February 12, 2007

An Unfortunately Fitting Transition In Turkmenistan

The death of Saparmurat Niyazov gave Turkmenistan an opportunity ti shake off decades of rule by personality cult and to allow Turkmen to make a step or two towards democracy and self-rule. Unfortunately, the results show that the cult leaders remain in control, as the vote appears rigged to elect Gerbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a Niyazov confidante, as his replacement:

Turkmenistan held the first officially contested presidential elections in its history on Sunday, conducting a carefully choreographed vote almost certain to be won by a confidant of the reclusive Central Asian nation’s former autocratic leader, who died seven weeks ago.

The election was organized by the tightly controlled state after Saparmurat Niyazov, the only president in the nation’s 15-year history, died on Dec. 21. It was not formally monitored by international observers, who sent small teams of experts that are not expected to make any public statement about the government’s conduct.

But the election was being closely followed by the West, Russia and China for signs of whether the expected result could be the start of changes in a country with gas reserves that are among the largest in the world. Any changes in its foreign and trade relations could have a deep significance for world energy markets, and especially for Russia and its gas monopoly, Gazprom, which relies in part on Turkmen natural gas to meet its obligations to customers. ...

The initial reports of voter turnout, released hours after polls closed at 4 p.m., indicated that nearly 99 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots, a number so high that the opposition in exile said the vote had been flagrantly rigged to ensure an overwhelming victory for Mr. Berdymukhammedov, and to give his victory the patina of legality.

The election would have made Niyazov, known to his countrymen as Turkmenbashi or Father of all Turkmen, proud. The opposition claims that as little as 10-12% of the eligible voters actually cast ballots, which would have made the election invalid, according to Turkmen law. The transitional government simply cast ballots for those who declined to participate, apparently understanding their intent to keep the strange tyranny in place. Western observers agree with the opposition in exile, calling the announced results "implausible".

Turkmenistan has strategic value, especially for Vladimir Putin, who can hardly afford to lose control of the gas fields that Niyazov opened to Russia. He needs the supply in order to exploit European demand for his own purposes. Putin also needs that supply to pressure Ukraine and now Belarus to remain in the orbit of his influence. He cannot afford to see Turkmenistan fall into the hands of the West-leaning opposition.

However, the West seems to be taking a more cautious approach than with Ukraine and Georgia earlier, even before the elections. They have not used aggressive diplomatic tactics to push for democratic reforms. Even in the face of a fraudulent election, the response has been muted and careful, even from the Bush administration. Berdymukhamedov has promised some reforms from the total oppression of the Niyazov regime, including universal Internet access and student exchange programs. In return, the West hasn't even sent formal election observers to Turkmenistan, avoiding the messy issue of reporting the election as a fraud.

Perhaps this caution is appropriate. However, if the West is afraid to speak out against election fraud in Turkmenistan and press for true democratic reform when it counts, when and where will they bother to do so in the future? Turkmenistan probably elected another 20-year dictatorship over the weekend without a peep from the West. It appears as if Europe has understood the message of energy disruptions from Putin, and have sacrificed Turkmenistan as a result, and the US has followed suit.


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