Ashkhabad tales: to be continued
The death of Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov (Turkmenbashi the Great or life president of Turkmenistan) on December 21, 2006, generated a great deal of forecasts in the expert community and among journalists and politically active citizens. It even generated a lot of expectations and hopes for changes in Turkmenistan itself.
Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov became the new president on February 14, 2007, after certain preparations that lasted a month. At first, observers in Turkmenistan and abroad expected the developments to take one of the two following turns.
The so called radical scenario stipulated immediate reforms initiated by the new president. On the other hand, it was the new regime already that crushed the riots in Ovadan-Depe, a maximum security jail located in the vicinity of the namesake settlement whose name is translated into Russian as Pleasant Hill. Turkmen society itself was informed of it by foreign media outlets and broadcasts of Azatlyk (RL\RFE Turkmen Service). This episode became the first indication that dictator's death does not necessarily mean inevitability of reforms.
The next component of the expected radical scenario stood for a major purge in the state machinery and prosecution of whoever had preyed on the people all through fifteen years of "neutral" Turkmenistan's sovereignty. The matter concerned ideologists and administrators of the Turkmenbashi's regime. It never happened. Neither were visas abolished. Abolition of censorship in the media and liberalization of sociopolitical life in the country remained unattainable dreams. Not even names of days of week and months were changed even though the population is even now at a loss over what nonsense the Turkmenbashi introduced in this sphere.
Some analysts who do not know the first thing about life in Turkmenistan but never hesitate to offer their "expert" opinion anticipated an analog of the XX Congress of the CPSU (one that unmasked Stalin's personality cult in the USSR once). It was expected from the then forthcoming XX Session of the Halk Maslahaty or People's Assembly, another Niyazov's invention that comprised senior bureaucrats, regional leaders, tribal elders, and some others. A legislative-executive structure that it is, the Halk Maslahaty in theory wield more powers than the Mejlis or parliament and even the president. It was from the Halk Maslahaty that these so called specialists expected condemnation of what Turkmenbashi the Great had done and his methods. It never happened.
All these developments in the meantime followed the other scenario, the mild one. It stipulated a policy of step-by-step reforms since more radical ones were allegedly impossible for a number of purely objective reasons - "presence of the Turkmenbashi's satraps", "mentality of the population", and so on.
All reforms meanwhile came down to action against some senior and medium-level state functionaries who were sacked and imprisoned - and only because the head of state had reasons to fear for his own position. Political prisoners (much less the people imprisoned in the wake of the so called attempt on Niyazov's life) were not amnestied. Neither was investigation ordered of the deaths of so many, the deaths engineered by the action of the Interior Ministry, Security Ministry, and other suchlike structures.
Berdymuhammedov left all political restrictions imposed by his predecessor in force. Legal opposition is out of the question and so is dialogue with the powers-that-be. Visas and stop-lists on the borders remain hard facts of life.
Minor changes (abolition of police and army checkpoints on administrative borders between regions, longer Russian TV broadcasts, promises of changes for the better in the spheres of education and health care) serve to keep up the expectations. They themselves cannot be regarded as the reforms.
Socioeconomic aspect of the problem augments the political one. The new regime promised the population the sky in terms of the economic reforms and did not keep a single promise. Land reforms, amendment of the legislation pertaining businesses, adoption of the laws to protect private property (declarations in the Constitution do not count, naturally) have remained empty promises.
Even attraction of investments for the so called project of the century (Avaza tourist complex on the Caspian coast requiring $1 billion worth of investments) proved too much for official Ashkhabad. Investors distrust the regime existing in Turkmenistan and its unpredictability.
Social problems remain pressing: unemployment, meager pay, inflation, shortage of bread in some regions, and actually hopelessness. Whoever visited Ashkhabad and became impressed with the architecture of the city the Turkmenbashi had made "the face of the country" should have travelled but several kilometers from the Sunflower (this is how city dwellers call Niyazov's golden monument revolving so that it always faces the sun) to see this "virtual reality" disappear without a trace.
It does not take a genius to foresee further deterioration of the sociopolitical situation in Turkmenistan. Forget naive hopes for the changes and the reforms the authorities allegedly plan for the country. Keeping up hopes for the changes is the policy introduced by the previous regime and faithfully followed by the new one. How long it will last yet is anybody's guess.