkmen prison for his role in a 1995 political demonstration.
A harrowing report recently published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty detailing the mistreatment of journalists and civic activists who have been recently incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals for their dissent indicate the harsh deterrents the Turkmen government is prepared to use to keep itself in power.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write firstname.lastname@example.org